Rhetoric corner: Tavis Smiley on Nas

From preachers in Birmingham to rap stars in the Bronx, it has long been the

case that many of America’s greatest rhetoricians have been black. In the Democratic

primaries, the manner in which Al Sharpton effortlessly showed up his opponents

was, frankly, embarrassing. On the pop charts, Public Enemy and their successors

changed forever the way in which popular musicians can speak to a mass audience.

And over at National Public Radio, the fastest-growing program for the past

few years – indeed, the fastest-growing radio show in NPR history –

has been that of Tavis Smiley, a black radio host whose racially-charged programming

found an audience of 900,000 listeners a week, most of them white.

Smiley has now decided to leave

NPR, claiming that the network has "has simply failed to meaningfully reach

out to a broad spectrum of Americans". In a short interview

about his decision in Time magazine, Smiley essentially says that he didn’t

want to be the token black at NPR, and he saw precious little evidence that

the rest of the network was taking its stated commitment to a more diverse audience


What interests me, however, is Smiley’s choice of words when he’s asked what

he thinks of being namechecked on

the new Nas album: he says he felt "stupid" and "humbled".

Far be it from me to lecture any African American on the subject of humility,

but are these really the mots juste? "when a rapper drops my name

in a song and says something positive, I’m humbled," says Smiley: why should

that be? The reaction of most of us, I’m sure, would be quite the opposite.

My suspicion is that "humbled" has a second meaning, which is almost

the opposite of its primary

meaning. Look at George Galloway (another great public speaker, as it happens),

after winning his libel case in the UK high court, saying

that "I am glad and somewhat humbled to discover that there is at least

one corner of the English field which remains uncorrupted and independent and

that corner is in this courtroom." Galloway isn’t using "humbled"

literally here. He hasn’t been humiliated by the court: in fact, the court agreed

with him entirely. What he means is that he feels that he’s managed to find

an entity greater than himself, one to whom he can happily cede authority.

Smiley’s use of "humbled", I think, is similar. It’s become something

of a cliché for politicians to claim

humility upon their election or appointment to senior posts: it’s just another

iteration of the "you’re not working for me, I’m working for you"

speech. Just as Galloway was placing himself below the high court, so do these

people place themselves below those who elected them. In Smiley’s case, maybe

he’s simply saying that being namechecked by Nas only serves to remind him that

there are greater black communicators out there, Nas being one of them.

Even so, I think maybe Smiley goes a little bit far when he says that Nas’s

song made him feel "stupid". This is not irony, nor is it even antiphrasis,

really. It’s probably closer to false modesty, but even that’s not quite right:

no matter how undistinguished or mediocre a person you are, being namechecked

by Nas does not make you feel stupid. If Smiley considered himself a nonentity

in relation to Nas, then his natural reaction to hearing the song would probably

be closer to pride.

Still, it’s interesting to examine the literal implication of Smiley’s words.

What sort of a person would genuinely feel stupid upon hearing the song, and

would literally feel humbled by it? The answer is someone who considered himself

superior to Nas in every way: such a person would think it stupid that a mere

rapper would presume to compliment him in a song, and would feel, perhaps, dragged

down to the rapper’s level in the process.

Now I’m not for a minute suggesting that Smiley feels that way. But I do wonder

if we’re not seeing a new rhetorical device here: call it false hubris. The

idea, I suppose, might be that if you implausibly claims emotions only a raving

egomaniac would actually feel, then you’re not a raving egomaniac, and in fact

you’re probably just a cool, regular guy.

Of course, I’m almost certainly taking a throwaway five-minute conversation

with a newsmagazine journalist far too seriously. Most likely, Smiley was simply

trying to say something along the lines of "I don’t consider myself worthy

of this honour", without sounding pompous and, well, stupid. It’s just

interesting to see how someone hailed as one of the great communicators of our

day actually went about doing so.

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3 Responses to Rhetoric corner: Tavis Smiley on Nas

  1. MemeFirst says:

    I should write for the NYT more

    There comes a time in some men’s lives when they feel compelled to write a short piece on the rhetoric of the word “humbled”. Me, I put it on my blog. Christopher Caldwell, on the other hand, got his published…

  2. MemeFirst says:

    I should write for the NYT more

    There comes a time in some men’s lives when they feel compelled to write a short piece on the rhetoric of the word “humbled”. Me, I put it on my blog. Christopher Caldwell, on the other hand, got his published…

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