The Rhetoric of the Big Lie

I have an Uncle who, to be polite, I consider an accurate barometer of ‘Big Lie’ conservative politics. If the right wing radio demagogues start a ‘Big Lie’ strategy, you can be sure my Uncle will soon repeat it. At one level, I want to believe that this is less a reflection of his honesty and more a reflection of the less than serious nature of his political thinking. It’s not really political rhetoric at all.

He’s not really trying to lie, in other words, he’s just treating politics as a kind of professional sport, and he’s talking trash about the opposition. It’s “sports rhetoric.” I have to say, though, that if it is true that he treats political rhetoric as a species of sports rhetoric, I find that just as disturbing as the idea that he might be concisely spreading lies. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.

As a teacher, too, I am disturbed by the way that this sports rhetoric seems to preclude any research, much less simple veracity. If one of the radio demagogues says something, my Uncle simply repeats it; fact checking seems beside the point. In the last few weeks, for example, the right has claimed, without any evidence, that the protesters in Madison are “outsiders.”

The logic of this idea is very thin. What organization, of any sort, could compel tens of thousands of people to go to Madison Wisconsin? You can get people to march on Washington in great numbers, at least sometimes, and you might get a few thousand to travel to help with a primary election, but could you get tens of thousands to travel to Wisconsin to protect workers’ rights?

It seems unlikely at best. What’s so bizarre about this sports rhetoric– trash talk that makes no claims to literal truth– is that it is the same obviously absurd claims made by authoritarian regimes in recent weeks. First the Egyptian government, and now the Iranian government, blamed protests on “outsiders.” Clearly, in this rhetoric truth is beside the point. Is it “soccer rhetoric”?

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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