February 01, 2007

The Bully Pulpit

The always excellent local CATHOLIC GROUP BLOG (hint, hint) Our Word and Welcome to It has had an interesting series recently on Lefty Snark and the Art of Cruelty.

The term "bully pulpit" was coined by our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. I've done some reading about T.R. in the last couple of years and I may have changed my mind about his face being on Mount Rushmore.

First, A LOT of people erroneously believe that the term "bully pulpit" means bullying, forcing, terrorizing, harrassing someone into going along with your opinion, with doing what YOU want. T.R. may have said "speak softly but carry a big stick" but he was not a bully.

Second, The term "bully pulpit", as used by T.R., meant using his Presidential office as a platform for "selling" his agenda.

Back in T.R.'s Presidency that was a radical notion. Prior to T.R., most Presidents allowed Congress and/or their Political Party to dictate to them what should be done. T.R. was not a man to passively sit back and be told what should be done. He had ideas and he wanted them heard by the public. He wanted the public to like his ideas and encourage their Representatives to enact them. His speeches (you can hear, see and read some of them at the Library of Congress or Harvard College and online) are masterfully persuasive.

Today, I think you see more people buying the first, mistaken, definition of "bully pulpit" then the second.

You see the "bully pulpit" a lot in the blogosphere. Even, I'm sorry to say, in the Catholic blogsphere. Some days I read the blogs in my sidebar and I think the commenters (and sometimes the blog owner) have forgotten that they are Christians.

I read Father Zuhlsdorf's excellent blog What Does the Prayer Really Say? on a daily basis. I have absolutely no doubt Father Zuhlsdorf is a learned man. However, I watched with dismay the other day, as his commenters used his post about Fr. Reginald Foster stating his opinion that the motu proprio releasing the Tridentine Mass is not going to happen, by attacking Fr. Foster's credibility and even his apparal. Long lost in all the "learned discussion" that veered way off topic was the main point of the post, which was to inform his readers of Fr.Foster's OPINION and to give opinion to a question Father Zuhlsdorf posed. Fr. Zuhlsdorf tried a few times to regain control but the sharks had a hold of the body and they were not letting go.

We are witnessing the death throes of debate.

Schools of "debate" in our time:

The pinch them are they still alive? debate:

Televised political "debates" really are not worthy to be called debates. They are so tightly controlled, moderated, scripted, overly made-up and boring that I can't blame anyone for not caring enough to actually watch it.

Same with our political conventions; Why bother getting involved when you know before the first long-winded speaker takes the floor who the nominee is going to be?

It was not always like this. Up until 35 years ago, you NEVER knew what was going to happen at the modern political conventions or who was going to emerge the nominee.

The hurling chair debate:

Turn on broadcast T.V. in the afternoon or late night and you will see the tabloid shows with the audience screaming at the people on the stage. Everyone is talking over each other. The topics are salacious. You turn it off and feel like you should be taking a shower. But, after a while you get used to it. It gives you a nice feeling of superiority.

The chatty-catty debate:

The View. The loudest trash-talking mouth of the collective din has the last word. I see this and I fear for my sex.

The reality TV debate:

Manipulated reality. Yet, it's the topic of much of the watercooler debate in my office. How about yours? Much of reality T.V. involves ridiculing or embarassing someone. You can't get people to give a hoot about who their City Council candidate is, but they can recite all the remaining contestants on Survivor and talk the "politics" of why they will or will not win.

The dirty laundry debate:

Plant a seed during the debate about your opponents personal life not being all that "free of sin". It does not have to be verifiable. You see this in the anonymous, "accidentally leaked" memos, "person who does not want to go on the record", sources of today. If all else fails, plant someone in the audience and get them to ask the question for you.

The bluster debate:

When you have absolutely no idea of what you are talking about and no answers be sure to bluff your way out of it by making a joke at your opponents expense. Comments about their lack of personal style are de rigour.

It seems as though most people either did not have any kind schooling in the fine arts of debate and persuasive rhetoric, or they did, but they find it easier to get along "on the outside" by acting like they did not. When all you see as popular examples of debate is the bullying negativity that I have outlined, is it any wonder that most people think THAT IS debate?

Plato and Socrates = boring ancient history. Lincoln-Douglas; who cares? Shilpa versus Jade? Now you're talking.

It's possible to find reasoned debate, but it's not popular and it's not EVERYWHERE like the types of debate I outlined above. How much of the general public watch The McLaughlin Group? Is it because it's too hard, too boring, too irrelevent, all of the above? How relevant is The Amazing Race? In 100 years, are we still going to be discussing today's episode of Maury Povich? Or, the opinions of our local commentators on the KQRS-FM Morning Show?

I said this in one of the comboxes of Our Word and Welcome to It and I'd like to repeat it here: "I fear we have a culture of really stupid people hiding their ignorance behind belligerance. Certainly, when I was a kid, the class bully was usually the dumbest person in the room."


Blogger Geometricus said...

Good post, Cathy. I think I may reflect on this topic in my blog.

My only criticism is that you fell into one of my pet peeves, using the word "gender" when you mean "sex".

I always say: Words have gender--masculine, feminine or neuter, but gender for people was invented by Kinsey and other malcontents who are not happy that God made them either a man or a woman, and not something "in between."

I don't really think you agree with Kinsey and his ilk, but perhaps you are part of the many who now use the word "gender" to refer to people because they want to avoid saying the "s" word due to its other connotations. I'm sorry, but even if others have misused the "s" word, there is no other word!!!

February 01, 2007 5:13 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

geometricus: Ha-ha! I would generally use the word: sex. However, at my job we use the word: gender. I must have had work on my mind. I finished up the post at lunch in the office so that's probably why.

I will make the change.

I look forward to anything you may add on your blog!

February 01, 2007 6:28 PM  
Blogger Our Word said...


Terrific post! I really like the direction you've taken. There is very little "debate" out there, not when people are more interested in impressing themselves and scoring points with their own cheering section than they are in true debate. That blank canvas works again!


February 01, 2007 8:55 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Thanks, Mitchell

February 02, 2007 4:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you've described has even come into arbitration hearings and courtrooms...or perhaps that's where it began.

"The bluster debate" is more commonly referred to in pop parlance as "The Chewbacca Defense".

I represented my company at a binding arbitration. We had the facts, we had the hard evidence, and we had the expert testimony. But the opposing attorney made a wound-up emotional appeal on the basis that his client was a "tax payer" - and he won.

His defense had NOTHING to do with the situation at hand. The reality was that he had no defense...so he didn't use one.

And that's such a reflection of our society in general that it's simply sickening. "If I whine and cry and hurl things, then you must give in to me and concede that I'm right."

And it works every time. Almost.

Except upon those of us who are not fooled for we recognize it for what it is; a bullying, childish tantrum in a verbal sphere.

~ Adoro

February 02, 2007 7:36 AM  
Blogger Ray from MN said...

Excellent post, Cathy! This deserves to be spread far and wide.

The first perversion of the "debate" that I can recall is the first televised Kennedy Nixon debate in 1960.

While I have never seen nor participated in a real debate, I have read enough about them to realize that neither Kennedy nor Nixon participated in a debate. No matter what the other person said, they already had their speeches prepared (this was before the use of the phrase "sound bite") and they stuck to the prepared line.

For some reason, not really having heard the opponent. It reminded me of a college bull session where I would be so busy preparing my "infinite bits of wisdom" that I never heard what the other guys were saying. I had this proved when I once listened to a tape recording of a bull session. All of us listening were shocked at how little we remembered of what other people were saying.

While I read reports of subsequent presidential "debates", I have never watched another.

That first presidential debate also reminds me of a humerous anecdote about former President Charles DeGualle of France, who in his heart, thought of himself as a king or emperor, and would brook no nonsense from underlings or reporters.

At one of his rare press conferences, where questions had to be submitted in writing, all the reporters plotted ahead of time to write the same question: "Will you be running for another term as President?"

DeGaulle slowly riffed through the questions silently and then proceeded to give his thoughts on the next year's budget with no reference at all to the questions.

February 02, 2007 8:43 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Adoro: I forgot about the Chewbacca Defense! I think you blogged about that at one time.

Ray: I did not know that about DeGaulle. I almost made mention of the Kennedy-Nixon debate but I was not sure how to tie it in. Maybe I should have had a school of visual appearance debate or something on how visual we all are now. People watching Kennedy-Nixon on TV clearly thought Kennedy won because he looked better. But, people listening on the radio clearly thought Nixon won because he sounded better.

February 02, 2007 11:19 AM  

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