e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


quotations out of context?

One of my advanced writing classes this term is using Don Lazere's book, Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy, a very strong text for teaching argumentation, reading various media, and textual analysis in ways that aren't reductive. I especially appreciate Lazere's 'Ground Rules for Polemicists,' which includes this useful ditty:
Present...[a counter position] through its most reputable spokespeople and strongest formulations.
A challenging ground rule, to be sure, and one I was thinking about as I listened to reports about the Bill O'Reilly dust-up. After his (no doubt surreal) dinner with Al Sharpton (think of Nixon and Elvis talking drug policy, Eazy-E fundraising for the GOP), O'Reilly said that "even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship...there wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-F-er, I want more iced tea'." Now, even my quick quotation of O'Reilly is probably a violation of the aforementioned ground rule. I'm foregrounding--though, by no means, inventing--the outlandishness, instead of the "strongest formulation" of O'Reilly's statements.

Maybe reports of the dust-up are doing the same thing. Certainly, this story has the kind of flash that gets ratings. Mainstream news love this stuff. And, of course, O'Reilly does too. He puts his name in heavy circulation. Pundits who point out the statement's racism get themselves into circulation.

Who knows for sure anybody's true intentions here? Did O'Reilly cook this up for attention? Did his critics step forward quickly because they genuinely wish to critique racism, or to get a slice of the buzz, or both? Who knows? But now the circulation begins. The buzz, the hype, a conversation on race that says nothing new.

By nothing new, I mean to say that the discussion offers a whole lot of tired ideas. Starting with O'Reilly himself, who expresses--or, if you prefer, feigns--surprise over the civility at the restaurant. Really? That old nugget? Not that I expect much originality in racist discourse, but I can't think of a bigger cliche. Chris Rock has a very funny routine from the 90s when so many were pointing out Colin Powell is articulate. "What the f___ do you expect? He's an educated man." Rock could do a similar routine about O'Reilly, a routine that hopefully would pick up on not only the statement's racism but also on the absurdity of expecting restaurant owners and/or customers to mirror personas from pop music.

And since he's a skilled comic Rock would bring the funny. And since he's a smart comic he would also be at once drawing attention to O'Reilly's ignorance and the familiarity of the critiques. And most of the critical responses to O'Reilly sounded like a "routine." Because they are routine.

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