Monthly Archives: April 2015

Dead Men Spinning: The Irony of Using Famed Ecologists as Metonyms for Environmental Concern

This year’s Earth Day is a tumultuous one for ecologists and nature lovers in the state of Wisconsin. In a state that lays claim to such celebrated ecological pioneers and naturalists as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and the founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, a series of proposed cuts to public funding of natural resource management has sparked alarm and protest. During a week generally reserved for celebration of ecology, several Wisconsin nature lovers are fearing changes and mounting efforts to defend the preserves and natural places they love.

Yet in published and online responses to the proposed cuts, opponents have adopted a familiar and recurrent and, frankly, somewhat curious tactic—that is, when seeking to defend and protect the import of the natural environment, free from human interference, these advocates are making public appeals not by describing natural flora or fauna or terrain or waterways but, rather, by making off-handed reference to human figures.

For instance, in response the the initial announcement of the proposed changes to the Wisconsin state Department of Natural Resources, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff ran a widely-circulated op-ed piece, that began: “Aldo Leopold didn’t just roll over in his grave Tuesday; he started spinning at accelerating speed after Gov. Scott Walker announced his proposed. The state’s hunters and anglers—and everyone else who loves the outdoors—should be just as shocked as the famed Wisconsin naturalist would be.” Leopold was a naturalist who worked as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, was instrumental in founding the school’s famed Arboretum, and gained worldwide acclaim with his posthumously published nature writings in A Sand County Almanac, based primarily on observations of the natural environment in south central Wisconsin.


Gaylord Nelson.

Gaylord Nelson.

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold

Then again, this past week, when the state’s land board—led by treasurer Matt Adamczyk—barred state employees from speaking or writing on “climate change,” another paper, the Madison-based Isthmus, lambasted the action by evoking former state governor, state senator, and naturalist Gaylord Nelson. Granted, Adamczyk had targeted his comments at Nelson’s daughter, Tia Nelson, currently the head of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, but the article’s argument built its appeal to readers by evoking Nelson in a similar way to how the Journal Sentinel had cited Leopold, stating that on the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, “Tia Nelson’s dad is rolling over in his grave.”

Even as modern ecology looks beyond the human and pushes beyond the “anthropocene,” it’s remarkable that our public arguments in defense of the natural so frequently evoke the human. When biophysical environments or ecological policies are threatened, rather than describing the ecosystem and biological science at play, we decry these decisions by saying famed ecological thinkers are “turning in their graves.” When celebrating Earth Day and urging others to care for the planet, we frequently reference an anthropomorphized “Mother Earth.” When inspiring children and members of the general public to care for plants and animals, we frequently favor anthropomorphic characters like Smokey Bear and Hoot the Owl to actual wildlife or science. Our most popular and successful environmentalist campaigns have rallied around human figures like John Muir or Keep America Beautiful’s “Crying Indian.”

On one level, this is a savvy tactic. Humans are drawn to other humans. Anthropomorphizing any concern makes it easier for many people to understand and empathize with it.

On another level, citing an ecological hero like Leopold or Nelson is a kind of rhetorical metonymy, alluding to all of their ideas and writings and championed causes without having to repeat the arguments and ideas at length. That is, I can make reference to Leopold or Nelson rolling in their graves, or Mother Earth weeping, or John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt shaking their heads in shame, and, in doing so, present an artful, accessible, and concise way of saying the broader field of ecological expertise and tradition rejects a policy or action.

And yet, such metonyms do anthropomorphize ecological concerns all the same. They perpetuate a paradox of caring for biophysical well-being on a par with human well-being by favoring and spotlighting the human! By defending ecology with reference to Leopold of Nelson, we may be metonymically referring to their larger work and arguments, but we are also at the same time simply deferring to the unquestioned, unproblematized authority of a single human actor (one that is, besides, college educated, white, and male). Simple reference to a name allows, potentially, for lip-service sustainability.

As ecologists protest budget cuts and policies that place human interests, development, and profit ahead of environmental sustainability and biophysical concerns, they might recognize the irony involved and see that their own rhetorical word choices and metonyms often do the exact same thing.

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by | April 22, 2015 · 1:00 pm

Serious Satire: Trevor Noah and the Daily Show

The controversial and recent elevation of 31-year old South African comedian Trevor Noah to the host of Comedy Central crown jewel the Daily Show proves the power of satire in a hyper-mediated world. Once long-time host Jon Stewart announced his retirement in February, wild speculation unfolded about who his replacement would be. When Comedy Central announced Noah’s promotion, reporters and journalists delved into his corpus of work to make bold pronouncements about his future success as the face of the satirical news industry. Indeed, worries about the racist, sexist, and homophobic nature of some of his Twitter posts have fueled a debate over whether Noah is up to the job. Comedy Central is standing behind their choice.

Noah, via IndieWire

What this controversy symbolizes to me is recognition of what scholars of rhetoric and media have long known to be true—that satire has an uncanny ability to speak truth to power. And that in a world where many Americans get their news from satirical shows, the host of the Daily Show matters a great deal.

But it also implicates questions of audience and nationalism that lurk under the surface of late-night comedy, a rhetorical form that hinges on its ability to create community. In other words, the central question here is who gets to make fun of us? Part of this debate swirls around ethos, or credibility. And the credibility of the Daily Show matters a great deal for its ability to be a democratizing voice—one of the great powers of satire in the public arena. Indeed a 2009 Time poll found Jon Stewart to be the most trusted newsperson in the country.

The other part of this question deals with who the “us” is. It is important to note that the audience for the Daily Show is a largely young, well-educated, male audience. But it’s also an audience, I argue, steeped in traditions, language, and values of the United States. Satire works when an audience feels like it is “in” on a joke—it depends upon a feeling of community with the joke teller. The audience cannot feel like the object of scorn. Thus, I submit part of the controversy here is a subtle unease with allowing someone from outside of the United States to be the one that makes fun of us and our government. (Not to mention his status as a person of color. Who knows what uncomfortable conversations about race this may spur!)

Of course, one way in which Noah can get “in” with “us” is to create a third object of derision or ridicule to triangulate against the United States government and his audience. And it seems like, based on his previous Daily Show appearances, that Noah’s native South Africa might provide such a foil. Indeed, in one appearance on the Daily Show, Noah used (the whole continent of) Africa as a way to demonstrate U.S. racism. While this routine did ultimately end up making Stewart and the United States the object of scorn, it reinforced commonly held beliefs about Africa as the backward, dark continent, while also painting those conditions onto the United States. Of course, perhaps confronting (or perpetuating) stereotypes is another way of creating community. Yet, it will be interesting to see how Noah is able to create the community demanded by satire when he cannot solely rely on comparison. I worry that in the interest of poking fun at the United States, he may continue to reinforce stereotypes about Africa.

However, I am also sympathetic to claims that all comics, like all writers, take time to find their voices, and I will be watching with interest once Noah takes the helm of the Daily Show.



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As You’re Tweeting the National Championship Game…

On March 19, 2015, Ashley Judd published an article on the news website Mic about the threats of violence she received after tweeting about Kentucky basketball. Judd tweeted that Kentucky’s opponent was “playing dirty & can kiss my team’s free throw making a—.” In response, basketball fans called Judd a “whore,” “bitch,” and “cunt” and made threats of physical and sexual violence.

AP Photo/David Richard

AP Photo/David Richard

These responses are deeply problematic—not just because of their extremely violent nature, but also because they are used to target women online. Judd asserts that even when people like her uncle make similar points about Kentucky’s gameplay, he does not face threats because of his position as a “male sports fan.” Judd rightfully points out that the tweets she received represent a “devastating social norm experienced by millions of girls and women on the Internet.”

Cultural studies scholar Emma Alice Jane calls this gendered e-bile, “a hostile misogynist rhetoric on the Internet” and “a type of discourse marked by graphic threats of sexual violence, explicit ad hominem invective and unapologetic misogyny.” Like Judd, Jane points out that gendered e-bile is not unique to people who are particularly famous or controversial. Rather, these kinds of threats are widespread and common—so much so that Jane calls them “a lingua franca in many sectors of the cybersphere.”

Wisconsin fans can help make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen for women like Ashley Judd. As we all watch Wisconsin play in the NCAA men’s basketball championship tonight, and as we discuss their play afterwards, we must welcome the voices of women fans. We need to make sure that Badgers don’t call Ashley Judd — or women like her — a bitch for daring to talk about basketball.

Dekker & Hayes High Five

If anything, this year’s Wisconsin men’s basketball team has taught us that being a Badger means staying loose, having fun, and playing good, clean games. For Badgers, those three things aren’t contradictory—they are what makes Wisconsin a winning team. And they can be what makes Badger basketball fandom the fandom that everyone else wishes they had. We all know our team is better than Duke. Let’s show them that our fans are too.



Jane, Emma Alice. “‘Back to the Kitchen, Cunt’: Speaking the Unspeakable about Online Misogyny.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 28, no. 4 (2014): 558–70.


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