Tuesday, January 01, 2008

But Is The Anger Justified?

Under normal circumstances, I enjoy Eugene Robinson's columns. Today's, however, was one of those maddening exercises in the dissection of style that leaves this reader frustrated and asking the question posed in the title. The opening paragraphs set the tone, albeit a bit deceptively:
If you had seen John Edwards perform Saturday at the public library in the pretty little town of Washington about 45 minutes south of here, you'd understand how he made all that money as a trial lawyer. The man knows how to deliver a closing argument.

He projected confidence. He made eye contact. He skillfully used rhetorical strategies -- repetition, illustration, simplification, more repetition -- to imprint the minds of the jury, I mean the audience, with his narrative of ordinary Americans in an "epic fight" against "special interests" and "corporate greed." He lingered to shake hands in the overflow crowd that filled the hallway and stretched down the stairs. He flashed his halogen-bright smile.

I say "deceptively", because the column is not just about Edwards, but includes more than a glance at the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Part of the reason for this look, however, is Robinson's insistence, repeated in the column several times, that there is little substantive difference among the three top candidates for the Democratic nomination. Buried at the end of the column, rather than put near the top to justify this content-free gander at the candidates, is the following:
[Edwards'] policy proposals aren't that different from those of his opponents. What really sets the three candidates apart is tone.

If that is the case, then it is easy enough to actually skip the policy proposals, which Robinson is not alone in doing. Why discuss that about which there is no disagreement? Far more interesting to describe Edwards as a good trial lawyer, filled with "rage"; far better to talk about what a good rhetorician Edwards is, using the various tools of the trade to make his speeches resonate.

Two problems emerge here. First, we don't actually get to hear what Edwards' policy proposals are; only that they are indistinct from either Clinton or Obama. Yet, since we don't hear what theirs are, either, we are left befuddled. If the issue comes down to one of style only, is there any "there" there for voters to consider? Robinson leaves us empty.

Second, Robinson seems to frame Edwards' entire style as rhetorical, a political ploy that "resonates" with Iowa voters. Is this a rhetorical strategy that he has adopted, a pose that is inauthentic, a political trump card he can use? Or is his rage based on the substance of our current social and political malaise? Is it even anger at all, or could Edwards actually be telling his listeners what they have said privately among themselves? Is it less anger than it is the realization that someone is validating and vindicating their own frustrations, their own anger? In so doing, is not Edwards taking this anger and turning it to something more?

Perhaps these are questions beyond the scope of a humble scribbler like Robinson. Yet, they are questions that seem to be raised by the whole issue of "style"; unrelated to content and context, any analysis of "style" becomes a kind of veiled ad hominem attack, saying far more about the person (or perhaps persona) than it does anything substantive. Of course, Robinson would never engage in ad hominem attacks, so we have to consider that he is just analyzing "style" here, and the questions raised, and begged, by his column, are just beyond his abilities, or perhaps his purview, to consider.

Or, he could be a wanker. I guess I can't decide if it's his style, or his content that leads me to that decision.

Virtual Tin Cup

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