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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hey, putz, choose your weapon.

Cory Allen Heidelberger of Madville Times has been posting on blogging as a long tradition of discourse in America. He cites the book The Rise of the Blogosphere by Aaron Barlow who sees blogging in the tradition of journalism before it became a profession. Barlow lists The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton as examples of blogs and bloggers in their time. Alexander Hamilton, in fact, got killed for his “blogging.” His attack on the character of Aaron Burr became a matter of such rancor that it resulted in a duel, which, of course, Hamilton lost.

The Hamilton-Burr duel provided some of the motivation for the “professionalizing” of the press. Just as James Madison in The Tenth Federalist Paper saw the representative government of a republic as a way to moderate the passions and rancor of factions in a democracy, early journalists saw a need to moderate and refine what was published in the media of the time. The passions of people who were attacked became so inflamed that they thought the accusations made against them needed some final resolution by resulting in the death of one of the combatants.

Abraham Lincoln’s only involvement in a duel, which was aborted at the last minute at the urging of friends of the combatants, was the result of something he wrote about Illinois State Auditor James Shields. Lincoln and wife Mary were the authors of some fictitious letters published in a Springfield newspaper making fun of Shields, in one of which Lincoln called Shields “a conceity dunce” and “a liar as well as a fool.”

The early days of the republic were also very litigious. Many people thought the courts rather than duels were the way to deal with accusations and characterizations published about them. The courts were clogged with cases, and through case law gradually developed legal definitions of libel that provided quick resolutions to the cases. They defined types of libel which presumed damage on their face and types which damaged by implication. But all that has changed. People who find themselves victims of libel today have little chance of resolving their grievances in the courts. We might need to revive dueling as a means of redressing grievances against libel and prove to ourselves once again the efficacy of using words with skill and responsibility.

Journalism of the early nineteenth century started the development of reporting and editing as a professional activity which avoided those aspects of public discourse which inflamed the passions rather than informed the reason.

Those of us who take a literary approach to verbal communications have been talking much of what literary traditions inform blog writing and what genres they entail. The Internet is a medium to which writers bring many traditions. Some are literate. Some ain’t. Many bloggers draw on the tradition of the personal essay, which is not taught very often as a literary mode of expression. Some work in the tradition of argument-advancing rhetoric, which utilizes the literary standards of argumentation. And many draw from the Hugo Chavez school of discourse in which the kind of false accusations, insults, personal abuse, and malicious deception form the larger part of their expressive efforts.

Early commentators of the American tradition were largely self taught, but they learned the efficacy of developing editorial judgment or consulting with editors to check the effect of their writing. Thomas Paine stands out for the impact his pamphlets had on the American revolution. Most of Thomas Jefferson’s writing was in `18,000 letters. Ben Franklin developed journalistic pieces into major works of cultural criticism and political satire. That’s why he became known in Britain as the most dangerous man in America. Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is in his speeches, which incorporate a number of the literary features that distinguish the English language tradition. But most of American literary effort from the early theater, to the sermon and lecture, to journalism, and to culturally self-conscious literature is composed of works that have a high rhetorical purpose. And its participants were extensively read in the theory and practice of rhetoric and the literary merits of effective writing.

Our nation reached a point when the literate population understood that anger, malice, falsehoods, scurrility, and defamation are destructive and dangerous. They are counter-productive to democracy. It has reached the point again in this electronic age when those qualities form an unabashed part of what passes for discourse and often predominate. A significant sector of the public likes to see people humiliate each other, debase themselves, and otherwise participate in the degradation of humankind. We have developed a media to serve that audience.

Aaron Barlow discusses the protocols and operating rules of rhetoric on his blog.

The decline of the teaching of English and of rhetoric as a literary enterprise is a factor in the new illiteracy. While there is much anguish and wailing over the status of math and science in American education, few people except teachers of English note the decline in the teaching of the language arts and their literary components. The art of nonfiction has largely been dropped from the teaching of literature, which is devoted to fiction, poetry, and drama. And the number of all literature courses in general education requirements has been cut significantly. In my last years of teaching, I taught courses in the theory and practice of rhetoric, but spent a good deal of time covering material which was once taught in freshmen composition courses. Most people now think that the teaching of English is a matter of how to avoid sentence-level errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Now that writers are looking at the literary traditions that are involved in blogging, maybe we don’t have to whet our rapiers or tune up our dueling pistols. But then, again, some blogs were invented as vehicles of defamation, scurrility, and hatred. In any case, it might be time to look at another aspect of our education that has fallen to neglect.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States