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Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
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    Tuesday
    Jan222013

    How to Write an Inaugural Address

    Want a job with good health insurance? Want to see  your words—heavily edited, rigorously vetted, endlessly fretted over—mouthed by the Commander in Chief himself?

    Then consider becoming a White House speechwriter. It’s easy! As Barack Obama’s second Inaugural Address shows, you need only learn three simple techniques.

    One: Get all Contrasty.

    The antithesis—the not-this-but-that figure—is a speechwriter’s best friend. Obama’s Second Inaugural contains more contrasts than a zebra. 

    We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin… [but] our allegiance to an idea…

    For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing…

    The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.  They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people…

    The commitments we make to each other…do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

    But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  

    We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. 

    That last one, by the way, is a nice syncrisis, a kind of antithesis that piles on the contrasts in multiple clauses.

    Two: Go on Lots and Lots of Metaphorical  “Journeys”

    Obama talks about America’s “never-ending journey” and uses that foot-sore, exhausted metaphor 12 times in his Second Inaugural. The word “journey” comprises 1.2% of the words in his entire speech. Want to be a White House speechwriter? Prepare for boatloads of journeys. Truckloads. Air Force One-loads.  

    Three: Repeat Words (Preferably “Journey”) Again and Again

    Practice the anaphora, the figure that repeats the beginning of successive phrases, clauses or sentences. Go to the transcript of Obama’s speech and search for “our journey is not complete until”. Then search for “we the people.” And “Together.” See a pattern here? Repetition in speechwriting isn’t all about making nice rhythms. It’s about implanting an idea in the audience’s head. Like, we’re in this together. On our never-ending journey.

    Now write yourself a speech, then another and another. Practice antithesizing. Then polish your resume. Figaro will watch your progress with interest. For we the people are on this journey together.

    Friday
    Jan182013

    Is "Facism" a Fallacy?

    Whole Foods CEO John Mackey stepped in fresh, um, produce on NPR when he associated Obamacare with fascism.

    Technically speaking, it’s more like fascism. Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn’t own the means of production, but they do control it, and that’s what’s happening with our healthcare programs and these reforms.

    America’s locally grown nutjobs already think Obama is a fascist (not to mention a Communist, Muslim terrorist, and Battlestar Gallactica cylon), so the idea of making states set up health exchanges, and the uninsured buy a plan or pay a small penalty, will seem fascistic. But for sane people there’s clearly a fallacy here. What is it?

    It’s a false analogy.  Two things sharing one trait or ingredient don’t make them equivalent. Homer Simpson committed the same fallacy when he told his daughter that his doughnut was a fruit since it had purple in it, and “purple is a fruit.” 

    While it’s true that Obamacare increases government influence over health insurance, that’s not the same as “controlling the means of production.” (Observant Figarists will spot a hyperbole in this leap.) And so, in the fresh air of logic, the analogy spoils quickly.

    Here’s another false analogy: Successful businessmen and wise pundits. Being good at selling expensive food does not translate into intelligent policy analysis. Maybe we should honor Whole Foods Guy with an eponym: to mackey. Definition: to turn business success into a political joke. Or, in this case, the transformation of a fruit seller into a fruitcake.

    Wednesday
    Jan162013

    What's a Euphemism for Euphemism?

    Figarist Cari Jackson asks whether “euphemism” is the proper term for this blithe quote from a corporate CEO:

    I don’t want to say layoffs. I’d say, perhaps, redeployed is a better term.

    There is indeed, Cari! 

    Figure of Thought: meiosis (my-OH-sis), the shrinker. From the Greek, meaning “to shrink.”

    The meiosis (“It’s just a flesh wound!”) redefines an issue to make it sound less important. Reminds us of “The Simpsons’” evil nuclear plant owner, Mr. Burns: “Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.”

    Let’s call a spade a spade. But when someone calls an earth mover a spade, don’t call it a euphemism. It’s a meiosis. Got any more examples of mealy-mouthed shrinkers? Please comment!

    Tuesday
    Jan152013

    It's a Bill, Not a Check

    In a rare press conference yesterday, Obama did exactly what Figaro urges persuaders to do: define the terms favorably.

    He’s trying to gain an advantage in negotiations over increasing the debt limit—the authority Congress gives the president for paying the nation’s bills. In the past decade, Congress has controlled the terms, calling the debt limit increase a “check,” as if they’re authorizing new bills. This time around, Obama turned the check into a bill. 

    Here’s how Aaron Blake put it in The Washington Post

    Rather than argue over whether the debt ceiling should be raised to authorize more borrowing, Obama is instead arguing that Congress is voting simply to pay the bills that it has already racked up — a semantic difference, perhaps, but a very important one at the same time. In effect, Obama is trying to shift the burden of failure to Republicans in much the same way he did during the fiscal cliff debate.

    Aaron, every definition strategy entails semantic differences. Semantics make the rhetorical world go round. 

    Sunday
    Dec162012

    It's Not a Tragedy

    What can we say about the children massacre? “OK, Jay, do something,” says Melinda, a college English instructor in Colorado. “You’re the argument man….Every religious right idiot is posting cliched sayings on TEE SHIRTS for goodness sakes that this terrible tragedy occurred because we have taken prayer (and therefore God) out of public schools. I know there’s a fallacy there.”

    There is, Melinda. More than one, actually. (Post hoc ergo propter hoc and Straw Man lead my list). But remember, pointing out fallacies generally fails to persuade. 

    Besides, this is more of a framing issue than a mere argument. You want to redefine the terms and focus the issue to achieve your goal.

    What goal? I have one: Make it harder to pour bullets into small children. That’s something a majority of Americans should agree on, right? In practical terms, that means restoring the laws that expired under the Bush presidency—laws that banned assault weapons and large-capacity bullet clips. 

    So let’s talk about how to frame the issue, getting Congress to restore the ban on assault weapons and large clips.

    1. Don’t call it a tragedy. “Tragedy” implies an act of the gods, something terribly sad but inevitable. Instead, call it a massacre. A massacre is the most violent kind of crimes, and it implies that more than one person was involved. (We’ll get to that in a bit.)
    2. Keep the focus on the children. This was a massacre of children. Gundamentalists will try to focus on the shooter. That allows them to make a reasonable-sounding case for school prayer: As our morals deteriorate,  more sick people will do horrible things. Frame the issue around making it harder to massacre children. You can’t pray away legally acquired assault weapons and large-capacity ammo clips. 
    3. Demonize the NRA. I like Robert Shrum’s label, the National Rampage Association. There’s more than one culprit in this massacre. While the NRA didn’t specifically set out to massacre children, they did work with brutal efficiency to allow the massacre to happen. 
    4. Make the wafflers sound weak. Obama wiped a tear away while reading careful language avoiding direct talk of gun control. Demand that the President, and leaders in general, stand up to the NRA. It’s the ultimate classroom bully—a bully that allowed every small terrified child in a first grade to be killed with legally acquired assault weapons. 
    5. When the Second Amendment gets mentioned, bring the focus back to the children. The Second Amendment calls for a “well regulated militia” to protect the “security of a free state.” Ask what the security of a free state has to do with massacring children. Laws that make it easy to massacre children arguably violate the Second Amendment. Eleven bullets into a small child: Security?
    6. Be the moderate in the debate. Ultimately, the more moderate-sounding argument wins. As long as the issue stays focused on the children and not on the shooter, on the children instead of “freedom,” then the issue comes down to this: Are you for or against the massacre of children? 

    It’s all about the children. As long as the issue focuses on them, their deaths—their criminal massacre—won’t be entirely meaningless.

    Thursday
    Nov292012

    Learn Rhetoric, Get Rich

    Fun Skype interview with Roberto Monaco of Influenceology fame. I angled the camera to make my mouth look even bigger.