On making America great again

Together we will make America Great Again, better than ever before.

This political slogan is usually viewed as either a Nazi bigot’s racist screed against all truth and goodness or as an aspiration to be achieved in the unholy walls and halls of DC.

It’s a phrase and sentiment that is not unique to Trump and I recall hearing Bill Clinton say it several times and saw a Reagan speech in class in which Ronald Reagan also said it:

we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.

As a campaign slogan it’s genius as it looks to a mythic past, removes the politician from your psyche, and puts the voter in the driver seat toward a brighter future.

But how does it function, or how could it function as a Trump-Reagan-Independent piece of American moral and political philosophy? First, let’s look at the rhetoric of the phrase: “Great again.”

It’s a visionary phrase that needs no basis in historical fact to be helpful. A platonic vision of an ideal America can galvanize political pursuit toward a brighter future. But America does have a great past: the Internet, baseball, football, the constitution, Texas, space travel, etc.

So my view then, obviously, is that the phrase is a great piece of rhetorical  Americana. But how could individuals work to make America great again without specific reference to policies or voting? For this I call upon Teddy Roosevelt. Let us ask, how can America be great again, Teddy?

Make Americans Great Again or Pursue Positive Virtues and Encourage them in others

As I have already said, our first duty, our most important work, is setting our own house in order. We must be true to ourselves, or else, in the long run, we shall be false to all others. The republic cannot stand if honesty and decency do not prevail alike in public and private life; if we do not set ourselves seriously at work to solve the tremendous social problems forced upon us by the far-sweeping industrial changes of the last two generations.

The Bible always inculcates the need of the positive no less than the negative virtues, although certain people who profess to teach Christianity are apt to dwell wholly on the negative. We are bidden not merely to be harmless as doves, but also as wise as serpents. It is very much easier to carry out the former part of the order than the latter; while, on the other hand, it is of much more importance for the good of mankind that our goodness should be accompanied by wisdom than that we should merely be harmless. If with the serpent wisdom we unite the serpent guile, terrible will be the damage we do; and if, with the best of intentions, we can only manage to deserve the epithet of “harmless,” it is hardly worth while to have lived in the world at all.

It is character that counts in a nation as in a man. It is a good thing to have a keen, fine intellectual development in a nation, to produce orators, artists, successful business men; but it is an infinitely greater thing to have those solid qualities which we group together under the name of character–sobriety, steadfastness, the sense of obligation toward one’s neighbor and one’s God, hard common sense, and, combined with it, the lift of generous enthusiasm toward whatever is right. These are the qualities which go to make up true national greatness, and these were the qualities which Grant possessed in an eminent degree.

Of course the all-important thing to keep in mind is that if we have not both strength and virtue we shall fail. Indeed, in the old acceptation of the word, virtue included strength and courage, for the clear-sighted men at the dawn of our era knew that the passive virtues could not by themselves avail, that wisdom without courage would sink into mere cunning, and courage without morality into ruthless, lawless, self-destructive ferocity.

Encourage Masculinity

I do not believe in mischief-doing in school hours, or in the kind of animal spirits that results in making bad scholars; and I believe that those boys who take part in rough, hard play outside of school will not find any need for horse-play in school. While they study they should study just as hard as they play foot-ball in a match game. It is wise to obey the homely old adage, “Work while you work; play while you play.”

A boy needs both physical and moral courage. Neither can take the place of the other. When boys become men they will find out that there are some soldiers very brave in the field who have proved timid and worthless as politicians, and some politicians who show an entire readiness to take chances and assume responsibilities in civil affairs, but who lack the fighting edge when opposed to physical danger. In each case, with soldiers and politicians alike, there is but half a virtue. The possession of the courage of the soldier does not excuse the lack of courage in the statesman and, even less does the possession of the courage of the statesman excuse shrinking on the field of battle. Now, this is all just as true of boys. A coward who will take a blow without returning it is a contemptible creature; but, after all, he is hardly as contemptible as the boy who dares not stand up for what he deems right against the sneers of his companions who are themselves wrong. Ridicule is one of the favorite weapons of wickedness, and it is sometimes incomprehensible how good and brave boys will be influenced for evil by the jeers of associates who have no one quality that calls for respect, but who affect to laugh at the very traits which ought to be peculiarly the cause for pride.

Of course the effect that a thoroughly manly, thoroughly straight and upright boy can have upon the companions of his own age, and upon those who are younger, is incalculable. If he is not thoroughly manly, then they will not respect him, and his good qualities will count for but little; while, of course, if he is mean, cruel, or wicked, then his physical strength and force of mind merely make him so much the more objectionable a member of society. He cannot do good work if he is not strong and does not try with his whole heart and soul to count in any contest; and his strength will be a curse to himself and to every one else if he does not have thorough command over himself and over his own evil passions, and if he does not use his strength on the side of decency, justice, and fair dealing.

Take Personal Steps To Create American Comraderie

Any healthy-minded American is bound to think well of his fellow-Americans if he only gets to know them. The trouble is that he does not know them.

Hang on the the highest ideals even when you can only achieve “good enough”

He must have high ideals, and the leader of public opinion in the pulpit, in the press, on the platform, or on the stump must preach high ideals. But the possession or preaching of these high ideals may not only be useless, but a source of positive harm, if unaccompanied by practical good sense, if they do not lead to the effort to get the best possible when the perfect best is not attainable–and in this life the perfect best rarely is attainable.

But when we come to the countless measures and efforts for doing good, let us keep ever clearly in mind that while we must always strive for the utmost good that can be obtained, and must be content with no less, yet that we do only harm if, by intemperate championship of the impossible good, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to work a real abatement of existing and menacing evil.

Avoid Pathological Altruism

Anything that encourages pauperism, anything that relaxes the manly fiber and lowers self-respect, is an unmixed evil. The soup-kitchen style of philanthropy is as thoroughly demoralizing as most forms of vice or oppression[!], and it is of course particularly revolting when some corporation or private individual undertakes it, not even in a spirit of foolish charity, but for purposes of self-advertisement.

We must possess the spirit of broad humanity, deep charity, and loving-kindness for our fellow-men, and must remember, at the same time, that this spirit is really the absolute antithesis of mere sentimentalism, of soup-kitchen, pauperizing philanthropy, and of legislation which is inspired either by foolish mock benevolence or by class greed or class hate. We need to be possessed of the spirit of justice and of the spirit which recognizes in work and not ease the proper end of effort.

Rhetoric and Dialectic: The Difference and Why It Matters

Sometimes a tool becomes so important to us, it’s impossible to imagine not having it. I tend to think of shoes, my pocket knife, and my car that way. For others it might be their phone or laptop. But all of us know of a tool that becomes quintessential to who we are because of how it increases our capacity to be human. The longer I’ve taught public speaking, the more integral the rhetoric/dialectic distinction has become to me. 

Rhetoric and dialectic are distinct forms and even methods of communication, and as such should be distinguished. Here is a summary definition of each:

  1. Dialectic is the art of utilizing logic and facts well for the discovering, explaining, and demonstration of truth and probabilities. This is a conversational and/or internal skill. It essentially a question and answer process.
  2. Rhetoric is the art of discovering what is persuasive, why it is persuasive, and for what it is persuading. It is also the use of persuasion. It deals with demonstration and probabilities, especially when persuading others to act. 

Here is a link to a great break down of the two: Aristotle’s Rhetoric at Stanford Philosophocal Encyclopedia

Clearly, the two are related. For instance, logic, which is part of dialectic, helps one to be more rhetorically capable in the case of debate. But knowing logic without knowing what actually persuades or interests others can make a speaker or writer boring and unhelpful. This is especially important if Aristotle was correct when he observed that:

Further, in dealing with certain persons, even if we possessed the most accurate scientific knowledge, we should not find it easy to persuade them by the employment of such knowledge. For scientific discourse is concerned with instruction, but in the case of such persons instruction is impossible; our proofs and arguments must rest on generally accepted principles, as we said in the Topics, when speaking of converse with the multitude.

Some people, because they lack logical training or have a short attention span, cannot be convinced of the truth by careful argument. Therefore, instead of careful argumentation, inference from commonly accepted principles must be used. These commonly accepted principles do not strictly have to be true. While I think that Aristotle is right when he says that rhetoric with some basis in truth is more persuasive, the problem is that many who know the truth are not good at putting it rhetorically. The fact of the matter is that in practice, the more vaguely positive something sounds, the persuasive it can be to large crowds because people will fill such terms in with their own meanings. Rhetorical principles typically just have to be emotionally engaging, easily memorized, and easily convertible with reference to their meanings. In American political rhetoric, some of the commonly used and emotionally engaging principles are things like:

  1. Terrorists are scary.
  2. Misogyny is bad.
  3. The wrong side of history is bad.
  4. We are a specific kind of people and that idea is not who we are.
  5. The constitution is good.

On the other hand, the most persuasive argument about mathematics to a room of mathematicians would be an argument of pure logic, clearly defined principles, and detailed enumeration of the steps utilized to discover a conclusion.

A man skilled in rhetoric would know the difference between an audience of bored college students and a room of mathematical experts.

Dialectic and Rhetoric in Speech and Writing

Using dialectic is for doing research and constructing an argument based on the best evidence available. A sign you are reading dialectic might be an outline of the argument in the text so that people can follow the syllogisms carefully. Of course, a rhetorician knows how to use a syllogism is a way that seems like dialectic but is really just persuasion.

But, if a paper were to be presented to an audience that wasn’t a peer-review board, then one would determine which of types of evidence are likely to be the most convincing to that audience and present accordingly. Typically articles sent for peer-review are meant to advance knowledge and while they can use engaging language, typically should show evidence, state assumptions, explain biases, report counter examples, show a careful argument outline, and provide clearly stated conclusions. Of course, results in the world of peer-review will vary. But nevertheless, the peer-review system provides the illusion of the genre of dialectic.

On the rhetorical level, if you wished to present your scientific findings about exercise to athletes, you wouldn’t necessarily present the evidence that made the conclusion seem most probable. Instead you would explain the results and give specific examples which would make the information seem the most useful for achieving results.

Questions to ask when writing a paper or speech:

  1. Are my premises true?
  2. Did I cite compelling evidence?
  3. Is my argument valid?
  4. Is the argument to complicated to briefly explain to a group?
  5. Am a stating the argument in a way that will be compelling to my audience?
  6. If I am leaving anything unstated or overstating a case for rhetorical verve, am I capable of qualifying and defending the truth in a more fact oriented context?

Dialectic and Rhetoric in Listening and Reading

When reading and listening, the distinction is still important. For instance, you’ll want to know what the author is trying to convince to do, believe, or support. Once you know that you can more easily discover which facts might be intentionally left out and whether or not those facts contradict the key points of the speech or paper. Similarly, you’ll be able determine if the call to action is related to the facts presented.

Knowing whether somebody is using rhetoric to win a crowd or to create distance between the speaker and somebody else is also important. It can keep us from vilifying somebody who is simply “playing the game.” It can also help us to recognize when something is simply stated for rhetorical flourish rather than meant to be accepted as a fact.

In political rhetoric, the blur between persuasion and fact is taken advantage of, often to the detriment of voters.

Questions to ask when listening or reading:

  1. What is the author trying to say?
  2. What is the author/speaker trying to get me to do (buy something, do something, believe something, examine the claims and logic, etc)?
  3. Is the author likely to be accurate?
  4. Are the arguments valid?
  5. Are the facts true?
  6. Are the premises left out of the argument actually true?

The Distinction From Aristotle Himself

Now, as it is the function of Dialectic as a whole, or of one of its parts, to consider every kind of syllogism in a similar manner, it is clear that he who is most capable of examining the matter and forms of a syllogism will be in the highest degree a master of rhetorical argument, if to this he adds a knowledge of the subjects with which enthymemes deal and the differences between them and logical syllogisms. For, in fact, the true and that which resembles it come under the purview of the same faculty, and at the same time men have a sufficient natural capacity for the truth and indeed in most cases attain to it; wherefore one who divines well in regard to the truth will also be able to divine well in regard to probabilities.[1]

Nevertheless, Rhetoric is useful, because the true and the just are naturally superior to their opposites, so that, if decisions are improperly made, they must owe their defeat to their own advocates; which is reprehensible. Further, in dealing with certain persons, even if we possessed the most accurate scientific knowledge, we should not find it easy to persuade them by the employment of such knowledge. For scientific discourse is concerned with instruction, but in the case of such persons instruction is impossible; our proofs and arguments must rest on generally accepted principles, as we said in the Topics, when speaking of converse with the multitude. Further, the orator should be able to prove opposites, as in logical arguments; not that we should do both (for one ought not to persuade people to do what is wrong), but that the real state of the case may not escape us, and that we ourselves may be able to counteract false arguments, if another makes an unfair use of them. Rhetoric and Dialectic alone of all the arts prove opposites; for both are equally concerned with them. However, it is not the same with the subject matter, but, generally speaking, that which is true and better is naturally always easier to prove and more likely to persuade. Besides, it would be absurd if it were considered disgraceful not to be able to defend oneself with the help of the body, but not disgraceful as far as speech is concerned, whose use is more characteristic of man than that of the body. If it is argued that one who makes an unfair use of such faculty of speech may do a great deal of harm, this objection applies equally to all good things except virtue, and above all to those things which are most useful, such as strength, health, wealth, generalship; for as these, rightly used, may be of the greatest benefit, so, wrongly used, they may do an equal amount of harm  .[2]

References

[1] Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by J. H. Freese., ed. J. H. Freese, vol. 22 (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd., 1926), 1355a.

[2] Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by J. H. Freese., ed. J. H. Freese, vol. 22 (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd., 1926), 1355a–1355b.