I want to preface this post by telling anyone reading something I tell my students: My job isn’t to espouse a particular set of political views, it’s to teach you how to effectively express yours and evaluate those of others. I am a rhetorician; I construct and deconstruct argumentation. My job is to parse how other people use language to emotionally manipulate you.
From Doc Hammer:
I've got one for you here, from the Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2022/05/nancy-pelosi-democrats-climate-change-bill/629822/ "Heat waves hot enough to cook human flesh are already happening this month; they will become more common over the coming decades, striking multiple times a year." I am pretty sure the author can't mean that literally, since even if you are looking at "Pittsburgh blue" you aren't cooking flesh. The author, Robinson Meyer, maybe is just going for crazy hyperbole, but he is writing in the Atlantic, not his personal blog. Editors probably signed off on this, right?
The Doc’s instincts are correct. When you see a journo depart from verifiable fact, sit up and take a sip of coffee, because the presence of hyperbole serves as a big flashing neon sign that you’ve identified a structural weak point in their argument. You can then place the Chisel of Rhetoric on that structural weak point and give it a good whack with a mallet to fracture the argument into its constituent parts and examine them independent of one another.
I prefer comments sections for this kind of illustration, because it’s easier to learn method by taking apart the work of amateurs; professional journalists, in theory, have tighter arguments. I say “in theory” because there are always exceptions, and The Atlantic is a pretty soft target due to the fact that if you’re a subscriber you’re virtually guaranteed to be sympathetic to its politics and thus inclined to overlook glaring structural, mechanical, and even factual errors. The other reason is that articles, especially articles that relate to scientific concepts, are much longer than comments and contain research that is often more difficult to refute by virtue of both its specialization and its complexity. Climate change (the topic of this article) in particular is a pain in the ass to refute because it’s interdisciplinary and there are so many moving parts. In addition, it’s not entirely wrong as a concept, so you have to have a certain amount of empirical knowledge to separate the hysterical shrieking from the useful information.
However, to paraphrase Marshall Mathers III, anything for the Doc, who was kind enough to direct eyeballs at this blog. Let’s get to it, shall we?
MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—On Monday night, I saw one of the most despair-inducing performances about the hope of climate action that I’ve witnessed in years.
Right there is the first emotional hook, the word “despair,” and immediately below it the word “hope” linked with the phrase “climate action.” A combination of hyperbolic language and neurolinguistic programming (implicitly associating the words “hope” and “climate change” by their proximity is an NLP technique) works better than you’d think on a subconscious level if you’re already sympathetic to the author.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, took the stage here at the Aspen Ideas: Climate festival to discuss what congressional Democrats are doing on climate change. Her remarks were more effective as a litany of missed opportunities. Susan Goldberg, recently the editor in chief of National Geographic, now a dean at Arizona State University, asked the speaker point-blank whether Democrats were going to pass climate legislation, and Pelosi all but shrugged. The House has already passed a roughly $2 trillion bill containing President Joe Biden’s climate priorities, she said. Now it was in the Senate’s hands. If it happened to get a bill back to her, the House would pass it.
There are a number of attack vectors in this paragraph you can use to begin to decipher the actual argument being made. First of all, always start with people. You may not know the subject matter, but if you start with people, you don’t have to. Human nature can be relied on.
The incomparably corrupt Nancy Pelosi. More on her in a minute.
Susan Goldberg. I got that link by throwing “susan goldberg national geographic controversy” into a search engine. If someone is on stage with a criminal like Nancy Pelosi, it is very nearly a sure thing that they have a closet full of skeletons, and in this day and age, someone will have posted the receipts. Susan is evidently ashamed of “her race, class, and ignorance.” I’d say that makes her inherently unqualified to hold a position of leadership—if you think your race makes you bad, you’re a racial essentialist, and my view is that people who make unprompted public confessions about their own perceived personal shortcomings at work need psychiatric help. That goes double if one of the shortcomings you’re confessing to is racism, which is in many contexts grounds for being fired on its own. (What I find more interesting is that Meyer presents her here as Pelosi’s conscience, but she’s a minor detail in the story.)
Aspen Ideas is, of course, a product of The Aspen Institute, a liberal think tank whose greatest hits include keeping $8 million in COVID relief funds intended for small businesses despite its $115M endowment and board full of billionaires and a “Commission on Information Disorder” that advocated for censoring conservatives. The Commission’s advisor Yoel Roth was the Head of Site Security for Twitter that blocked the NYT story about the Hunter Biden laptop from the site. Robinson Meyer’s own profile on the Aspen Ideas website is short but laudatory. (One would think a journalist would have misgivings about cozying up to censors.) More on the connection between Meyer and Aspen in a minute.
Missing was any sense that this legislation is a make-or-break moment for the broader Democratic caucus. Gone was any suggestion that if Democrats fail to pass a bill this term, then America’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement will be out of reach, and worse heat waves, larger wildfires, and damaging famines across the country and around the world within the next decade and a half will be all but assured.
More hyperbole. If I were going to make sweeping claims intended to panic my readers using emotional language relating to natural disasters, I’d make damn sure I had the receipts to back them up linked, but that’s me.
Pelosi did not seem to understand, really, why Congress needed to pass a climate law this session. (She seemed to blame the fossil-fuel industry for the current Congress’s inaction.) She repeatedly justified climate action by saying it was “for the children.” This became the rhetorical leitmotif of her remarks—Congress had to act “for the children.” Explaining why she wanted more women in Congress, she said that they had to learn to “throw a punch—for the children.” That line was how she closed.
While I appreciate the characterization of Nancy Pelosi as demented and doddering for its humor value, it’s a red herring. More on that in a minute.
Aside from the Helen Lovejoy–esque nature of this appeal, it is factually wrong. Climate action was “for the children” in the 1990s. “We’re not doing this for the children,” Kate Larsen, an energy analyst at the Rhodium Group, told me after the event. “We’re doing this for us!” Heat waves hot enough to cook human flesh are already happening this month; they will become more common over the coming decades, striking multiple times a year. Unbearable droughts, sea-level rise so high as to break levees, and unpredictable famines will characterize life. Most of the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will undergo bleaching every few years, meaning the water will be so hot that the coral will eject their symbiotic microorganisms into the water, starving themselves in the process.
This is the relevant paragraph—everything after it is mostly not very important.
The first link in the above paragraph is a clip from The Simpsons. This is an emotional hook calculated to get you on Meyer’s side, because we all have a soft spot for The Simpsons.
While the text that contains the second link is about the rising sea level breaking levees, the topic of the linked article is the need to transition to electric vehicles. Andrea Cunningham is a member of the Aspen Institute's Board of Trustees. She is also on the board of Motiv Power Systems, which manufactures chassis for medium-duty commercial electric vehicles. Robinson Meyer has a speaker profile on Aspen Ideas. I’m not sure whether a speaking gig means the speaker gets an honorarium from Aspen, but Meyer speaks there, and then writes an article praising the ideas espoused there, and the end result is that Andrea Cunningham gets her business building electric cars puffed “organically.”
The third link is a Trump-era NYT article. Linking a Trump-era NYT article tells Meyer's backers that he is appropriately politically orthodox. I’m sure he really does loathe Trump on a personal level, so it’d be hard to call this dishonest.
The fourth link seems pretty blameless in terms of potential undisclosed conflicts of interest, and I doubt Meyer would be writing articles about climate change if he didn’t genuinely believe in preserving the natural beauty of the planet.
To sum up, I would be interested to know whether Robinson Meyer wrote this article in part because he was compensated for doing so by a major producer of electric vehicle components. Regardless of the answer, I am sure his motivation includes the fact he probably really likes snorkeling. I’m going to proceed with skepticism when I read anything he writes, and I’m going to continue to ignore The Atlantic unless someone I trust links to an article in it to backstop an argument of their own.
Now. How did I do that?
The first thing I did was I looked for tells.
Hyperbole is the particular linguistic tell that Doc pointed out that got this ball rolling, and it appears throughout this article. People don’t use hyperbole when describing events to people who don’t trust them, don’t like them, and generally regard them with skepticism (which should always be your emotional baseline when dealing with journalists with whom you’re unfamiliar). What would be the point of attempting to use figurative language to inflame the emotions of someone who thinks you’re a dishonest asshole with ulterior motives to begin with? As such, we know Meyer is writing to an audience he presumes to be ideologically sympathetic and uncritical.
As I noted above, the criticism of Pelosi is a red herring. The tell is that Meyer took a shot at her infirmity and apparent dementia rather than her flagrant corruption. He’s conceding that she’s bad, but implying that it isn’t her fault because she’s a fossil. Mild criticism of someone as being old and mentally not all there when they were raked over the coals for insane levels of political corruption in the press not four months before the article’s publication is wagging your finger at someone who ought to be in prison. He’s excusing her corruption by implying she’s losing her crackers. Look for the reasons someone is being praised or excoriated, not just for the approval or disapproval expressed. Again, this tells you what Meyer’s actual political leanings are, or at least who he wants to approve of him.
The blame for the climate issues the article discusses is vague and dispersed, mostly centering in some indirect way on Joe Manchin. Journalists acting in the public interest delight in nailing villains—individual humans with names and faces and phone numbers—to the wall. What motivates them is a combination of genuine moral outrage and gleeful, mean-spirited bloody-mindedness. The fact that this article does not a have a clear villain is the most major tell of all, and what it tells you is that it ain’t journalism. What is it? Journalists who aren’t doing journalism do mostly advertising, press releases, and speechwriting. Process of elimination tells me it’s either advertising or a press release.
The first thing I do when I read a journo who has written a story with no clear villain (again, an advertisement or a press release presented as news) is look them up to see if they have a Wikipedia bio. This isn’t because I care about their cultural significance, it’s because I want to see if they have one at all. Journos with Wikipedia bios are either rich or newsworthy themselves or both. I’m interested in their income, because I want to know who’s paying their bills, because that tells me the direction in which I need to compensate to determine what they’re lying about. Meyer doesn’t have one, which means he almost certainly isn’t rich or newsworthy himself.
I googled ticket prices to Aspen Ideas and found they start at $2,200. The average annual income of a journalist, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is about $48K. CNN anchors make millions, but the bulk of the top 10% of earners in his field make about $120K, so it seems unlikely that Meyer paid for a ticket. In fact, as I noted above, he has a speaker profile on the Aspen Ideas website. The modern grift for journalists is that they get their real compensation indirectly, in this case (I assume) in the form of a speaking fee from Aspen. In return they write articles that present the interests of people like Aspen board members as being in line with the public interest. (Malcolm Gladwell, who pioneered it, is the undisputed heavyweight champion of this technique, having written the best-selling book The Tipping Point in order to make cigarettes more popular at the behest of Philip Morris, which had funded his propaganda training.)
While I still don't know for certain (and probably never will) that the article is being funded by Aspen, I go through the links until I find something related to somebody making a lot of money anyway. The means by which they intend to make this money are to make electric cars. At present, fossil fuels provide 82% of the world’s energy. In order to make electric cars predominate, this person has to both incentivize demand for “clean energy” and demonize fossil fuels. They do so by paying for articles like this one, which reads like a press release for Aspen and an advertisement for electric vehicles. I’m mildly curious as to which oligarch would have an interest in sponsoring such an article and is associated with the Aspen Institute, so I throw “aspen institute board trustee electric vehicle” into a search engine and get Andrea Cunningham.
At this point, I can determine whether I care about the rest of the article at my leisure. I am not panicked, upset, or irritated by the language in it, because the emotional content of the language, far from having the desired effect, is telling me things that the person writing the article does not intend me to know.
That is how you use the tools of Rhetoric to read the news.
I’m just reeling from that Malcolm Gladwell stuff, which I had no idea about.
That, good sir, was bloody wonderful! Whatever my expectations were, you have exceeded them. Very well done! The pacing, content and process were all enjoyable and interesting.
I also love "Chisel of Rhetoric". I am now mentally designing a physical representation thereof, possibly with "Occam's Razor" built in.
I see now that I misunderstood what you meant about a comments section. I thought you wanted articles with a comments section to reference how people respond to the claims, but I understand now it was more "Amateurs make more obvious crazy claims without backup but based on how they sound". I will keep an eye on comment sections more closely to find grist for this mill that grinds crazy into beautiful instruction!