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Joseph J. Romm’s Language Intelligence gives a brief survey of Western rhetoric, tossing classic figures like Jesus and Shakespeare together with contemporaries like George W. Bush and Lady Gaga. The book is designed to help writers “become more persuasive, more memorable, and harder to manipulate” (vii). While I think Romm achieves this to an extent, I also had a decidedly negative reaction to his approach.I probably disliked this book more than it deserves. Romm seems like a smart guy, and I give him major kudos for supporting the climate change movement with his blog, ClimateProgress.org. He has a keen understanding of persuasive strategies and uses examples that effectively explain their functions. His chapters on metaphor and extended metaphor are particularly solid, though I’d still recommend Johnson and Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By––a book Romm cites once or twice––as a more substantive substitute. Romm’s examinations of modern political rhetoric are also fascinating, although I often disagreed with his interpretations.My main problem with this book is its subdued ambitions. “Language intelligence is the key to creating and sustaining a memorable brand,” Romm writes in his conclusion. “If you are wittier on Twitter and have headier headlines, then I have succeeded” (176). I can’t say this book won’t help some readers achieve those goals, but I have to question their underlying value. Perhaps Romm’s success within the current status quo has blinded him to the reality that we need media that is more challenging and more complex, not just a reminder that repetition helps if you want to make your message stick.I expected a lot more from a book called Language Intelligence, but Romm seems content to offer a set of tools for pandering to the lowest common denominator of Internet users. This book isn’t really about how to use language intelligently; it’s about how to get what you want when intelligence is in short supply.A major red flag is the Romm’s relentlessly quantitative perspective. “The need to fill up a twenty-four-hour news cycle and the ever-growing number of media outlets means the only way to get a message out is to shout it over and over again,” Romm claims (33). This is not a false statement, but it reveals a critical bias: for Romm, being a successful blogger is about being noticed, about web traffic and retweets. It’s about quantity, not quality. If you’re concerned with producing quality work that will attract a quality audience, this book is not for you.Romm has lots to say about how to fashion pithy headlines and catchy slogans. He says almost nothing about how to make an extended argument supported by appropriate evidence, find your voice, or develop an aesthetic relationship with the act of writing. He seems to think that the size of your audience should outweigh your emotional relationship with your writing. He characterizes rhetoric as an objective tool that exerts equal influence on all humans, regardless of context or education. You can pick it up and watch your numbers soar, or leave it and learn to be content with obscurity.Nothing illustrates this more clearly than Romm’s obsequious treatment of Lady Gaga. He points out with reverence that Gaga “is the first musician in history to hit one billion views on YouTube,” as if YouTube has been used since the beginning of time to rate humanity’s most important artistic endeavors (30). Romm infantilizes the reader by explaining that lines like “I’ll get him hot, show him what I’ve got” are designed to be seductive, and how Gaga’s lubricious hit “Poker Face” makes magnificent use of “multiple layers” and contains a “deeper meaning” (171-2). Meanwhile, musicians all over the world are creating genuinely valuable and interesting works of art. They just don’t have enough YouTube hits to show up on Romm’s radar.Given how much time Romm spends analyzing Shakespeare, Lincoln, and other well-deserving rhetorical heavyweights, it might seem queer that he would praise such shallow music. But shallow art is perhaps most likely to fit into Romm’s model of success; much of Language Intelligence gives the impression that something mediocre can be made great with the right rhetorical tweaks. And while that may sometimes be the case, such an ethos isn’t exactly a recipe for informative and vibrant media.Another oversight is Romm’s failure to acknowledge that the effectiveness of rhetorical strategies always depends on the intelligence of a particular audience. If your audience is impatient and superficial, then gussied up language will be enough to string them along. But if your audience is educated and informed, they’ll be reading for content and consistency, not fluff. Romm claims that “facts cannot fight false frames,” but that’s simply not true for many readers (139).If you’re trained to value facts and deconstruct frames, facts can win the day. All writers use frames, but we regularly use facts to revise old frames or generate new frames that improve understanding and reflect existing conditions with better accuracy. How could this be so if frames always trump facts? Additionally, there’s no reason why complexity can’t be just as seductive as sound bites, or even moreso. Many writers explain facts with clarity and eloquence, enticing readers to face complicated realities rather than ignore them (e.g. anything by Carl Sagan, Edward O. Wilson, Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio, or countless other naturalist writers).Romm doesn’t seem to understand just how much a decent education changes one’s interactions with the modern media. He portrays conniving politicians and advertisers as “ultra-subtle and ultra-sophisticated seducers” who dominate us with their inimitable rhetorical chops (145). This is a straw man. The truth is that anyone equipped with the right analytical skills will see through most (not all) rhetorical window-dressing. Sadly, your average Internet user doesn’t qualify. To its credit, Language Intelligence contains a chapter devoted to rectifying this problem. Romm’s dominant message, however, is that the only way to overcome deceptive and reductive rhetoric is with rhetoric that is equally deceptive and reductive, but aligned with the “correct” perspectives and values.Romm wants us to think we’re in an arms race with rhetorical geniuses, and the only way to fight back is to get just as good as they are at fooling people and oversimplifying complex issues: “You must fight metaphorical fire with metaphorical fire” (139). We can win some battles that way, to be sure. But the war will be won when people start demanding better content, not better quips. We should focus on creating a media landscape where good rhetoricians are less effective across the board. Trying to beat them at their own game will only degrade our public discourse further.This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.

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