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Politics & Petunias
Every now and then, I catch my more senior colleagues casting longing glances back to the public life of the Sixties, which, for all its asperities, exhibited more vibrancy than contemporary rhetorical culture. Several years ago, I began teaching at a small Midwestern liberal arts college, and I recall vividly when one of my new colleagues showed me, with no little chagrin, a program of student papers for an annual academic fair on our campus. Despite our school's legacy of neo-Calvinist transformationalism, which in the late Sixties was almost indistinguishable from a neo-Marxist social critique, most of these essays in the program represented politically conservative commitments. On another occasion, I heard a peer confess feeling disoriented upon seeing student residences dotted with Bush/Cheney signs on a campus that witnessed, thirty years back, Nixon burned in effigy.
When I ask students why they do protest so little, they reassure me that they write a lot of e-mail. Oh, and they cultivate blog presence, too. But it's hard to be impressed with point-and-click activism. Thirty years ago, in protest of an administrative decision to scuttle the college's adherence to a particular brand of neo-Calvinist thought, students from our school joined professors for a sit-in. When I told my students this story, one asked, "What's a sit-in?"
I sound nostalgic and more than a little censorious. But I'm not trying to resuscitate protest rhetoric. A picket line in our cafeteria today would be as odd as those red-faced street preachers who used to point their bibles at our windshields. I am curious, though, about what this change means.
One place to start looking for an answer is a series of Notre Dame lectures by the late Wayne Booth, published in 1974 as Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent.1 Booth's death this past October prompts a reexamination of his depiction of the rhetorical culture of the Sixties and his intuition that student rhetoric anticipates the discourse of the ...