Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus
By Patricia Roberts-Miller
I've been meaning to pick this book up ever since it came out. That's not because of its subject matter, which is outside my research area or expertise, but because Trish is a colleague, and I like to read my colleagues' books. And Trish does crank out the books: this is her third, and she's currently working on her fourth.
Maybe I should call her "Roberts-Miller" for the purposes of this review.
Fanatical Schemes is Roberts-Miller's examination of proslavery rhetoric of the 1830s. She's arguing with other scholars of this period: the common understanding is that proslavery rhetoric became more strident in response to increased stridency of abolitionists, but Roberts-Miller argues that this causal argument is incorrect. Ratheer, she argues that the inflammatory aspect of proslavery rhetoric preceded abolitionist rhetoric; it was, she says, inherent to proslavery rhetoric. Roberts-Miller sees this as a crucial point because it has definite implications: when "civility" is the yardstick, the only permitted criticism is from superiors to inferiors; substantive social change is impossible because "under such limitations, rhetoric cannot solve political conflicts"(p.6).
Indeed, she argues, the South – despite the education in rhetoric afforded its citizens – actually silenced deliberation in routine ways; it made certain topics off-limits. And consequently it could not deliberate properly with Northern politicians, nor could it deliberate internally, making war all but inevitable (p.31). Prudence was considered mildly dishonorable (p.65); proslavery public discourse was dominated by the epideictic (p.64); discourse was framed by in-groups vs. out-groups (Ch.2); and hyperbole characterized the discourse (p.42). Roberts-Miller describes this discourse as yielding self-referential absurdity that demanded loyalty to the group rather than the logic (p.41). That situation leads to "cunning projection," in which the same behavior is considered a virtue in the ingroup but a vice in the outgroup (p.106).
Roberts-Miller concludes the book by discussing cunning projection in terms of Orwell's "doublethink" (p.219). Personally, I would have liked to see an actual rather than a fictional phenomenon here, such as double consciousness or dialogism, both of which are grounded in actual cases that involve believing contradictory ideas, both of which are well theorized and may have gotten to the layers of argumentation in a less modernist way. But Trish (let's call her Trish again now) indicated to me in a hallway conversation that neither quite get to the group loyalty aspect she was trying to express. See what you think – and I do recommend the book.