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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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    Which Meme Won the Debates?

    Since last night’s debate was boring and pretty much meaningless (“I think we all love teachers,” said exasperated moderator Bob Schieffer in a discussion purportedly about foreign policy), the only takeaway is the meme. 

    What makes a great meme? Four elements:

    • Excellent visuals. (Binders. Women. Archaic weaponry.)
    • Rhythm (BIND-ers FULL of WOM-en.)
    • The horse’s mouth. (“Binders full of women.”)
    • The essence of an ethos. (“Let them eat cake!”)

    So let’s see which meme won:

    VISUALS: We love horses and women. (Um, we mean that in a good way.) TIE

    RHYTHM: “Horses and bayonets” aren’t as hip-hop rhythmical as “Binders full of women.” BINDERS

    HORSE’S MOUTH: A meme works better when it plays off something the victim said, or allegedly said. Romney came up with “Binders full of women.” Obama came prepared with his bayonets. Therefore: BINDERS

    ETHOS: A great meme captures the negative personality the opponent wants to create. Democrates portray Romney as being a cluelessly sexist plutocrat, the kind of guy who sees women in binders. On the other hand, it’s harder to believe that Romney is hopelessly clueless about military affairs. Again, BINDERS.

    So who won the last two debates? Binders full of women, 3-0.


    Take My Opponent. Please.

    Obama and Romney brought the finest political jokes money can buy to the Alfred E. Smith dinner, a fundraising roast given by New York Catholics every four years. Romney delivered one of our favorites, using the Surprise Ending figure called paraprosdokian.

    President Obama and I are both very lucky to have one person who’s always in our corner, someone who we can lean on and someone who is a comforting presence without whom we wouldn’t be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife, Ann; he has Bill Clinton.

    Figure of Speech:  paraprosdokian (pah rah proze DOKE ee an), the unexpected ending. 

    Hard as it is to pronounce, the paraprosdokian can give you instant wit.  Start with a banal clause or cliche and end with a surprise. You’ll more figurative surprises here.  For more cool ways to twist a cliché, see page 213 of Thank You for Arguing.

    Both sides scored political points but nobody seemed to care who “won.” Which makes us wonder: Why not require all the debates to be funny?


    "He Should Be Ashimed"

    Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, delivers a scathing ad hominem defense by attacking the leader of the opposition. Call it the “let him without sin cast the first stone” defense. 

    Oh, and watch for the classic Ciceronian outline: Introduction (state the case), Narration (recitation of facts, storytelling), Division (recognition of the other side’s case), Refutation (dismissal of that case), and Peroration (emotional summary and conclusion).

    Also look for a metastasis, in which the speaker moves quickly past an uncomfortable subject (sexist text messages by a member of her own party).

    Cicero would have found the speech familiar—though its delivery by a woman would doubtless have shocked him.


    And Our Favorite Line of the Night Goes To...

    Romney for his “binders full of women.”  Instant meme!  


    This Time Obama Shows Up

    This time we’re not going to tell you who won. It’s a tough call (though instant polls show a slight plurality for Obama). Instead, we’ll give you a few tools. Then you decide.

    1. If you didn’t watch it on television, then good. We hope you went to bed early, got a good night’s rest, and dreamed sweet dreams of a better America. Then we hope you got up ridiculously early and watched the debate on the New York Times’s interactive video. It has a scrolling transcript along with the televised debate, along with fact checks as you go. That way you can see who’s exaggerating or just cheerfully lying. (Romney easily scores the most falsity points in this debate, though Obama had a few stretchers as well.) 

    2. Rate each candidate for phronesis. That’s Aristotle’s “practical wisdom,” the projection of a character who knows his stuff and knows how to apply it reasonably. Both candidates spoke simply and well and used lots of statistics, including highly misleading ones. Unlike last time, Obama managed to avoid saying “Uh” a lot. It made him sound more capable.

    3. Score their eunoia. Meaning “disinterested good will.” How much do they seem to care about people? Figaro cringes when politicians try to sound touchy-feely. Last night Obama and Romney were so busy going after each other they seemed to forget the “tender” parts (“tender” is a favorite word of Romney’s). Obama brought up his daughters several times. Romney essentially offered a job to a college student. Neither came across as that terribly, well, tender.

    4. Measure their arete. Meaning “virtue,” the candidate’s ability to stand for the values the audience has in common. Virtue tends to bring out participation by the base in each party. That’s because Democratic values differ from Republican ones. Obama talked about his grandfather’s use of the GI Bill and noted pointedly that it “wasn’t a handout.” Romney replied that government doesn’t create jobs. Both are really talking values here—talking directly to their base. 

    So who won? You decide. Then let us know in the comments below.


    Look, What's Wrong with Saying "Look"?

    Figaro features prominently, and extremely geekily, in this Chicago Tribune piece. Look, geeky is what I do.