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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

Rhetoric and Sense-making in the Death of Tony Robinson

Madison, WI, progressive bastion of the Midwest (or so its residents like to think) saw itself become the next city to kill a black, unarmed teenager post-Ferguson last Friday night (March 6). The teen, Tony Robinson, was shot five times by a police officer in a house on “Willy Street” on Madison’s East Side. In the days following, protests have grown in size, and with them, media coverage has grown in frequency and scope.

As a white Madison resident concerned with the city’s disproportionate arrest of black men (they’re 8 times more likely to be arrested than white men here), and the spatial and economic segregation of the community, I have so many thoughts and so very many feelings.

As a scholar, I am overwhelmed by all there is to see and hear. Speeches. Gestures. Blog posts. Newspaper articles. Videos. Still images. Some coalitional. Some divisive. Some purporting to be descriptive. Some honest about offering interpretation. All rhetorical.

While I continue to process what I might have to say about these events, today my aim is curatorial. Here, I share with you some select moments from the last few days which bolster my belief that rhetoric is no ancient art, but very much alive and well in these United States:

  • Actively working to combat the common representation of fallen black men as “thugs,” Tony’s mother requested that this photo of him at his high school graduation be the one circulated in the media:

Tony Robinson

  • Media representations of Tony have tended to align with common tropes used to explain why black men are killed by police. Despite his family and friends’ efforts to talk about him as fun-loving, helpful, smart, and kind, this one clip from CNN, for example, represents Tony as mentally troubled, a criminal, and a troubled teen who had fallen in with the “wrong crowd.”
  • Madison’s police chief demonstrated the Platonic tradition of denigrating rhetoric even as he employed it to apologize to the community. In a March 9 “Message to the Community” blog post, Chief Koval points to Sir Robert Peel, the “founder of modern policing,” to explain that “POLICE ARE THE PUBLIC AND THE PUBLIC ARE THE POLICE” (Koval’s emphasis). He then employs a number of metaphors: putting on “armor” each day, thinking about the police as “guardians” of “the vulnerable, the voiceless, the victims.” Then, as he concludes, he writes, “Let us continue to demonstrate to you that our commitment transcends mere rhetoric” (emphasis mine).
  • A Milwaukee science fiction and fantasy author took on the role of argumentation scholar that same day, analyzing common arguments made in the wake of events like Robinson’s killing. His piece, “4 Reasons Not to Get Upset About Tony Robinson and Why They’re All Bullshit” responded to 1) calls to “wait for the facts,” 2) arguments that “officers have to protect themselves,” 3) questions about why protestors aren’t “protesting criminals” instead of police, and 4) colorblind assertions that “people shouldn’t make it all about race.”
Paul Soglin addresses crowd

Image source: The Isthmus, a Madison, WI newspaper.

  • Scholars of traditional public address often hear that their work matters little in a digital world, but the above image of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin addressing more than 1,500 young protestors on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard suggests otherwise. As the street name reminds us of one of the great orators of last century’s civil rights movements, Soglin’s bullhorn before this group of protestors demonstrates the continued expectation that political leaders speak in times of social and/or political upheaval.
  • “Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” – As the crowd marched across the city, these collective chants demonstrated a belief that shared words and shared experience (the aural, the embodied, and the visual) were important to communicate their response to the deaths of unarmed black youth and adults in Madison, and beyond.


Of all the chants that I’ve heard at this week’s protests, my favorite one is this: “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” From a community grappling with principles of fairness, equality, and justice this week, I offer these examples to illustrate the critical role rhetoric plays in these negotiations. As rhetorical scholars, we are trained to notice, think through, and make sense of these symbolic representations. However, as I hope the above illustrates, and as this blog hopes to communicate, everyone is always both a rhetor and a rhetorician.


by | March 10, 2015 · 9:52 pm

Team Jack: What It Means to Be a Husker

Across year-end top ten lists from YouTube, USA Today, the Huffington Post, and others, Jack Hoffman has been making steady appearances. On April 6, 2013, Jack Hoffman, a seven-year old with brain cancer, donned a red #22 jersey to make a 69-yard touchdown during the Spring Game scrimmage for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Husker football team.

Since the Spring Game, the touchdown has garnered more than 8 million views on YouTube. It has been named the best moment by USA Today and the Big Ten and earned Jack an ESPY. While the touchdown itself allowed Jack to live his dream of playing with the Huskers, Jack and his family have also been using the opportunity to increase awareness of pediatric brain cancer and raise money for medical research. So far, The Team Jack Foundation has raised $1 million for cancer research through donations, the sale of Team Jack t-shirts and bracelets, and galas and bowling fundraisers.

More important than making the top ten year end lists, Jack’s touchdown is significant because it has been fully integrated into the values, traditions, and meaning of what it means to be a Husker fan. Jack’s touchdown, and the Husker football team’s welcoming of Jack, has become a way to define what it means to be a Husker, identify Husker values, and prioritize those values.

After the Spring Game, fans pointed to Jack to define what it means to be a Husker and to share pride in that identity.






Throughout these tweets, fans share their pride in the Nebraska football program and allude to something special being shown with Jack’s touchdown. Jeff Koterba articulates what these fans leave unspoken: that Jack’s touchdown showed Husker values at work.

Jeff Koterba cartoon for April 9, 2013 "Jack Hoffman Huskers"

Jeff Koterba cartoon for April 9, 2013 “Jack Hoffman Huskers”

In Koterba’s cartoon, Husker football players are no longer students, athletes, or celebrities, but rather are representatives of the values upheld by Husker Nation. The editorial states, “It’s easy in today’s high-stakes world of big-time college athletics to overlook things like sportsmanship, generosity and inspiration. All suited up Saturday in Memorial Stadium.” Indeed, the cartoon shows what happens when Huskers values are enacted through the Husker football players on the field and the Husker fans in the crowd roaring as Jack crossed into the end zone.

Husker fans like Sean Carey and Tyler Quick assert that these values are more important than any winning streak. For Huskers, sportsmanship, generosity, inspiration, hope, heart, and soul are prioritized over winning.



Andrew Dillon goes so far as to say that Jack Hoffman may be the greatest running back of all time. By doing so, he contributes to prioritizing the values Jack embodies over winning football games.


Andrew shifts the criteria for best running back from touchdown statistics to the values Jack embodies. Jack’s single touchdown may be more important than Mike Rozier’s 29 touchdowns and 2,148 rushing yards.

Husker fans have fully embraced Jack’s touchdown. For Huskers, it is a point of pride, shows what it means to be a Husker, and demonstrates that values like sportsmanship, hope, and inspiration are more important than winning. Of course, these values have long been a part of the Husker fan community. Tom Osborne, the Husker’s head football coach from 1973-1997, famously embraced a coaching philosophy that emphasized more than winning: a game well played. But after Tom Osborne stepped aside as head football coach, Husker Nation underwent a minor identity crisis.

Frank Solich was hired in 1998 and found moderate success, but after a 7-7 season in 2002 and firing many of the assistant coaches afterwards, only one third of Nebraskans polled thought his team “represented real Nebraska football” (Aden, pg. 57). When Bill Callahan took over in 2004, he introduced big changes that yielded minimal success: he gutted Nebraska’s walk-on program and introduced a west-coast offense. Callahan was eventually fired in 2007 (Aden, pg. 58). These Solich and Callahan years shook the foundations of Husker Nation. Nebraska’s current coach, Bo Pelini, has been unable to repair all the damage—indeed, such a task may take years.

This makes Jack Hoffman’s touchdown even more important for the Husker fan community. His touchdown provided an opportunity for fans, players, and coaches to recommit themselves to particular values and reconnect those values to Husker fandom. When Jack made that touchdown, Huskers were reminded of what it takes to be a Husker and why that’s so special.


by | January 9, 2014 · 11:39 pm