Shining Heroes and Dastardly Villains

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

Can you stand one more wonk on argumentum ad populum? That’s the spirit. After this one I will put my hobby horse in the stable and bar the door.

What interests me especially about ad populum is that there is no one strategy to associate it with, as for example with ad vericundiam, where you try to impress the audience with so-called expert testimony, or ad ignorantiam, where you hold that a proposition is true—Obama was born in Kenya—because no one has proven it false to your satisfaction. Ad populum aims to get the crowd up in arms and one can do this with ad hominem attacks on the bad guys or perhaps ad misericordiam appeals to pity (Antony used both against Brutus: see “Power to the People”). Then there is something else which perhaps really is specific to ad populum. I mean invoking the sacred cows, the icons, the cultural hot buttons. God, country, simple virtues, a simpler time, nostalgia of all stripes, motherhood, childhood, etc., etc. And I wanted to visit the topic just once more because I have a gangbuster of an example. Paul Greenberg is a conservative columnist who, in October of 2003, published a column that the Albuquerque Journal entitled “Filling Bald Knob Graves; Empty Talk at U.N.” Greenberg is wicked good.

As the title implies, the column is built on a simple antithesis: a military funeral in a small town in rural Arkansas versus the feckless deliberations at the United Nations. Death, of course, is a signal for ad misericordiam and when the deceased is young and valiant, that ups the ante considerably. In this case it is Master Sergeant Kevin Morehead, “two days shy of his 34th birthday” when he was killed west of Baghdad. But I need to quote the lead paragraph in its entirety.

A steady gray drizzle fell as hundreds of mourners gathered at Bald Knob, Ark., for the hilltop funeral. The coffin, carried by seven soldiers from the Fifth Special Forces in their green berets, was draped with an American flag. Three rifle volleys were fired in a final salute, the sound punctuating the mournful echo of the bagpipes. The service was solemn and dignified. And proud. As befits a soldier.

Nature often does conspire in these things. I’ll believe it really was drizzling, and that the cemetery was on a hilltop (see Our Town). But note, too, the mention of the flag and bagpipes, and the choked up brevitas at the end. Please understand (need I even say this?) that I am not belittling the occasion itself or Sgt. Morehead’s sacrifice. But the effect is all in what you say and how you say it. We learn later that Sgt. Morehead was being buried “next to his grandfather, with whom he had hunted in these hills. They’d tramped the roads and explored the woods together.” That’s a picture right out of Norman Rockwell, and if you don’t get a lump in your throat or at least a wry, sad smile, well, there’s little hope for you as a human being. Then Greenberg socks you with more achingly sad brevitas: “Now they were united again. Forever.”

Now the scene changes to “two days later and a thousand miles away,” but it is actually “a world away in spirit” where we find the United Nations representatives mumbling away inanely in “that great faceless slab overlooking the East River.” Great faceless slab. It manages to evoke both soullessness and Sgt. Morehead’s tombstone. A twofer. And the U.N. has been one of our favorite cultural whipping boys ever since its founding: Greenberg has half of his argumentum made even before he puts fingers to keyboard. Note the other cultural buttons here: rural America, where true virtue has always been found, and the Big City, cesspit of vices and, in this case, of effete sophisticates. And Greenberg is just hitting his stride.

The U.N. building is only blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center where “[t]hree thousand innocent victims [perished] in smoke and fire.” Kofi Annan (the “SEC-GEN”—shades of R2D2) in particular seems immune to that, just as he always “remains calm and remote from whatever massacre he is presiding over at the time.” Annan, “who never looked more distinguished” (cf. “For Brutus is an honorable man”) drones on, oblivious. Then a bit of meosis, belittling. He could have made points with ironic auxesis—“this august body,” say—but instead refers to the U.N. as “the outfit,” to punch up a nice erotesis: “This is the outfit that’s going to protect the peace of the world?”

Then back to Bald Knob to make his final points. He invokes Tom Paine’s stirring words about summer soldiers and sunshine patriots (and Lord knows that Sgt. Morehead was not some craven sunshine patriot, so where do WE stand?). Remember that the invasion of Iraq was…well, to call it controversial would be gross understatement. So in his peroration Greenberg calls simply for “constancy of purpose. With it freedom will prevail. Without it, nothing will avail.” (Watch the rhyme, Paul; it’s a bit much. Love the pithy balance, though.)

I told you he was wicked good. Ad populum is alive and well.

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