In Self Preservation

On Monday, former Bosnian Serb political leader, Radovan Karadzic, one of the world’s most wanted men, was found and arrested for war crimes. Although the 63-year-old man is fighting extradition to the Hague (Netherlands), he will likely be sent away by early next week and face charges from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He was captured after 13 years on the run.

. . . except he wasn’t really running. He hid in plain view.

Three parts to this story (so far, anyway) fascinate me: (1) the way Karadzic disguised himself, (2) what he has chosen as his post-arrest identity, and (3) what impact his decision to represent himself will have on his defense at the UN tribunal.

1. Many news reports are offering the same story. Karadzic practiced alternative medicine, published articles, and made professional appearances. He had a mistress, a photo of a fake family, and frequented a bar that proudly displayed photos of him and another war crimes fugitive. That he lived so freely was probably his best disguise. That he turned into a loveable “grandpa” and alternative medicine guru is second. It’s close, but it doesn’t beat the idea of a man of his former stature riding the bus.

2. Apparently, Karadzic has cleaned himself up a bit since his arrest. Says his lawyer, “He’s looking good. He had a haircut. He shaved himself and is in great shape. He now looks just like before.” But is it great that he looks just like before? Granted, some Serbian nationalists continue to revere him, but many others see him as a calculated slaughterer. Is it really in his favor to shed the “grandpa” look and re-identify himself with the image many associate with evil? This move is surprising considering the savvy he showed in his everyday maneuvering. Just because he’s no longer in hiding doesn’t mean a new appearance is of no further benefit. Is his ego winning here or does he have another agenda?

3. Last, in a nod to his predecessor at the Hague, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Karadzic has chosen to defend himself with the aid of a team of lawyers. According to several news reports, this approach was what allowed Milosevic to prolong his trial (perhaps the OJ Simpson approach of exhausting decision makers into submission is a now popular plan of attack), but, again, what does Karadzic gain by aligning himself with such an image? The moves he is making seem to be more like one of a martyr  – in this case of someone sacrificing himself only to thumb his nose at Western political forces and give hope to waning Serbian nationalists – rather than the actions of a person who seriously expects to fight for the sake of winning his freedom. Am I reading too much into his actions? Perhaps. But I can’t help but think that the downturns in his rhetorical judgment mean a downturn in his treatment of the UN legal system as well.

(On a side note, I’ve noticed how news writers are tiptoeing around certain issues. Half of the articles I read referred to “ethnic cleansing” only in quotation marks and often preceded it with “so-called.” It is still a contested term, and arguments against it include that it is vague and can imply either too much or too little. “Genocide” is an unpopular term because its usage, so the argument goes, would make post-World War II ethnic slaughters comparable to the Jewish Holocaust. “Crimes against humanity” is a moral claim that says a lot, but yet it doesn’t capture the motives or intentions in the same way as the other two terms do.)

Ringing in Rhetoric

Writes Tom Maurstad of The Dallas Morning News,

It’s the nature of both pop culture and people that we reveal ourselves and offer insights into our ever-changing media environment in the small, incidental choices we make as consumers and users of technology.

That’s a great first line and a pretty insightful article on “futurism and nostalgia.” Read on to see what he has to say about the rhetoric of cell ringtones.

Judging Greatness

Either I’m on a roll today, or I’m just wasting time. But I came across another interesting something on my way over to Yahoo! to check the weather (in hopes the temperature has crawled above 30).

How do we judge greatness? This question was taken up by Yahoo! Sports as they tried to ascertain how great the Patriots team is. The conversation starts out straightforwardly enough, but then someone asks how the Patriots compare against any professional team in the history of sports. Sure, the question should require a logical-enough answer — athletes run a certain number of yards, throw a certain number of passes, and score a certain number of points. The comparison gets more difficult, it would seem, when we’re talking about different sports, but the members of the conversation seem friendly enough toward the direction of the talk. The Patriots apparently (I really don’t keep track of this stuff) have a perfect record this season, but are they “great?”

I’m not surprised at their answers, but I’m not fond of the idea. It takes a team having all-star players in addition to a stellar record (wow, all these astronomical analogies) in order for a team to be great. In other words, image seems to play a “great” role. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a team of athletes come together to work like a machine. We need to see someone who climbs above the rest, a representative of the team. A face. A name. Individual stats. But how does an athlete get into the Hall of Fame? How much does it come down to image and how much does it rely on the actual numbers related to their performance? Do they have to win the crowd or just win the game? Hmm. I would say winning the crowd. The crowd hears the stats, but they also have to love the player. And yet loving the player without the logic of stats is not enough. Okay, I hope you get the point. I’ll stop before I drive myself in circles.

I’ll be honest, though. The only reason I clicked on the link to this video is because I saw the title, “Best Sports Team Ever?” along with an image of Michael Jordan. “Oh, no, no,” I thought. “If they’re putting the Chicago Bulls up there, they’d better add the LA Lakers. . . .” They didn’t. I’m hurt. Didn’t the late 80s have some of the best games when Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and so many others hit the court? I’m going to complain now. Clearly folks who are trying to properly represent sports history are suffering from a selective memory 😉

Medicated Rhetorics

The topic of backpacks came up in my office the other day. My officemate, Craig, complemented my book bag, and as I always do whenever someone says something nice, I dramatically wave my hand and explain why it isn’t really all that grand.

And then we got into discussing style versus functionality.

He has a regular backpack that is waterproof, has lots of pockets, and balances its weight equally over both shoulders. Mine is a brown leather (men’s!) bag that I sling over one shoulder and that has me walking like I’m in need of V8 most the time. Mine looks a bit more appealing; his is better for posture. Mine is a more compact and neat; his carries more weight and volume much more comfortably – and keeps dry in our unpredictable Columbus weather.

But, he said, the backpack of old will have to go. It’s embarrassing, he said, to walk into a meeting with it because people won’t take him seriously. I named a professor on campus who’s quite respected and carries one around. But, Craig said, it’s different in the medical field.

Craig is in the Nurse Practitioner program at OSU, where – apparently – the means by which you carry your scholarly materials matters. But it wasn’t long before we moved away from the expectations within the medical field to the expectations toward the field.

The medical field trains its students how to properly interact with patients. First, health practitioners must dress in bland attire. They appear more trustworthy that way, so they say. Don’t believe the movies that tell us we buy into the romantic notions of eccentric, brilliant doctors saving the day. In reality, we don’t want to be surprised by quirky health practitioners. Calm, cool, collected, and so tied to their work that they otherwise appear boring and characterless. Apparently these qualities make us comfortable in the doctor’s office.

He went on to say that sessions with patients need to focus solely on the patient. Attempts at creating common ground by acknowledging a patient’s experience with a personal anecdote actually shuts the patient down. This is very interesting. In rhetorical studies, creating a commonality between two people (identification) is supposed to facilitate communication. Does this mean we don’t want to identify with our health practitioner? Is this situation like finding out in 3rd grade that the teacher has an actual life outside the classroom? And makes the person human? And therefore susceptible to human tendencies, like trimming one’s fingernails, eating junk food, or committing errors? Hmm.

Last, Craig brought up the conversation ratio between patient and practitioner. Practitioners are told to give careful attention to the time they spend talking and not listening. Studies have shown that when asked to gauge how much time went to speaking or listening, practitioners had impressions that were quite far from the truth. They spend a lot more time talking than they expect. (A lot of us, actually, could probably learn something from this study.)

At this point in the conversation, I began taking notes on what Craig was saying (which kind of freaked him out, but that topic is for another day). Now he began giving me some of his personal insights on the personas of health practitioners. He said that in the one or two appointments with one patient is often not enough time for him to figure out which character to take on. Sometimes he has to be disciplinarian, coach, parent, friend, or any combination thereof. His duty comes down to patient education: What sort of persona will be most effective for making patients believe they need to take their medication until they have finished their prescriptions?

Fascinating. Utterly fascinating. From the rhetoric of handbags to medical literacy – all in one office. Imagine if we could fit more people in here. . . .

Unveiling Harlot

Whew! It’s been a crazy few weeks (months, actually), and the unveiling of this project (ok, yes, pun intended) has gone about as smoothly as we could hope. In the process, we got a first-hand look at the ancient rhetorical concept of audience when our two presentations — first at our university as part of the LiteracyStudies@OSU initiative and then at the FemRhet conference in Little Rock — sparked substantially different discussions.

At OSU, a rather energetic debate followed over the word, harlot. I’d love to map out the evolution of the conversation (perhaps we should post a synopsis of it at some point), but I’ll just mention some details here. Concern was raised over whether the name is worth the potential amount of people who may be offended and turned away, worth the amount of rethinking we hope to spark with the OED definitions of harlot, the subtitle (a persuasive look at the arts of persuasion), the url (, a description of the term’s relationship to rhetorical studies, and so on. How much are we willing to risk turning people away from this space before they even put effort into figuring out the philosophy behind the name?

Several people jumped in with responses in our favor — to the point where we nearly didn’t have to answer. My favorite response came from Jim Fredal (and I hope I paraphrase well enough): If in five years Harlot is still doing the work it seeks, the meanings (denotations and connotations) currently affiliated with the word will shift. The space of Harlot has the ability not only to question but also to write the ways in which symbols (words) are understood. And with this, we were momentarily struck silent with the grandeur of the idea. If only. . . .

An overwhelming topic that arose at the FemRhet conference revolved around issues of academic publishing. It was quite a shame that Tim, our resident student of academic publishing, couldn’t attend since he hadn’t yet been a member of our team when our conference proposal was submitted. His part of the presentation would have been very valuable for this crowd. Many voiced a desire to publish in a space like Harlot for reasons of philosophy and service. The problem, however, is that many scholars cannot put aside time to produce work that doesn’t directly apply toward tenure requirements. Many of the digital productions teachers spend time, energy, and thought producing are not recognized by current standards, and yet these productions are what bring scholarly work into the digital age, allowing networks and information streams to form and flow among professional scholars, students, and areas of study.

This discussion is probably what weighs heaviest on me right now. What standards must we put into effect to give academic authors a tangible reason for submitting to Harlot? In other words, if Harlot is supposed to be a space in which academic and public audiences come together on equal footing to discuss matters of persuasion in today’s culture, to what extent do we have an obligation toward scholars to produce submission criteria that would enable them to face their tenure and promotion committees and proudly present their accepted Harlot publications? Will we lose this part of our community if we don’t somehow oblige? When will the practicing of one’s scholarly philosophy in an online space finally become an aspect of academic work that is accepted, respected, and appreciated?

As always, for those of you who attended either presentation or who are reading our thoughts-in-progress in this blog, we welcome and urge your input. Establishing criteria for submitting to Harlot should be communally agreed upon . . . as in line with the philosophy of Harlot.