Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Carol Moseley-Braun's Day to Talk about Race: A Study of Forum in the United States Senate

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Carol Moseley-Braun's Day to Talk about Race: A Study of Forum in the United States Senate

Article excerpt

This essay examines the events of July 23, 1993 in both the Judiciary Committee and on the floor of the United States Senate. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, who referred to the day as "my day to get to talk about race," was involved in two events. Both were highly publicized, one as a failure, the other as a major success. The "day" invites the attention of the rhetorical critic, an opportunity to examine both a space not so clean as well as a moment of spontaneous and passionate expression in one of America's most celebrated forums for public argument.

A modern rhetorical forum, according to Thomas Farrell, is "a space of engagement where in the modern constraints of rhetorical culture might assert themselves." This rhetorical culture is a "common definition of places for the invention and perpetuation of meaning" (p. 277). Forum is here being introduced as a modality for understanding the significance of two events occurring both on the floor and in the committee chamber of the United States Senate. The forum has a normalized condition in so far as it "provides loose but recognizable admission criteria as to who may speak, what may be spoken about, and how they are to be held accountable for what they say and do" (p. 288). As Farrell states, "each of these sets of constraints may be subsumed under the larger category of the appropriate," which itself is "continually being reindividuated and renewed with every specific case" (pp. 288-289). That is to say, the norms which determine appropriate rhetorical practice, while being very normalized, are themselves challenged by the participants in each situation-specific case. Such challenges evoke norms for speakers, messages, and constituencies, or the norms of authority, integrity, and conscience (pp. 288-289). The following is a look at two such specific cases.

The essay is an analysis of public argument which, while beginning and ending on one day, is affected by public controversies both latent and undeveloped, in part due to the constraints of the immediate normative forum in which they take place as well as the larger society which accommodates this forum. Born out of the rhetoric are conclusions which reveal telling attributions of the highly normalized forum of America's highest legislative body.

Some observations are important at the outset. First, both of these issues surface on the same day and involve, as their central pressure point, the issue of race. It is impossible to ignore the inevitable potential of one episode informing the other in the mind of the rhetor. Second, unique to the carefully calculated moments of Senate argumentation, both are unanticipated by Moseley-Braun and her contemporaries. In such a constrained forum, tendency toward careful anticipation is the norm. The fact that both episodes take the primary rhetor by surprise is relatively unique. The resulting rhetoric is fresh and uncalculated - at times even unpolished - making it impossible to dismiss as the orchestrated antics of politicians manipulating their colleagues. The reactions are as telling as the actions - revealing a Senate fundamentally unprepared for such a subject in the hands of such a rhetor.


On the morning of July 22, 1993, freshman Senator from Illinois, Carol Moseley-Braun joined the seventeen other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the third of four hearings on the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah entered into a line of inquiry on the subject of judicial activism by reminding the Judge of the 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sanford. Hatch argued, "the Court invented out of thin air a right to own slaves in the territories" against which the Judge argued, "it was an entirely wrong decision" (Hearing, pp. 269-270). In addition to Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade, Hatch discussed the 1930's case, Lochner v. New York in which the Court decided that minimum wage laws were supported on the basis of liberty of contract (p. …

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