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Two Rhetorical Rhouts - Same Destination


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 - April 18th, 2001

Occasionally, it is instructive to observe how two writers handle the same topic. It is often more instructive to see how two writers who have formed the same opinion craft columns about their opinion.

Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution and Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald both deplore the Alcatel television advertisement that features a computer-enhanced portrayal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his "I Have a Dream" speech. Ms Tucker's column of 30 March, 2001 and Mr. Pitts' column of the next day diverge wildly as to presentation and style.

First, Ms Tucker's opening:

Dexter King, second son of the famous civil rights crusader, had a dream. He wanted to turn his father's legacy into a cash machine like Elvis Presley's. So six years ago, he made two visits to Graceland, Presley's Memphis home, to find out how to turn his dream into dollars. And now the younger King's vision is finally taking shape.

Images of his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., are being used in commercials for Atlanta-based Cingular, a cellular telephone company, and Alcatel, a French telecommunications company. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, once a soul-stirring appeal to America's conscience, is now nothing more than a cheap appeal to the nation's never-satiated appetite for the latest consumer gadget.

In the Cingular commercial, King's words are heard alongside those of Kermit the Frog.

Leave it to MLK'' family to accomplish what his arch-enemy, J. Edgar Hoover, could not: tarnish King'' image. King's heirs have turned one of the last century's greatest heroes into a shill for commercial interests.

Now, Mr. Pitts' opening:

I confess to being selective in my outrage.

When the late Fred Astaire was electronically resurrected to do a vacuum cleaner commercial, I was awed by the technology that made it possible. When John Wayne and the Cartwrights from Bonanza teamed up to sell beer, I was amused by the premise.

Now Martin Luther King has become a pitchman for Alcatel Americas, a company that builds communications networks. Let's just say that "awed'" and "amused" aren'' exactly the words I''d use to describe my feelings.

The commercial uses footage of the immortal "I Have A Dream" speech King delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. But as the camera pans the scene, we see that the crowd that swelled Washington that day has been electronically scrubbed out. King is completely alone, flinging the great words into a void.

"Before you can inspire," says the voice-over, ". . . you must first connect."

I'd like to connect, all right. My foot with the backside of whoever conceived and approved this piece of historical vandalism. I mean, they could festoon the man's tomb with the Nike swoosh and it wouldn't be much more of a desecration. What the heck was his family smoking when it OK'd this?

Both of these openings conform to the classical style—they have an attention-getter (the exordium) and a statement of the facts (the narration), then a statement of what the writer thinks about the use of Rev. King's words and image. However, the styles used by these two writers are completely different.

Ms Tucker uses a neat turn of phrase—an asterismus—to start her column. Asterismus is what ancient Greeks would have called facetious humor. Here, with her use of "Dexter King. . . had a dream", she pointedly shows how little the selfless, magnanimous dream of Rev. King resembles his son's self-serving money-grubbing.

By continuing this theme through the paragraph, Ms Tucker creates an implicit metaphor. Metaphor is when one object is replaced with another—not necessarily in comparison, as in a simile, but for identification. Ms Tucker identifies one "dream" with the more famous one. Those who know Rev. King's history and philosophy are to be jarred by the substitution of garish Graceland and greed for Rev. King's dream for a better humanity . Ms Tucker does not need to make the metaphor explicit; the familiarity of the phrase "I have a dream" completes the rhetorical device for her.

Her choice of adjectives demonstrate another device: cohortatio. This requires intensive, strong adjectives that amplify the seriousness of the subject and stir the audience's indignation. By dwelling on the debasement of Rev. King's speech—comparing its use in an advertisement to cheap shills for cheap gadgets—she rouses the indignation of her readers at the callous treatment of Rev. King's memory by his son.

Mr. Pitts use a different approach. He begins his column with a paradiegesis, a personal digression that introduces his topic. Although his first sentence tells of his outrage, it is not until the third paragraph that the reader learns what outrages him. In the intervening few sentences, he conveys a concept not touched upon by Ms Tucker—technology is wonderful, but only when it doesn't debase one's personal heroes.

Although Mr. Pitts uses a less strident tone, milder adjectives, and a less formal style, the same level of indignation is achieved by the time he describes the commercial as Ms Tucker invoked with her writing. He does this with antistatis, the repetition of a word in a different context. The work used is "connect", the word from the Alcatel ad. By reusing this word as he demonstrates his disgust, Mr. Pitts ties his anger to its cause and draws the readers with him to indignation.

Two writers, two different approaches to the same conclusion: that Rev. King's words do not belong in advertisements unrelated to his philosophy and work.

Cynthia Tucker's column

Leonard Pitts' column

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"... Although Mr. Pitts uses a less strident tone, milder adjectives, and a less formal style, the same level of indignation is achieved..."

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