“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” The_CravenI entered college as a freshman seven years after the end of World War II. There were many men on campus under the G.I. Bill. The unifying emphasis that pervaded all campus activities was: we can't let something like World War II happen again.
That emphasis was apparent in the role of the freshman composition course. It was conducted under the premise that you cannot deal competently with any intellectual activity if you do not have a grasp of what rhetoric is and what is good and bad rhetoric. My instructor was Dr. Traugott Richter, a rather stern and intimidating man. We spent much time on a section on propaganda and rhetorical fallacies to sharpen our critical knowledge of the relationship between logic and verbal competence. We had weekly papers to write which we turned in on Mondays. Toward the end of the week, Dr. Richter returned them, but he carried a stack of index cards on which he recorded writing errors he had encountered in our papers. He would give the cards to students and ask them to reproduce the offending writing on the black board, and he would lead us in an analysis and critical discussion of the errors. Students snickered and chortled at the logical fallacies and grammatical deficiencies, and it became a goal as we wrote our papers to not have an example from our papers put on the board. As the year progressed, the examples put on the board began to shift from examples of bad thinking and writing to examples of what was clear, logical, well supported, and well expressed.
That emphasis on composition established the foundation for discourse throughout the campus. My geology professor, who was internationally known, had majored in English as an undergraduate and graded our papers and examinations on the quality of writing as well as our command of geology. Twice a week, we were required to attend chapel, and the lectures were carefully written to illustrate careful and critical thought and expression. We discussed and debated ideas we had heard in chapel. In a social psychology course, the students were asked to write a report and analysis on advertising techniques they came across and identify those which used propaganda techniques or were based upon rhetorical fallacies. When we came across propaganda or fallacies during the course of our day, we often derided the attempts to dupe people. We felt insulted by advertisers or politicians who used such tactics. The place I went to college was typical in its approach to rhetoric and literary matters at that time.
A common observation among my contemporaries is that what passes for political rhetoric and discussion today would have been met with derision and contempt by people who claimed to be educated during our college days. Freshman composition was not a well-loved course in that time, because it was rigorous and one had to pass it to earn a college degree. A commonly used text book was Modern Rhetoric by Cleanth Brooks, a prominent literary critic, and Robert Penn Warren, a celebrated novelist. I still have my copy. I used it as a reference in my writing courses, but over time, students lost interest in rhetoric as intellectual transaction and emphasized self-expression as the primary function of writing courses. They often said that everyone has opinions and a right to express them and that they are equal the opinions of anybody else. They resisted the premise that, to be accepted as worthy, opinions had to be based upon verifiable fact processed by logical reasoning that had to withstand knowledgeable criticism. As evaluations, which included student opinion surveys on instruction, became the criteria on which instructors were to shape their courses and students were regarded as consumers who were always right, the study of rhetoric as a discipline was de-emphasized in favor of expressive communication which was more pleasing to student egos and fawning evaluators. In colleges, the rule of what was popular led to reducing the number of required courses in the literary and communicative arts.
The reduction and elimination of the language arts in our education has led to a time when Barbara Bush has commented on the sleazy nature of rhetoric in the current primary campaign, and commentators are wondering if the state of political discourse can go any lower. That raises the significance of Rush Limbaugh's recent attack on Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown U. Law School student who was not allowed to appear before the Republican-run hearing on the coverage of contraceptives as medical necessities. Limbaugh claimed that the testimony she offered to a Democratic-convened hearing was that she was having so much sex that she could not afford the contraceptives. That representation of her testimony was an outright lie. Her testimony centered on the used of contraceptives for medical therapies. Furthermore, Limbaugh's statement which leads to calling her a slut and a prostitute is a brazen libel which has no basis outside of Limbaugh's intention to smear her with a patent falsehood. What Limbaugh was doing to Ms. Fluke is what Joseph Goebbels did to the Jews: defamation that has not the remotest pretext to actuality. (Rachel Maddow took on the factual and logical stupidities of Limbaugh's comments.)
Limbaugh's alleged apology to Ms. Fluke is merely an exacerbation of the original libel. He tried hide behind the entertainer's role by saying he did not intend the attack to get personal. That is a further lie. His comments were very personal misrepresentations about what she actually said and about her character. He did not acknowledge that his representations were totally concocted out of his own bent for malice and were efforts to portray her in ways that would stimulate the hatred and anger of his audience. Ms. Fluke wisely dismissed this so-called apology, because Limbaugh did not acknowledge the falsehood he created, but tried to cover it under another falsehood.
Sixteen years ago, Al Franken published Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations which confronted the deteriorating state of political discourse in America. That expose of Limbaugh's intellectually and morally deficient performances did little to affect his popularity among those who hung on and repeated his every word as drooling disciples. His reign as the voice of conservatism indicates something that has happened in our education system. And the current attempts to improve it by making teachers scapegoats for deficiencies imposed on it by intellectually challenged school boards and regents will only insure that there is an illiterate audience that can be duped and manipulated by Limbaugh and others like him.
The stupifaction of America that permits the absurd libels of Limbaugh to pass as political discourse shows no signs of relenting, certainly not in South Dakota with the passage of HR 1234 which purports to improve education.