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Hero, Hype, and Hyperbole


W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

by Rhetorix - March 21st, 2001

One way to make a point is to exaggerate. Advertising is based on this technique: products are able to wash tall buildings with a single Bounce(tm) and leave them Spring-fresh and sanitary. This technique, often referred to as "hype", heightens expectations by enlarging upon the characteristics of a product. Because it sounds bigger than big, brighter than bright, better than best, we rush to the store and buy it.

Arguments, both spoken and written, also use this technique. When in its formal application, exaggeration is called hyperbole, from the Greek for "excess" (the original verb meant "to throw beyond the target".) Hyperbole should not be taken as truth; when used properly, it is a device for making a point-one should not give it any more credence than one gives the obvious hype of an advertising claim.

Sometimes, an exaggeration passes into the collective folk wisdom and becomes a "truth". Charles Krauthammer uses both hyperbole and hyperbolic "truth" in his column "Keepers of The JFK Copyright" of March 16, 2001. ( (c) 2001 The Washington Post Company)

. . . But, oh, tamper with the memory of John F. Kennedy and the guardians of the flame will strike you down for sacrilege. The Sopranos aren't half as fast defending their own.

Consider: A private conservative group has been running regional radio ads supporting the Bush tax plan, citing Kennedy's across-the-board tax cut and using clips of his December 1962 speech to the Economic Club of New York.

Well. You'd have thought the Taliban had blasted away the giant JFK bust in the Kennedy Center. Brother Teddy and daughter Caroline shot off an angry letter (1) denouncing the ad and (2) demanding that the perpetrators "cease from using President Kennedy's image and voice in any political advertising you are running in support of President Bush's proposed tax cut."

The hyperbole? Let me count them:

1. Inferring that the Kennedys are more protective of their own than the Sopranos (a fictitious Mafia family, for those whose lives do not include television)

2. Equating the use of archival sound bites to the destruction of irreplaceable religious art

3. Calling the use of quotes from President Kennedy's speeches "sacrilege"

How are these hyperbole? Let me start with the first example:

The stereotypical Mafia family is extremely insular, secretive, protective, and it follows a code of silence and loyalty that, if breached, is punished by a messy public death as an warning to others. To say that the Kennedys out-Mafia the Mafia is definitely hyperbole. Yes, they are secretive. Yes, they are protective. Yes, they are loyal to their own, but to say that they are more Mafia than the Mafia is exaggeration. (Should the Kennedys start gunning down disloyal family members in the streets of Hyannisport, Rhetorix will reclassify this from hyperbole to fact.)

Mr. Krauthammer also argues that the Kennedys' reaction to the radio ads is more suited to the destruction of ancient religious art than to the actual use of the quoted material. Had the private conservative group erased the only copy of President Kennedy's tax speech, that act of destruction would deserve vehemently angry reactions from the Kennedys-just as the Taliban's its wonton destruction is getting deserved condemnation. That, however, is not what happened in the case at-hand and Mr. Krauthammer notes the overkill of the reaction by means of hyperbole.

The third example is the use of the word "sacrilege," which is a violation of the sacred; using a consecrated communion wafer in a Black Mass is sacrilege. President Kennedy, however great a man and a President he may have been, was not bodily raised into heaven and made a god (apotheosis is the name for this type of deification.) One can defame President Kennedy's memory, debate his contribution to society, and question his place in history. One may even use his words in an advertisement, but no one commits sacrilege by doing so. Hyperbole, here, consists of comparing the radio advertisement to the profaning of God.

All three of these uses of hyperbole stress Mr. Krauthammer's opinion of the Kennedy's reaction to the radio ads-i.e., they overreacted. Exaggeration drives that point home.

Later in his column, however, Mr. Krauthammer repeats some hyperbole that attached itself to President Kennedy almost forty years ago and then became a part of the Kennedy folklore. Here is that paragraph:

The family is clearly playing on [President Kennedy's] martyrdom. Martyred he was. But regarding the political use of his official record, that is an irrelevancy. Like all other presidents, Kennedy left a record. It belongs to all Americans. For what other president would someone dare claim that the use of his "image and voice" be prohibited?

"Martyred" he was not. To be martyred, one must be killed for refusing to renounce one's faith or beliefs. Martyrs looked their torturers in the eye and refused to recant, then went to their deaths without doubt of the righteousness of their beliefs. Later, because the meanings of words tend to dilute over time, the definition of martyrdom expanded to include suffering for one's principles and/or causes.

No matter how one stretches this definition, it does not cover being shot by a person unknown to the victim. Had President Kennedy been kidnapped by the KGB, held captive, tortured, and offered his freedom if he would denounce democracy and capitalism, refused to do so and been killed, he would be worthy of the name " martyr."

President Kennedy's sudden death from gunshot, in the prime of his life while serving in the highest office of this country, was a truly sad and horrific event that made November 22nd a black day on this nation's calendar. Calling him a "martyr," however, is hyperbole.

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"... Sometimes, an exaggeration passes into the collective folk wisdom and becomes a "truth"..."

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