Archive for August, 2012


When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, he uttered what will likely remain one of the most famous sentences in human history: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


On its face, the sentence makes little sense. What is the difference between “man” and “mankind”?


Armstrong addressed the rhetorical misunderstanding  immediately upon return. The transmission had been garbled; Armstrong actually said “One small step for a man.”


But no one seemed to care. “One small step for man” it was, and likely ever will be. Armstrong is said to have preferred putting the “a” in parenthases. The Associated Press, in its obituary, went with brackets.

“That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.”






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My piece published on POLITICO today, taking a further look at how the GOP ticket’s response to the Akin “legitimate rape” blowup reflects a broader rhetorical strategy of avoidance and evasion — a denial of categories in law and language. Paul Ryan (and Todd Akin) favored creating new categories of “forcible” or “legitimate” rape; on the other hand, Mitt and Ann Romney talk about “paying all of our taxes” while carefully avoiding the category “income,” as in income taxes.


None of this is wording happens by accident…



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The latest incident of a politician calling a rhetorical gaffe a simple case of “I misspoke” is Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” have erupted into a national firestorm.

I’ve never quite understand what it means to “misspeak”; the term reminds me a bit of Richard Nixon’s press secretary declaring certain presidential statements “inoperative.” Huh? As Time magazine headlined ironically a t the time, “they misspoke themselves.” Whatever that means.

Akin certainly “misspoke himself.” Setting aside the moral debate, the rhetorical one is pretty clear: Saying there are “legitimate” rapes necessarily suggests there are “illegitimate ones.”

And in his apology he ignored this central matter, instead saying he “used the wrong words in the wrong way.” There is, in fact, nothing confusing about his original statement. As everyone from Mitt Romney to Rush Limbaugh has now said, it was just ignorant (or worse).

As the Democrats scurry to tie Akin to the presidential ticket, their clearest path seems to lead to Paul Ryan, who cosponsored abortion related legislation with Akin. And, once again, odd rhetorical formulations are the key. The Ryan “personhood” legislation included restrictions on abortions in cases of rape, creating a new legal category: “forcible” rape. I didn’t realize there was any other kind; as with Akin’s “legitimate” comments, the recognition–in an explicit legal context–of “forcible” rapes necessarily means there is a category of “unforcible” rapes.

Wouldn’t it not then be a rape? Ultimately voters will have to decide what’s going on here. Be prepared for some highly charged rhetorical assaults. And more misspeaking.

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