Everyone knows I’m a Matthew Arnold stan.
I won’t go into detail here, but the way he frames the Big Questions about politics and art is right in my wheelhouse. And though I may disagree with him on specific positions, the patterns of thought he provides are very influential to me.
One of his big slogans that everyone remembers is “the best which has been thought and said.” Arnold has an interesting (and surprisingly complicated) relationship with tradition and culture and this phrase is one of his keystones.
Here I want to make a brief case for valuing “the worst which has been thought and said.” I think Arnold would approve.
I’m currently preparing for the semester and as I’m going through my materials, I’ve come across an old friend, Basil Marceaux Dot Com.
Basil ran for Governor of Tennessee some years back and his campaign ad is a classic. Have a look, before reading on.
I always show this to my Rhetoric students and they always ask me if it’s real. It is, but one can see why it was widely lampooned in media when it came out. I remember seeing it made fun of on The Colbert Report and World’s Dumbest. And let’s be honest it is absurd. (Although, given our current political environment, one wonders if Basil might have actually had a chance if he were running now, amiright?).
But the reason I show this each year isn’t just to give students something to laugh at in a dry, old composition classroom for three minutes.
I actually have a great deal of affection for the man (as an internet meme at least). And he embodies to the fullest my mantra to just allow yourself to be a fool; forget what people think about it.
The real reason I show this, however, is that when you look at what he’s trying to do in this video (putting aside how he tries to do it), he actually has a good idea of the rhetorical situation, and he knows what moving parts go in a political ad.
What makes Basil exceptional is that he just does it all so badly. This is why his campaign ad is useful in the classroom.
When Basil stumbles down the stairs, blinded by the sun in his eyes, what he’s trying to is demonstrate a vitality through movement for his audience. You see this in campaign ads all the time; people walking and talking. Granted, the successful ones don’t move as stiffly as Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, but in concept, Basil is following a set pattern here.
And when Basil puts his policy positions on screen, he is also following an accepted rhetorical script. Again, most successful politicians have policies that, odious or not, at least make sense. And they are using editing equipment newer than the Video Toaster of 1993. But what he is doing here is not a difference of kind, merely quality.
The benefit for my students is simple. Basil Marceaux Dot Com is doing what virtually all politicians do in these kinds of ads. He is only doing it so badly we can see the moving parts. We can identify his attempts at manipulation because he is so clumsy at it.
Any well-produced, professionally made ad is no less manipulative. They all employ a complex, strategic mix of the old ethos, pathos, and logos. They’re just so good at it, we don’t notice. God bless Basil for this.
I’m sure there are lessons about Trump here somewhere, but I’ll let you get there yourselves.
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