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Poison pens

Posted by Christopher Shea  May 26, 2009 10:27 AM

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So it turns out that Ruth Padel, the first female Oxford Professor of Poetry -- who beat out Derek Walcott after Walcott took himself out of the running for the post when someone began circulating stories of his alleged past sexual harassment of students -- was not so innocent after all. After Padel won the post, she told the Daily Telegraph that the competition had been "poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with."

But Padel, it transpired, had reminded journalists via email of the allegations that have long dogged Walcott (including incidents that supposedly occurred at Harvard and Boston University). Faced with an uproar when two newspapers revealed the existence of those emails, she resigned, saying in a statement:

I did not engage in a smear campaign against him but, as a result of student concern, I naively -- and with hindsight unwisely -- passed on to two journalists, whom I believed to be covering the whole election responsibly, information that was already in the public domain.

Set aside whether alleged sexual harassment should be held against a much-lauded poet like Walcott -- or talking about it held against Padel (who also commented negatively in the emails about Walcott's health and age) -- and take a minute to appreciate Padel's rhetorical prowess. Note that she taught classics for years before turning to poetry full time. And she has acknowledged that the messages she sent the journalists contained the following lines:

Some supporters add that what he does for students can be found in a book called The Lecherous Professor, reporting one of his two recorded cases of sexual harassment and that Obama is rumoured to have turned him down for his inauguration poem because of the sexual record. But I don't think that's fair.

That series of statements, particularly the last sentence, sound like a textbook example of praeteritio, or paraleipsis, defined in one much-cited online guide to classical rhetoric as "pretended omission for rhetorical effect."

The two examples that guide offers of the rhetorical move come from the Greek general Pericles, via Thucydides, and an unnamed opponent of Senator Ted Kennedy. Pericles was pretending to omit details flattering to himelf:

That part of our history detailing the military achievements which gave us our several possessions … is a theme too familiar to my listeners for me to dilate on, and I shall therefore pass it by.

The Kennedy foe feigned magnanimity while sticking in the knife:

Let us make no judgment on the events of Chappaquiddick, since the facts are not yet all in.

In that spirit, since the facts are not all in, let us not pile on Ruth Padel. It would be unchivalrous to suggest that she let ambition trump whatever qualms she had about spreading the old stories about Walcott -- and unfair to say that, when suspicions against her arose, her first instinct was to grit her teeth and lie her way out of the controversy.

PS Interestingly, Moby Lives, one of Padel's staunchest stateside defenders as the controversy gained momentum over the last few weeks, remains in her corner.

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