Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Prime Minister and the Writer: Polemic

Margaret Atwood, one of our primary course authors, a year or so ago released an essay into the fray of a partisan political exchange over the issue of handouts from the taxpayers to artists. In our Course, we separate ourselves from the partisan issue: our own personal opinion on either side is set apart, and our focus is solely on the rhetorical aspects.

The Prime Minister's remarks are online as reported here. Put dispassionately for our scholarly purposes, the two-part issue seems to be this:
  1. How large should the taxpayer's handout to artists be?
  2. What degree of oversight should taxpayers have over money that their governmental surrogates handout to artists?
To best appreciate Ms. Atwood's polemic, we need to see it in relation to the specific occasion to which it is a response. As it happens (again, happily for our present study), Atwood's own brilliant polemic is in response to another rhetorical strategy, in turn brilliant in its own right: specifically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's use of the rhetorical device that has recently been given a controversial formulation under the term "framing."

Now, the tension between governments who administer tax money and artists who receive it is, of course, perennial. An episode of the 1980s British television comedy Yes, Prime Minister," titled "The Patron of the Arts" deals wittily with just this. Here's a sample quotation, taken from the previous hotlink to the episode guide:
Prime Minister Jim Hacker: "So they insult me and then expect me to give them more money?" Sir Humphrey: "Yes, I must say it's a rather undignified posture. But it is what artists always do: crawling towards the government on their knees, shaking their fists." Jim Hacker: "Beating me over the head with their begging bowls." Bernard Woolley: "Oh, I am sorry to be pedantic, Prime Minister, but they can't beat you over the head if they're on their knees. Unless of course they've got very long arms."
The usual formulation in turn from the artists is that the government is (a.) uncultured, (b.) miserly, and, (c.) totalitarian. But in the present, Canadian, case, Mr. Harper has changed the formulation -- has, using the rhetorical concept, re-framed the partisan conflict -- to present the artists as (and here I will use Ms. Atwood's own sub-title to her polemical response) "....a bunch of rich people at galas whining about their grants." Mr. Harper, in other words, has made this an issue of social class: presenting himself on the side of what he calls "ordinary working people" against privileged urban elites.

Rhetoric -- use of language to persuade --is judged by the degree to which it accomplishes its purpose. And, to some degree, by this criterion, Mr. Harper's rhetoric has been extremely successful, judged by the effect that it has produced. Ms. Atwood's polemic being just one of the immediate, vigorous and intense reactions.

A news story on the matter is at this hotlink. Or, better, read Ms. Atwood's essay by clicking either the title of this post or this hotlink. As you read it, note how well she configures her polemic. For one, she appropriates Mr. Harper's position on the side of "ordinary Canadians" as her own: her polemic is effectively structured around a series of claims that "ordinary Canadians" are in fact artists themselves. This is a brilliant inverted use of the rhetorical device known as metastasis (to deny your opponent's charge and to turn it back instead against him or her.)

For another, Ms. Atwood's polemic deftly avoids addressing itself directly to what is the very fact at issue (and obviously Mr. Harper's strongest point)-- to wit, tax money for artists--and uses only oblique reference. In fact, with refinement of excellence, Ms. Atwood's polemic does mention tax money (thereby giving the appearance of engagement with the central matter) but in a different, and thereby deflecting, context. (Specifically, general transfer of federal taxes to Ms. Atwood's home province of Ontario.)

So, if you have the chance, read and appreciate Ms. Atwood's politically relevant, vigourous and extremely well-crafted example of the polemical essay.

[A humourous response to the exchange is online here.]