The Ethics of Rhetoric

We live in a historic moment which makes it plain that the negative power of speech can be translated directly into negative actions. (The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and the Brookline, Massachusetts, abortion clinic shootings stand out.) What we say can lead people to act in ways that are sometimes harmful to others. While we cannot be held directly responsible for these actions, we do have a responsibility to self-monitor and self-govern our speech, always keeping in mind the potential implications of our speech-acts.

"Responsible speech," while still the predominant form of speech, is quickly losing ground to another form. Today a new wave of conservative books and articles, taking aim at what the authors of these works term the "liberal agenda," is increasingly challenging "responsible speech" for predominance.

Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism is the latest installment in this conservative media campaign using a rhetorical form of speech. In a very tense racial environment, D'Souza claims: "If all welfare recipients were white, most liberals would probably support legal measures that make benefits contingent upon responsible behavior. But since a disproportionate number of welfare mothers are black, many liberals are ideologically compelled to resist any serious proposals that link benefits to work or responsibility."

This comment crosses the line of responsible speech. More than the fact that it is irresponsible, it is misleading. The African-American and liberal communities are not closely tied, as D'Souza leads his readers to think. The African-American and liberal communities share a functional union, not an ideological one. D'Souza misses the dynamic, sometimes confrontational, relationship of these communities. Factoring out agreements on racial and economic justice, the two communities share few other beliefs. The depth of "cultural conservatism" in the African-American community, which separates it ideologically from the liberal community, is completely overlooked by D'Souza.

This oversight distorts D'Souza's analysis and leaves room for statements such as, "The charge of racism becomes a kind of incantation intended to ward off the demons of black inferiority." In the African-American community, racism is akin to existence in that as long as you are, it is.

Dinesh D'Souza is one of a new cadre of public policy analysts, political leaders, and political pundits who, with aggressive tactics, are attempting to strike a death blow to the Left. Populating this cadre are D'Souza, Charles Murray (The Bell Curve and Losing Ground), and Newt Gingrich (To Renew America ). These "Third Wave Conservatives" fight hard, think big, and cover their policy and program goals in academic drag.

The present political and social landscape is attended by a rise in a type of right-wing conservatism that is mean-spirited and aggressive coterminous with an increasingly anemic Left that appears morally hollow, mainly because it has given over serious discussions of faith, morality, and values to the former in the name of religious tolerance and diversity. Moreover, the extant Left evidences that the ideological resin that connects the "old" Left to the "new" Left is confusion. In the African-American community, unfortunately, the report is just as sad.

The institutional apparatus that produced the dream of Martin King and the prophetic rage of Malcolm X-the black church-appears to be asleep at the wheel and silent while the African-American community self-destructs. No where is this fact more pronounced than in the role change of the black church: Where it once was the central care-giver in the African-American community, it now serves as the central care-taker.

D'SOUZA FAILS, in large measure, to shed any new light on race relations or to lend form to any effort toward a public conversation regarding the issue. Yet he succeeds in hitting almost every hot button known to set off the fire of race war.

D'Souza argues, "Today Black culture has become an obstacle, because it prevents blacks from taking advantage of rights and opportunities that have multiplied in a new social environment." Statements such as these witness neither depth of knowledge nor keenness of insight. A serious discussion of these issues requires both scholarly tools. Throughout the text, D'Souza trades scholarly insight and keenness, political subtlety, and social sensitivity for mean-spirited and flip responses to very difficult and perplexing public questions. These responses stand in the way of, not force or give form to, serious public discussions.

D'Souza and his allies' racializing of every issue and advocation of destruction of the "public" is of primary concern. We are now witnessing, fueled by the members of this cadre, the dismantling of the public welfare system and the public school system-each carrying the emblem of African-American women and children as the source of the problem. In this way, "public"-and other associated terms, such as "city"-have come to mean black, sometimes male, but always "other." This conception presents us with a problem not only because it lends herd-like animalistic qualities to African Americans, but because it destroys vital sources of commonality.

Subsumed under and implied by the concept of the public is "the common." Therefore, the attack that is being waged against the notion of "public" translates into an attack against "the common." In an age where the political, social, and economic markers of difference are so deadly clear, we cannot allow the few vestiges of commonality to be choked off. Certainly not without a fight!

ALEXANDER DANTE HURT is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The End of Racism: Principles for a Multicultural Society. By Dinesh D'Souza. Free Press, 1995.

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