Thursday, May 17, 2012

Analyzing the Rhetoric of Mitt Romney - A Commencement Speech for the Ages

I tend to shy away from politics, until recently. I felt that politics entailed too much ambiguity and ambivalence to talk coherently about any aspect of it, without expertise, but I don’t feel that I need any sort of expertise to read, carefully and analytically, Mitt Romney’s graduation speech at Liberty University. Romney’s speech demands a response, not silence, or even cynical resignation. Some context will help. Liberty University, to quote Wikipedia, “is a private Christian university located in Lynchburg, Virginia. Liberty's annual enrollment is 12,000 residential students and 60,000+ studying through Liberty University Online. LU is currently the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world.”
The university, founded by Jerry Falwell Sr., and currently run by his son, is a bastion of extreme conservative thought. It’s hard to know what to list as shocking about the University, whether the homophobic, racist, chauvinist statements of both Falwell’s or some of the fundamentalist policies of the University which fly in the face of any sense of academic freedom (espousal of creationism in classes, a museum with a fossil labeled as 3,000 years old.), but as you can imagine, reading about the University might provide some shock as to their tactics and positions. (We will look at this in a bit...) But you cannot fully blame a political candidate for talking to a strong base of people key to his victory, but you can judge his words. I think you could break down any one of his sentences and find not only a hidden context and prejudice, but some flat out lies, self-promotion, simplistic thinking, elitist moralism, and mere pettiness. Here we Go!

1. For the graduates, this moment marks a clear ending and a clear beginning. -
Yes, this, like most of graduation speech will be full of unhelpful cliches, but what’s more interesting about Romney’s cliches is how wrong they are. The end of college no longer signifies either a clear end or a clear beginning. Rather it signifies for many a scary and ambiguous time in which they must confront broken dreams, an economy in crisis, a job market in shambles, and the psychological challenges of emerging adulthood in a world in which we can not expect the luxuries of our parents despite how hard we work.

2. Some of you may have taken a little longer than four years to complete your studies. One graduate has said that he completed his degree in only two terms: Clinton’s and Bush’s. -
So first he launches straight into poorly veiled politicized self-promotion. After a few meager words about the graduates he draws attention to himself, his importance, albeit implicitly here. Second, he tells a story that clearly excludes president Obama, as if he doesn’t or didn't exist, as if his presidency equalled nothing. (Perhaps I misunderstand the story he quotes, but he calls the person a graduate, implying from the class 2012, because otherwise why refer to him with the ambiguous terms graduate in the context of a graduation speech.)

3. In some ways, it is fitting that I share this distinction with Truett Cathy.
In general, quoting other people and name dropping is a staple of graduation speeches, but who you quote often says about what you respect and value. Romney, consequently, name checks a lot of interesting people - here, first, Truett Cathy, who, “In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked Cathy as the 380th richest man in America and the 799th richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion.”
Hello donations from the 1%.

4. ...And with credit to Congressman Dick Armey: The American Dream is not owning your own home, it is getting your kids out of the home you own.
Hmmmm, Dick Armey, where do I know that name from? Oh right, he’s homophobic, moralistic, and wants to limit artistic freedom. See his statement on Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky -
In 1998, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a reporter asked him what he would do if he were in President Bill Clinton's position. He replied "If I were in the President's place I would not have gotten a chance to resign. I would be lying in a pool of my own blood, hearing Mrs. Armey standing over me saying, 'How do I reload this damn thing?'"

5. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches. And let’s just say that not everybody has achieved as much in these last four years as you have.
That’s a theme for another day. But two observations.
Just some real casual and totally inconspicuous self-promotional Obama bashing in a graduation speech, way to stay classy. Also, comparing the accomplishments of thousands of young graduates to the burdens of the President of the United States. Good argument.

6. In his 73 years of life, Dr. Falwell left a big mark. The calling Jerry answered was not an easy one. Today we remember him as a courageous and big-hearted minister of the Gospel who never feared an argument, and never hated an adversary. Jerry deserves the tribute he would have treasured most, as a cheerful, confident champion for Christ.
Not exactly how I would qualify another moralistic, homophobic, chauvinistic, fundamentalist person, a person who had this to say about 9/11-
"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" [42] Falwell further stated that the attacks were "probably deserved," a statement which Christopher Hitchens called treasonous.
Also, Falwell found himself in the position, somehow, of “‘calling the homosexual-friendly Metropolitan Community Churches "brute beasts" and "a vile and Satanic system" that will "one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven’”
Read more about the cheerful, non-hateful words Falwell here.

7. America needs your skill and talent. If we take the right course, we will see a resurgence in the American economy that will surprise the world, and that will open new doors of opportunity for those who are prepared as you are.
Not only is this simply naive, ambiguous and nonsensical, or directional at all (what’s the right course, because as far as I’ve seen no one really knows) but wrong. Many experts assert that part of problem lies in education, or in the type of education, and that given student debt college might actually not be worth it at this moment, especially given both the economic crisis and the astronomically rising prices in colleges, I don’t see how this canard helps the graduates, though it does help romney put forth good religious conservative beliefs. America does not need your skill and talent, it needs cheap labor, our ph.ds our on an all time high level of food stamps. The collegiate dream, as it stands, is dying. (Read here, here, here.
Even if you disagree with the author, the sheer volume of books being written about the worthlessness of a college degree, begs for some more complexity than reinforcing an outdated version of the american collegiate dream.    

8. Of course, what the next four years might hold for me is yet to be determined. But I will say that things are looking up, and I take your kind hospitality today as a sign of good things to come.I consider it a great life honor to address you today. Your generosity of spirit humbles me. The welcoming spirit of Liberty is a tribute to the gracious Christian example of your founder.
Wait did I hint yet that I am running for president? Oh I did? Well, a third time can’t hurt you. Also, welcoming spirit? To whom, not to homosexuals, or people who disagree with their moral certainty, of course.

9. Today, thanks to what you have gained here, you leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor. You know what you believe. You know who you are. And you know Whom you will serve. Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence, but it will be among the most prized qualities from your education here. Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning.
    Note the battle metaphors...Also, this really sounds like a fundamental difference in a lifeview i.e. the purpose of education: to teach a single correct path or to teach how to choose a path for oneself. Freedom to choose or Freedom to live the correct life, to live out our so called purpose. So much of this statement instills fear in me. This sounds like a ultra-orthodox right wing Jewish statement to make. Moral certainty, clear standards, spiritual ideals, sounds very much like the making of a rigid ideology that a person shoves onto the world, whether it fits other peoples desires or not. Also note the denigration of colleges that focus more on academic and religious freedom.

10. That said, your values will not always be the object of public admiration. In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Christianity is not the faith of the complacent, the comfortable or of the timid. It demands and creates heroic souls like Wesley, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, John Paul the Second, and Billy Graham. Each showed, in their own way, the relentless and powerful influence of the message of Jesus Christ. May that be your guide.
Ok, this is a packed sentence. Let’s take it apart. On the whole, America being the most religious country in the world, I’m not sure how to take Romney’s warning that these fundamentalist values will not be the object of public admiration. Also, this creates a an Us vs. Them mentality that goes in line with his metaphor of armour, as if he is sending troops into a war.
Fair point about Christian faith, but Billy Graham along with true christian heroes like Bonhoeffer who fought against the tyranny of the Nazis? The same Billy Graham who on tape made vile anti-semitic statements, statements he doesn’t recall making.

11. You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal. Harvard historian David Landes devoted his lifelong study to understanding why some civilizations rise, and why others falter. His conclusion: Culture makes all the difference. Not natural resources, not geography, but what people believe and value. Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life.
    Breathe, deep. OK, first of all, hey world, case closed on our problems! Romney quoting one academic in a simplified manner has found the solution and cause of all our problems: Culture. Phew, I was real worried there for a second that perhaps the problems stemmed from something considerably more complicated, but it’s good to know that Culture makes all the difference. And what culture is that? Perhaps an amalgam of numerous cultures, nope. The Judeo-Christian Culture, which of course can be spoken as a singular type of culture, not a pluralistic, dynamic culture. Judeo-Christian culture does no wrong, it seems.

12. The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family. The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.
As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman
    Hey, this sounds kind of nice, I like personal responsibility, all for the dignity of work. Wait a minute, how did family get in there? And what is the definition of a family? Oh, wait for it, that’s the definition of a family, one based on a marriage between a man and a woman. Also, cool study, and way to name drop Rick Santorum, because Rick Santorum really represents some cogent, logical, intelligent points of view. Also, I am not a statistician here, and besides the elitist implications of the studies, since when does correlation equal causality?
    Also let’s see who funds the Brookings Institute - “At the end of 2004 the Brookings Institution had assets of $258 million and spent $39.7 million, while its budget has grown to more than $80 million in 2009. Its largest contributors include the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her husband Richard C. Blum, Bank of America, ExxonMobil, Pew Charitable Trusts, the MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation; and the governments of the United States, Japan, Qatar, Taipei, the District of Columbia, and the United Kingdom.”
    Hey, in case you were wondering, Romney doesn’t believe that homosexuals have the right to get married, but that can’t be news.

13. The protection of religious freedom has also become a matter of debate. It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government.
But from the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.
    Ok, Romney raises a good point. The nature of religious freedom deserves our attention as a complex question. Does religious freedom entail freedom from religion, or freedom to practice, or both, and if they clash, then how do we resolve that class, but his conclusion of perhaps religious conscience a complete non-sequitur, as if somehow not agreeing with a religious conscience automatically leads to a belief in a sort church of government. Q.E.D. folks.
    No greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action. If that does not count as religious elitism, I don’t know what does. Is this a sermon, are all graduation speeches sermon, in some way or another? This though, we can just qualify as religious. The line between praising a religion for its achievement and elitism gets mightily blurry, mightily fast.  
    Ok, I’ve already written enough for one day, and I hope to flesh out the implications of these criticisms in the next post, but here, I just wanted to open this up to discussion, and to notification of who our candidates truly are, or how they truly represent themselves. 

The full speech can be found here.

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