Two Campaigns

On this glorious snow day in New York City, I have two campaigns of interest. One is my own personal campaign, and another deals with the Presidential campaign that we are all getting sick and tired of, making us wish for November for reasons other than turkey.

First, I am of the strong belief that in 20 years I would like to attend conferences that have a number of smart, young people on the panels sharing stimulating and tantalizing ideas. So it crushes my heart every time the brightest student in a public speaking or introductory argument class informs me that the big plan for his or her life is to go to law school.

How depressing. It's like volunteering to have that last little spark of an ember doused without a second thought. They know not what they do. I try to convince them that making half the money (or less) but being able to read, write and study interesting questions is a better life. But the frame in our culture is that lawyering is the job that smart and successful people must take.

Happily this decision, like most made by people in American culture today, is primarily based on television, so it's easy to dissasemble. I've been looking for something good to have on hand to give to students that come to my office to discuss class, or carreer/major questions. Today I think I found the perfect antidote (or pharmikon if you prefer the more ambivalent interpretation of what I'm up to).

This blog post makes a short but sweet argument that's pretty well supported for students to choose something other than law school. It's good because it does something that I have trouble doing: Putting in their terms the reasons why law school is a bad choice. It's not that persuasive when the nutty professor is making this claim from a position of obvious luck and comfort. It's better said from the position of lawyers.

So that's my one big campaign is to stop the "brain drain" from the academy into law school which honestly has no need for sharp people, and a great need for obedient people.

Secondly: Had a great conversation this morning about John McCain calling Barack Obama's speeches "eloquent but empty." The question was, can something eloquent be empty?

One way of proceeding would be to say that the speech is full of eloquence, and it is appropriate and good for the audience, so it can't be "empty." It has a content and does something for the audience although maybe not in a rational or reasoned way. This would be somewhat like the rheotric advanced by John Poulakos and Steve Whitson in their QJS essay about Nietzschean rhetoric.

Another way of approaching it is that "eloquence" is a sign of "intellectualism" which in American culture is treated with deep suspicion. Since the founding of America as an ideological place, the intellectual has been seen as a problem, his or her mind clouded with too much book-learning so that they cannot see what should obviously be done. The farmer, on the other hand, who may have never attended any serious schooling, knows in his heart exactly what is best and right, and has no need or even desire to defend with eloquence this understanding. To do so would be to miss the point, and obscure the clear and right decision that was in the soul the whole time.

McCain seems to be trying to place Obama in this position - that of the intellectual - who can make a good speech but can't see what should be done in the immediate situation.

This is good strategy on his part, but for rhetoricians it opens a good topic with our classes this week. What is the content of the eloquent speech? Is eloquence a content? What flavoring does it provide to the content?

Traditionally understood as beautiful words that sound good, it could be that eloquence marks discourse as intellectual, and therefore suspicious. The clear, uneloquent basic speech would be the one that might not sound pleasant, but is definitely true.