It didn’t take long for me to realize that in the Academy, Republicans are pretty rare. Now, Democrats are practically nonexistent in conservative Evangelicalism, but there are only about three more Republicans in academia.
So in the middle of my second year at IU and in the middle of the neo-cons’ Contract with America, I asked myself, “Do I really want to set myself up to defend the GOP in hostile territory? Can I defend them?” And I decided early on that I would never publicly identify my politics. Instead, I chose to defend my religion and my Christian brothers and sisters in fundamentalism.
Now you’d have to be really a dink to not understand that my religious culture made me a card-carrying, loyal-to-the-end Republican. But no one seemed to really overtly mind. I “came out” to two fellow Republicans privately, and one left-leaning classmate called me out during the Elián González affair.
It took me awhile to realize how exactly far left my professors were, probably because they were not the God-hating, hammer-and-sickle-wielding, rank relativists I was taught leftists would be. Most of my time at IU was spent learning a new vocabulary and sharpening new tools to understand either side of the political spectrum. Yes, these profs marched on Washington to hear MLK. They protested Vietnam (after they had served in the military themselves). They self-identified as “marxissant” although they were openly and regularly critical of Marxism (true-blue Marxists are rather dull, materialistic Johnny-One-Notes in their social critique). They were peaceniks. Their ideas about “radical democracy” were simply a new way to frame socialism. Instead of “revolution,” they talked about “turns” (see the juggling of the metaphor there?) — ideological, critical, aesthetic, rhetorical. Realizing that communism itself was an abysmal failure, they removed and re-framed the important values differently under the moniker “democracy” and “equality” (since equality was the legit Constitutional partner to “liberty”).
Rhetoricians do that.
Look at the patron saint of American rhetoricians — Kenneth Burke. Every contemporary student of rhetoric hears Burke’s story as a morality tale for scholars of rhetoric and critics of culture.
I can’t find a brief summary of the event, so I’ll just repeat it here. Burke was asked to speak at the 1935 Writers’ Congress — a Communist-sponsored event for the literati. His speech urged his audience to drop the term “the worker” when writing to the American working class because it held no resonance for them. It might have worked in Europe where centuries of aristocracy held sway over the proletariat. But in America, we’re all “middling.” Upper and lower and middle classes — we all try to act middle.
Instead Burke proposed that the group use the term “the people” — a much more American term.
They hated the idea. The audience read it as disloyal to their cause. They shouted him off-stage. The experience haunted him the rest of the day:
But when the time came for criticism, . . . it was a slaughter! Mike Gold and Joe Freeman – they just tore me apart: ‘We have a snob among us’ – and so on. And when I was going out of the hall I heard a girl in front of me say: ‘And yet he seemed so honest!’ I went home and laid down, and just as I was about to fall asleep, I’d hear ‘Burke!’ – and I’d awake with a start. Then I’d doze off again, and suddenly again: ‘Burke!’ My name had become a kind of charge against me—a dirty word.
Now, Burke never actually joined the Communist party because he was disillusioned with Communism after the Soviet participation in the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Soviet invasion of Finland. He remained a political independent the rest of this life.
For rhetoricians, the morals of the story are:
- You must act.
- Speaking is acting.
- Words matter.
- Solve problems with your words, not your hands.
- People buck change — even the people (Marxists) who think they like change (revolution). We’re all latent hypocrites (Burke would call us tragicians).
- People will do everything to shut you up when you don’t agree with them.
- Stay independent (even while you’re involved).
Another little story about Burke . . . he and my ol’ buddy Richard Weaver crossed paths in the 1940s, it seems. In one of his small seminar groups at the University of Chicago, Burke noticed and was annoyed by a nerdy guy writing furiously at the rear. “Yes, I remember him [Weaver] sitting in the back taking notes like crazy,” Burke remembered. Richard Johannesan concluded in the Southern Communication Journal that Weaver actually plagiarized from Burke.
And I see the connections. Both argue that language does stuff; it’s more than “mere rhetoric.” Burke said it was all a drama and Weaver said it was all a sermon. Both argued there were moral hierarchies at work in our words. Burke said they were there but human and fluid and, therefore, powerful; Weaver insisted they had to be divine and permanent or else irrelevant. Both agreed the rhetoric was important, but Burke sounded more like Isocrates while Weaver imitated, ironically enough, rhetor-hater Plato. Both were pretty politically invested as well with Burke on the far Left and Weaver on the equally far Right.
Knowing Weaver like I do motivated me to know Burke, his teacher/source, better. I had grown so tired of Weaver who seemed . . . well, naive or opaque. Weaver really was like the guy who was so busy looking at the stars that he tripped over his own shoelaces. Burke, on the other hand, would untie his shoelaces to trace the outline of the constellations. Weaver took clearly reified human constructions and insisted they were divine; Burke didn’t worry about it where they came from. He just got to (rhetorical) work.
My brother puts it like this: you don’t need to see God’s glory only in the Heavens (although it’s there); you can see God’s glory in an anthill, in a conversation, or in caring for a child. Because God is sovereign, He’s not just in the sublime; He’s in the mundane too. Because He’s God.
Steve and I still talk about Weaver. He’s our go-to guy to understand this mysterious Southern culture that surrounds us. The grand old story of the South is a lot like Weaver’s drama/sermon — arcane, distracting, simple, fantastical, beautiful, sublime, proud, and ultimately tragic.
That’s the crucial difference between them: Weaver’s story is either-or and Burke’s is both-and (and even that’s too reductionistic of a description, I admit).
I would never say that the Right is always simple and tragic in their story-telling and the Left is always complex and comic. That characterization itself is tragic. But I learned about telling a more complex story while on the Left. Oh sure, I heard them, too, often resort to the tragic (we all do!). I heard them make ignorant errors about fundamentalists, and my dissertation was intended to tell a more complex story about the movement they so fetishize.
But there is more intellectual variety beyond the political “over there” and even more self-reflexivity. Maybe it’s just rhetoricians who are constantly examining, shifting, juggling, and revamping.
I remember my diss advisor, Robert Ivie, expressing frustration with “postmodernists” after one NCA convention. The young, upstart pomos had rejected his ideas of “productive criticism” as same-old, same-old and even too conservative. . . . Huh?
He sounded like Burke at the Writers’ Congress. And I’ve felt the same way recently. I guess being a rhetorician means you’re never really very comfortable in either the Right or the Left.
That’s the other moral to the story.