Professor talks "Campaign Talk"

Hart Rod cropped imageContrary to the famous proverb about windows to the soul, political communication expert Rod Hart would argue that language is the window to the soul, not the eyes. He should know. Hart has spent the past 40 years studying the language of American politics.

Earlier this month, his book “Campaign Talk: Why Elections Are Good for Us,” (Princeton University Press, 2000) received the Graber award, honoring the best political communication book of the past 10 years, from the American Political Science Association. The award is not made every year.


“Campaign Talk” contains a long-term (1948-1996) analysis of thousands of texts from several genres of campaign language, such as campaign speeches, debates, print and television news coverage, advertisements and letters to the editor. Hart’s computerized content analysis program, DICTION, boils down a candidate’s campaign rhetoric into a simple inventory of words and compares them to DICTION’s 10,000-word database—similar to a forensics lab analyzing DNA samples to determine the identity of a culprit.

“Language can tell us a lot about people and the lives they lead,” said Hart, who is the dean of the College of Communication. “There are a lot of clues in what people say that we don’t pay attention to.”

For example, Hart recently presented a paper analyzing the campaign language used during the 2008 presidential election. His research found that despite President Barack Obama’s reputation as an eloquent speaker, the language of his campaign was very pragmatic, concrete and optimistic. “He’s a great orator, but in examining his language, you see that he ran a very serious, hard-headed campaign. He spoke in concrete terms, and avoided overstatements and highfalutin metaphors,” said Hart.

Sen. John McCain on the other hand, ran a very old-fashioned, biographical campaign with heavy use of the words “I,” “me” and “myself.” “McCain used a lot of adjectives and adverbs as opposed to nouns and verbs,” said Hart. “When you compare the two campaigns on the basis of language, they contrasted sharply.”

So what language resonates with the electorate? Freedom. “Everyone loves the word ‘freedom.’ To Republicans ‘freedom’ represents individual freedoms, whereas Democrats tend to think of it as incorporating people into the group. Hence it no longer has any meaning,” Hart said. According to Hart, language reveals so much about a candidate that his DICTION program can identify a candidate’s party affiliation based strictly on campaign language analysis.

What words are turnoffs in a campaign? Religious language. “Politicians are careful in using religious language in their campaigns. While it’s accepted in the South, politicians tend to tone it down as they evolve from a regional to a national candidate. Jimmy Carter is a very religious man, but he chose his words carefully once he was on the national stage.”

Despite pervasive sentiment that campaigns have become too negative, Hart’s book asserts that campaigns play a vital role in sustaining democracy by creating a national dialogue and letting us peer into the souls of our political candidates.

Pornography: A Mirror of American Culture?

While statistics vary, watchdog organizations estimate the pornography industry generates between $10 and $15 billion a year in the United States. By comparison, the Hollywood box office generates about $10 billion a year.

For several years, Associate Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen researched the pornography industry by interviewing producers, analyzing the films they make, following the trade press and speaking with pornography consumers via formal and informal interviews. The result is “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity” (South End Press, 2007).

In an interview with ShelfLife, Jensen discusses why the pornography industry presents a disturbing mirror of American culture, and answers crucial questions about gender, race and economics.

Q: What motivated you, a journalism professor, to write “Getting Off”?

A: My initial work on the subject 20 years ago was sparked by my interest in law and freedom of speech, but I quickly realized that pornography was a place to ask crucial questions about gender and race, about economics and culture. In the past four decades, changes in the law, technology and social norms have produced a pornography-saturated culture for which there is no historical precedent.

Q: What does pornography reveal about American culture?
A: The popularity of pornography is a reminder that, for all the progress of contemporary social movements, we still live in a world structured by patriarchy, white supremacy and a corporate capitalism that is predatory by nature. Pornography is consistently cruel and degrading to women, overtly racist and fueled by the ideology that money matters more than people.

Q: Parts of your book are quite graphic. How did you cope with immersing yourself in such a difficult subject?
A: The short answer: Not very well. It is extremely difficult and draining work, which is why I conducted analyses of films no more than once every three or four years. When watching as consumers, men focus on the sexual pleasure. When watching as a researcher, one sees clearly the cruelty and degradation, and after a while it gets overwhelming psychologically. I coped with those feelings by talking with friends and political allies in the movement who also have had to deal with that, as have researchers and activists who have confronted other issues that illustrate the human capacity to dehumanize others. But there is something particularly difficult, I think, about seeing inhumanity turned into sexual pleasure.

Q: You’ve called yourself a feminist; how did you become a feminist?
A: By reading feminist writers and getting to know feminist activists, I came to realize that feminism is not a threat to men but a gift to us. Feminism is a way of understanding how hierarchy works, which gives men a coherent way to struggle to be more fully human in a male-supremacist system that provides us with unearned privilege. Working in movements for justice for women has given me a way to combat the dominant culture’s toxic conception of masculinity, which is not only dangerous to women but also unfulfilling for most men.

Q: Do you think pornography is the most pressing issue facing feminism?

A: I don’t think there is any single issue that is most pressing. In the contemporary world we face multiple crises on all fronts—economic and ecological, political and social. We are an empire in decline and a culture in collapse. The most pressing issue for feminism, and all other social movements, is to recognize that and start to plan for the dramatic, and no doubt painful, changes ahead in the coming decades.

Q: How would you respond to a woman who says she feels empowered by her work in the porn or sex industry?
A: I don’t tell women how to think or what to do, but it’s clear that talk of empowerment in any realm has to first ask, “What kind of power?” Can working in the sexual-exploitation industries of pornography, stripping and prostitution offer real power to women—the kind of power that will help create a more just and sustainable world? We all live within systems that are structured on a domination/subordination dynamic. We try to cope the best we can with these hierarchies. There’s no one answer to the question of how best to do that, but we have to at least be honest about the nature of the systems.

Q: How has writing this book informed your opinion on the state of masculinity?
A: In the dominant culture, masculinity is marked by control, conquest and domination. I used to think we needed to find a more humane concept of masculinity, but after this research I’ve concluded that we need to eliminate the idea altogether. By that, I mean we need to reject the belief that, beyond basic biological differences, there are clear sex-specific traits in regard to our intellectual, psychological or moral development. The basic physical differences between female and male humans may well give rise to some other inherent differences between men and women, but in obsessing over those differences we usually miss the ways in which we are similar. I don’t want to reform masculinity but rather abolish it. Instead of searching for masculine and feminine norms, I think we should focus on human norms.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: Paradoxical as it may seem, I want people to face the depth of the inhumanity of this culture and, at the same time, renew their commitment to political activism and struggle. Pornography is a reflection of the culture, and we can learn from it. What we learn is not pretty but is necessary to confront. From there, we can imagine the kind of radical political activity that is necessary and start to rebuild movements of all kinds—around issues of gender and racial justice, economic and international cooperation, and ecological sustainability.

Jensen teaches courses in media law, ethics and politics. His research draws upon a variety of critical approaches to media and power. His other books include “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege,” “Citizens of Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” and “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.”

Alum’s Science Fiction Book Tackles Dangers of Global Warming

Imagine a world where ungodly temperatures create a hell on Earth for mankind. This heat leads to a frightening evolution of living things.

Animals grow at astronomical rates; monstrous creatures roam the Earth. The power of photosynthesis rises to new heights. Giant plant-life towers to the skies and challenges the agricultural industry. The city of Dallas becomes so polluted that humans must live underground where they can escape the mighty beasts.

This is the scenario in University of Texas at Austin alumna Perla Sarabia Johnson’s (BJ ’83) first book, the science fiction thriller “Global WarNing” (PublishAmerica, 2008). Against this dire backdrop, protagonist Dustin Jones works valiantly to protect mankind from Mother Nature’s revenge when he finds comfort in Heidi Hendricks, an attractive woman with a mysterious past.

Sarabia Johnson will be in Round Rock this Saturday, Nov. 22, for a book signing from noon to 2 p.m. at the Hastings Books & Music Video (2200 South I-35, behind Walgreen’s).

While conducting research for the book, she interviewed several experts in their field including Fabien JG Laurier, program officer for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program; Dan Ton, grid integration team leader of the Solar Energy Technologies Program; Samuel Ariaratnam, professor of construction management at Arizona State University; Stephen King, associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University; and Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution.

Erica Yeager, publisher of Richardson Living Magazine, says “Perla Sarabia Johnson tackles an important issue in a creative and imaginative way.”

Scholar Examines the Rhetoric of Style

In his latest book, “A Rhetoric of Style” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), Professor Barry Brummett, chair of the Department of Communication Studies, examines the many roles of style in politics, society and culture. There’s even an examination of gun-culture style and its rhetoric in the United States.

One example from the book tells the story of Scotland’s Sir Walter Scott and his masterful handling of a delicate affair in the early 1800s that had a lasting impact on politics—and Scottish fashion.

In 1822, Scott hosted a party for George IV, the recently crowned king of Great Britain. With the Scots examining their identity and their relationship with the British, and George IV coming from a rather short dynasty that began with the German George I (who didn’t speak a word of English), the event had the potential for political disaster.

The savvy Scott—who had a keen understanding of the power of style—instructed the various Scottish clan chiefs to attend the party wearing kilts and regalia made from their clan’s tartan.

While most of the clans had kilts, few of them had tartans to designate their individual clan. So Scott told them to invent something, which they did. Likewise, Scott commissioned a special royal tartan design for King George IV to wear to the party.

The clan-specific tartans were an instant hit, the Scots adopted the system as if it had been passed down through the generations and the “Royal Tartan” was incorporated into the monarchy’s regalia.

Thanks in part to Scott’s strategy of style, political ties between the north and the British were strengthened. To this day, Scots wear their clan-specific tartans for special events and British monarchs wear their Royal Stewart tartan for such events.

Edward Schiappa, author of “Beyond Representational Correctness: Rethinking Criticism of Popular Media,” predicts “A Rhetoric of Style will become a ‘must read, must cite’ book for scholars and students interested in style and especially style in popular culture.”