Sunday, January 16, 2005

Cementing Sophistry

Among hot issues confronting mid-Hudson NY denizens is the proposal of St. Lawrence Cement Company to build a new plant in Greenport, on the east bank of the Hudson River. St. Lawrence wants to put a big complex of buildings and smokestacks on an 1800-acre site where, operating virtually around the clock, burning 250,000 tons of coal, the factory would produce some 2.2 million metric tons per year of cement. The project has evoked fierce local opposition (friends of;, with protestors dwelling on prospective heavy air, noise and viewscape pollution. St. Lawrence has responded to critics, and to State regulators, by revising some terms of its proposal. And by way of touting the revised design, SLC took out a full-page advertisement in local newspapers. Some features of the ad (11/14/04) illuminate rhetorical devices that recur in advocacy prose. WOULD AS WILL. Conspicuous in the ad is a rhetorical device whereby a prospect (proposed event, contingency) is made to appear to be a sure thing. The device consists of using the future tense (will) instead of the subjunctive mood (would; could; might). The speaker then seems to be describing a certain future event rather than a mere possibility (what would eventuate if formative contingent events or decisions come about). Thus: new guidelines and design for (proposed!) cement plant, says St. L., “will reduce critical compounds [emissions]…by an additional 28% over the old design….” “New cement milling technology that reduces certain emissions will now be used….” “New design means that over 90% of the surrounding area won’t be able to see the plant at all.” Replacement Plant “will retain vital cement jobs….” No proper basis for this prognostication has been laid. Use of the future tense marks a variation of the so-called Bandwagon device. DANGLING COMPARISON. Terms of comparison—“smaller,” “cleaner,” “better,” “stronger”—also play a big part in SLC’s advertisement. In this respect the ad recalls many a consumer product ad. Those pieces of advocacy, expressed in words ending in suffix er or est, often depend for effectiveness on vagueness about objects compared. Consumers are assured that new Tide is “cleaner” or “the cleanest.” The actual claim is that the touted product is better in some respect than itself: its same-brand predecessor. But that claim, from the consumer’s standpoint, is question-begging. What we really want to know is whether the touted product out-performs competing products (at same or lower cost). But the sponsor, while insinuating that the answer is affirmative, avoids that crucial claim. (We know he avoids it because we can assume safely that if he could make it veraciously, he would do so). Now in the present case, St. Lawrence really is only saying that revised plan would make its proposed new plant less visible and less noxious emission-wise than its other, earlier proposed new plant.


AND AVOIDED COMPARISON. Also noteworthy, to students of rhetoric and to prospective neighbors of a new St. Lawrence Cement plant, is another kind of comparison that the company makes—and avoids. Here the comparison is not between two plant designs but rather between a design and an existing factory. And the focus is on emissions of toxic particles. SLC has said on various occasions that its proposed new cement factory would be “cleaner” than what it would replace, namely, its west bank plant in southern GreeneLand. That claim, however, pertains to the volume of toxic particles per ton of emissions. Not addressed is the question of what would be the volume of pollutants emitted per day or per year—by this vastly bigger cement plant, whose output would be quadruple that of the old plant. St. Lawrence’s evasion on that point, accordingly, qualifies as a contribution to the annals of Half Truth-telling. Meanwhile, St. Lawrence says “New SLC Plan Cuts Emissions By Another 28%.” On top of what? AUTHORIAL SOPHISTRY. Now for a confession (unless it’s only an acknowledgement). In the foregoing remarks I used another bit of sophistry. I pretended to recall certain sentiments and deeds of a putative personage named St. Lawrence Cement. Rhetorically, I invested a non-human object with human qualities. In doing so I used a device that is remarkably common not only in advertising (words about what companies and even products believe/say/do) but also in mainstream journalism, and especially in elite journalism. Thus, in just one putative news story in The New York Times (1/12/04, Douglas Jehl & David Johnston gave ostensible accounts of deeds by “the White House” (“urging,” “expressed opposition”), the Senate (“approved”), the Pentagon (they “would have” been “required” to “report to Congress about…”), the Defense Department (“sent a letter to Congress” saying it “strongly urges” abstention from a pending move), a commission (“recommended”), the Bush administration (“disavowed”; is “keen to maintain some legal latitude”; “has said almost nothing about” a certain CIA operation; “expressed disgust”), the CIA (it’s under fire for “treatment of detainees”), and the Justice Department (issued a certain opinion; approved certain techniques). Most suitable of labels for this rhetorical anthropomorphism, I suggest, is personation. The costs and benefits of its use deserve careful consideration. Not today.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

More War

TRIPLE DOUBLE. Starlette Dakota Fanning (10 years of age) gets second billing in “War of the Worlds” and plays hero Tom Cruise’s daughter. For scenes shot here in GreeneLand, Dakota shared her part with no less than three stand-ins: a look-alike picture double (whose main job was to pose patiently while shots are set up); a stunt double and, for more dangerous moments, another stunt double--played by a 45-year-old midget. These players helped to enable Dakota to keep up with her homework, often at table in Ursula’s Riverside Diner. That evidently was not too heavy a load. According to publicity blurbs, Dakota learned to read at age 2. Since launching show business career at age 5 (in Tide commercial), she has worked aplenty, has been nominated for Best Young Actress award from Critics Choice, and in near future is to appear in film versions of "Charlotte’s Web" (under contract) and (prospectively) "Alice in Wonderland. " SIDEBAR: ANOTHER PICTURE. “War of the Worlds” is not the only feature film shot in 2004 in GreeneLand. During August-September, downtown Catskill and other local sites were used to make independent (of big studios) picture called “Runaway Boys” or, in recent progress reports, “Runaway.” It’s touted as thriller in which brothers Michael and Dylan Addler flee from trouble at home and start to re-settle in peaceful small town. Michael finds work in convenience store, plus romance with co-worker Carly. But past troubles overtake our boys, at cost of danger for selves and new friends. Stalking, chasing, & angst ensue. Featured players either are Aaron Stanford (“Tadpole”; “X Men 2”--falsely named Stafford on screenwriter Bill True’s narcissistic web site, Zack Savage (“A Normal Life,” gay film), and Robin Tunney (“The Secret Lives of Dentists”; “Paparazzi”), or they are Stanford and Tunney, with Savage being one of six supporting players. Latter is Tunney’s version of billing. Budget allocation for “Runaway,” via Alan Klingenstein of Filbert Steps Productions, is $2 million. That’s one per cent of funding for “War of the Worlds.” FOOD NOTES. To feed “War” makers, Paramount folks brought along their own chef. Consequently, although producers and special effects people and other bigwigs took complete possession of Stewart House, they did not rely on that hostelry’s food. But manager Koren Nichole did pass out tidbits from SH kitchen. One grateful recipient adjudged crème brulee concocted by chef Jeff Valentin as “best I’ve ever had, after dozens of samples in six countries.” Upshot of that judgment, by executive producer Kathy Kennedy, seconded by Spielberg himself, was invitation to Jeff to join in final feeding of Above The Lines (principal actors and crew folk). Jeff graciously obliged, dispensing his crab cakes Benedict, and bagels with salmon and capers, in tent across from old Athens opera house, to 300 consumers. At 4 a.m. SAVED BY GERMS? If today’s script version follows H. G. Wells’s original story line, marauding Martians will be all-conquering, until felled by what for Earthlings is common cold? LESSONS? In 1897 story being turned into 2005 cinematic spectacle, Wells put into mouth of his narrator some concluding speculations that for Americans may evoke shock of September 11, 2001. Thus, “whether we expect another invasion or not, our views of the human future must be greatly modified by these events. We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet”—this country?—“as…a secure abiding place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space.” Moreover:
It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion…is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind * * *
The broadening of men's views that has resulted can scarcely be exaggerated. Before the cylinder”—or the towers?--fell there was a general persuasion that through all the deep of space no life existed beyond the petty surface of our minute sphere. Now we see further. f the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out and caught our sister planet within its toils. Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seed bed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space. But that is a remote dream. It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.
Dick May

Sunday, January 02, 2005


I pluralized H.G. Wells as Well's, vs. Wells! I wrote possessive of H.G. Wells as Well's. vs. Wells's! Mortifying punkchuation.

War Stories I

Biggest event in GreeneLand last month (most dramatic, at any rate) was presence of Paramount Pictures/Dreamworks Studios film crew. At their hands, and with liberally paid support of local builders, parts of Village of Athens were reshaped cosmetically to accommodate scenes for new version of classic H.G. Wells story “War of the Worlds.” Under Hollywood luminary Stephen Spielberg's direction, fortified by $200 million budget, four nights were devoted to shooting scenes of mob panic in face of supposed lethal invasion from outer space. For the purpose of representing the terrified populace, Spielberg agents recruited 1000 local people. Seeing Greene gathered these notes THE WANNABES. How could 3423 people turn up at Athens Community Center in mid-November in hope of serving as extras in movie scenes to be shot during three or four weekday nights running to 3 a.m. and beyond? Not many aspirants looked to be retirement age or unemployed. Were they planning to sleep on the job? in class? Well, most of the chosen thousand did show up. Withstood rain, cold, “atrocious” food. Bonded. Had fun. BIT PART. The scene: Interior corner of contemporary restaurant. The players: film executive; civilian. The dialogue: FE: Have you ever done any acting? C: Never. FE: Well, are you ready to start? C: Uh, well, uh, OK. With that bit of conversation (with Spielberg) and his signature on a contract, Peter Maassmann became an enrolled actor—not just an extra--in the "War" cast. It happened by chance. Peter, whose usual occupation is golf professional at his family’s Blackhead Mountain resort, was helping Nick Patestas provide a buffet at Dionysos restaurant in Athens, during a script run-through for supporting players. As the players were going over their lines, Peter noticed that one was missing. “In a joking way,” he recalls, he offered to read the missing actor’s part. Next thing he knew, producer Kathy Kennedy had taken him up on the offer—and not just for the run-through. Hence the dialogue with film executive Spielberg. Peter was duly transformed, cinematically, into Worried Father, dashing down Second Street in the midst of a terrified crowd, giving voice to the feeling that he doesn’t know what’s happening. His few spoken words put Peter in line to collect $700 for each of four nights of work, plus a fraction of a fraction of residuals. “An unbelievable experience,” he told a Seeing Greene reporter. “Great people. Fascinating process. Great fun. I’d have done it for nothing.” INVISIBLE MARAUDERS. When our real mid-Hudson people were stampeding down Second Street in Athens, trying to escape in a hopelessly overcrowded ferry, looking fearfully up above, there was nothing for them to see. No Martians. But the dreadful invaders were there. They existed inside a box in the Stewart House dining room: a Dreamworks digital animation gadget that projected them on what movie-goers will see as the night sky. STAR SECURITY. Unlike the invaders from above, screen star Tom Cruise was actually visible on site in Athens. And occasionally he gave the cast a glimpse of his celebrated self. But he’s a rather reclusive, nervous Earthling, who in the course of four days reposed in three dwellings: a bed & breakfast in Hudson, a trailer behind Dionysos, and two rooms in Stewart House. To get to there and back safely, he employed four full-time bodyguards. Mister Spielberg, by contrast, was flanked by just one bodyguard, although he ranks near the top among Americans who have been targets of death threats. PLOT PUZZLE. How can Well’s story be made credible to today’s Earthlings? It can’t be easy. The problem, Spielberg and his script writers (David Koepp and Josh Friedman?) must be to substantiate the premise of surprise (and hence panic and initial sweeping defeat). Back in 1897, Well’s could open his tale with a narrator who muses, plausibly, that No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century > that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences > greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied > themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and > studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might > scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of > water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe > about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire > over matter…No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources > of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life > upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of > the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men > fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to > themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the > gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the > beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded > this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans > against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. That was then; and the idea worked even in 1938, when Orson Welles prompted panic with a radio newscast adaptation of “War of the Worlds.” But the ensuing years have brought a flood of stories, along with sober scientific speculations, about super-intelligent creatures and possible invaders from outer space. We now have radar, deep-probing telescopes, satellites, space-probing vehicles, and “Star Wars” movies. These make it hard to sell us on the idea of a massive invasion whose approach would not be detected. Spielberg & Co. can make the adjustment of bringing the invaders from deep space rather than from nearby Mars. To make credible the idea of a surprise attack (like 9/11, but massive) they will need plenty of Dreamwork. # Coming soon to this site: More War Stories. Dick May