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Ethos, Porthos and wait a minute, that's not right.

YHB read a couple of things recently that seemed to fit together, although I haven’t been entirely sure how. One of them is Charles Pierce’s note called The Carterization of Barack Obama, which made (among other points) the connection between Our Only President and James Earl Carter as what he calls redemptive candidates, candidates who promise to improve things by the very fact of their election. This is terrific for election, but terrible for re-election, as it turns out. It turns out that four years later we still have to deal with race issues, or corruption in government, or the residue of misbegotten wars. The redemptive president is boxed in by their claims of redemption, making it difficult to make the rhetorical shift to a new story.

I put that with Greg Sargent’s note on The Centrist Dodge, in which he points out that Tom Friedman, among other celebrants of bipartisanism of course, is confined in his own rhetorical box, when policy positions he supports are taken up by one party and not the other. He is stuck either supporting a partisan position, or rejecting his own policy proposals because they are insufficiently bipartisan.

So connection that struck me was the connection between the rhetorical boxes, the identification of the person speaking (the ethos for us rhetoric nerds) with the argument, and the ways in which that identification constricts the public speaker when it is no longer useful. It isn’t restricted to presidents and pundits, of course. It’s a problem of rhetoric in general, and in particular in political rhetoric. On the other hand, it’s a strength of rhetoric, or rather, of the way we deal with rhetoric as consumers. I’ve hocked here about the argument ad hominem and the way in which we have allowed our justifiable distaste for personal abuse to confuse us concerning the connections between the argument and the arguer.

Digression: That bit about our distaste for personal abuse is a joke. End Digression.

While Your Humble Blogger obviously wants Our Only President to be re-elected, I can only consider it a strength that speakers in general can’t just don and doff personae like domino masks, being an outsider or an insider, an expert or a regular joe, a righteous battler or a serene compromiser, for their moment-to-moment persuasive desires. It’s certainly not impossible to change your ethos, but it takes hard rhetorical work, and more than that, it often takes actual change in the world. If Our Only President had presided over a return to full employment, it would be easy for him to change to a competent achiever, and he would have earned it. Without having earned it, Our Only President will have to find some other ethos. Similarly, Paul Krugman has largely shifted from an identity as a disinterested social scientist to a partisan political commentator by engaging in partisan political commentary; his arguments are more persuasive to some and less to others because of it.

To retreat from that a little bit, though, I should acknowledge the tautological nature of the thing—we will know (f’r’ex) whether Our Only President is considered to have earned the identity of a defender of the little guy if people seem to be persuaded by his arguments given with that ethos. Nor can the ethos be disconnected entirely from the rest of the argument—the policies themselves carry some weight, and the ways in which they are put, and so on. We won’t know, after the election, exactly why it turned out why it did, any more than we know exactly why 2004’s election turned out how it did and not the other way. We will know some of the parts of it, not all, and we won’t know which bits were redundant and which amplified each other and which cancelled each other out. Jon Bernstein (over at the plain blog) likes to say that lots of stuff matters at the margins, but that in a close election, the margins matter. That’s true of persuasion generally—people aren’t going to be persuaded by Tom Friedman’s nonsense just because he has a history of bipartisan moderation (vaddevah dat means), and in fact it’s more likely that they will give credence to his bipartisan ethos if they already find his arguments persuasive, but if it’s close, the margins matter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Obama has presided over widespread (if erratic) physical abuse of peaceful protestors, a crackdown loosely coordinated by federal agencies he controls. Even were the abuse not coordinated, his failure to intervene to protect the protestors stands in stark contrast to LBJ's response after the first Selma to Montgomery march (Bloody Sunday).

One of the rightful roles of the presidency, as LBJ taught us, is to use troops when necessary to protect peaceful protestors from violent local and state law enforcement. We've had the beatings and the tear-gassing, and even the use of horses against crowds. Where are the thousands of troops dispatched to face down local authorities on behalf of the protestors? And where is our Voting Rights Act?

I voted for Obama because I thought his ethos was more than ether. I saw him as a community organizer, not an organizer of community crackdowns. And I saw him as a teacher of constitutional civil liberties as continuing rights rather than historical artifacts. Those aspects of his ethos mattered deeply to me. I wish they mattered more deeply to him.

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