Ivie Essay

Robert L. Ivie's essay, The Rhetoric of Bush's War on Evil, is surely the best thing I've read on the discourse and persuasive strategies of our 43rd president. There are so many trenchant observations in this critique, it will take several short posts to do justice to them. Needless to say, it is a hard-hitting polemic against, as well as warning about, Bush's brand of snake oil. Nevertheless, Ivie's analysis is subtle and balanced, careful to point out sharp distinctions between, as well as frightening similarities to, Hitler's <em>Mein Kampf</em>, the benchmark piece of propaganda from which the author takes his Burkean inspiration.

Let me first split hairs with Ivie on two possible points of contention. Early on, he likens Bush's rhetoric to that of Hitler in the sense that the global scapegoating of the international Islamic terrorist as the cause of, or as the chief explanation for, America's economic ills, namely, its gargantuan deficits, is similar to that of Hitler's scapegoating of the intenational Jew as the cause of all of Germany's financial problems following the Great War. Bush's sleight-of-hand thus deceptively substitutes a noneconomic explanation for one that could realistically account for an economic ill. Ivie could have been a bit more nuanced here by noting that in Hitler's case, the scapegoat as cause was made out of whole cloth. In Bush's case, yes, the president is being grossly disingenuous, but the war on terror has contributed some to America's threatening financial crisis. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the recession and 9/11 combined do account for about one-third of the 2004 deficit (Paul Krugman, Checking the Facts in Advance, New York Times, October 12, 2004). Bush has been riding this pony for more than a year now, quite mendaciously, but not altogether so.

The other minor point I'd make is, rhetorical tragedy, unlike aesthetic tragedy, fosters an attitude of rejection every bit as much as it functions as a frame of acceptance, as Ivie offers. Burke's theory of tragedy in Attitudes Towards History works well for theatrical and literary art, the main focus of his chapter on Poetic Categories. It does not fit one-to-one, however, with the rhetorical situation. I refer you to my article on the rhetoric of William F. Buckley, Jr., in the Western Journal of Communication, Summer, 1996, pp. 279-80

These are, though, mere quibbles. I'll get to the quite potent gravamen of Ivie's case in my next post.

Taxonomy upgrade extras: 

Ivie's Essay

Some other points and phrases I especially like in Ivie's critique:

In paragraph #8, Ivie lists the populist pretensions [of Bush's that] serve elitest interests without the slightest sign of embarrassment. This is a wonderful passage that highlights the mendacious contradictions between Bush's public rhetoric and his executive actions (sometimes taken on Friday afternoons, too late for the evening broadcast network news). I think it was Joshua Green, writing in The Washington Monthly, who said that Bush, who says he doesn't do polling, used push polls like crazy his first year in office to discover ways to sell his corporation-friendly policies via language that would sound responsible, mainstream, and preservationist. Talk about rhetoric as the strategic use of ambiguity for persuasive purposes (GM)! The discourse of George W. Bush is a risible, yet sad, almost paradigmatic example. Ivie summarizes this strain in Bush's polemics and pronouncements so very well.

Paragraph #14 offers another helpful summary of Bush's deceptive rhetorical tactics. It also probes to the heart of Bush's transcendental drama: All rhetorical roads led back to the 'Rome' term of Christian faith, . . . , Ivie says. Bush's America would be purified by dissociation with evil through a great battle with Islamic 'terrorism.'

Ivie coins some more memorable lines in paragraph #16 and beyond: Indeed, the arrogance of the president's Christian humility [is] (yet another pretentious distortion of religious principle), . . . . The author speaks also of Bush's transparently coded language and his pious extremism. He traces that cycle of rightwing radicalism presently operating in the political mainstream back to where it began baldly over four decades ago with Barry Goldwater's resounding declaration . . . that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Curently situated in the midst of the conservative swing, Americans are now habituated to the demagoguery of Orwellian rhetoric in one form or another.

I'll holler one more rant into the void later, perhaps, on the perfections and sacrificial elements in Ivie's analysis of the Bushean drama. I'm feeling more and more like the designated respondent for the KB Journal rather than Conversation Editor, but so what. I can always talk nervously and loquaciously, a la P&C, with myself.


Ivie's Essay

I'm wondering whether Ivie hasn't offered an even more compelling example of the distortion of religion and the religious motive for persuasive purposes than Burke's. Burke's critique of Hitler's book-length rant named Mein Kampf has always seemed to me to be built on something of an ellipsis, a soritical argument with a few important blanks in it not fully filled in until The Rhetoric of Religion was published in 1961. It wasn't until he published his Religion book that Burke finally got around to fully explicating the theological motive of perfection and its pervasive appearance in whole or in attenuated part in so much secular as well as sacred discourse. True, on occasion Hitler did invoke the name of God in his fulminations before taking office and seizing plenary power in 1933. A speech Hitler made at the Burgerbraukeller in Munich circa April 12, 1922, is a case in point.

Hitler was not, though, or anything close to it, an overtly religious orator. He did not present himself as a man of God in the Bushian mold, nor did he directly play upon religious sensibilities the way W does. As Ivie makes clear near the end of his piece, with admirable nuance, Hitler presented himself, unlike Bush, as something of a god, not as a man of God. Hitler's distortion of religion was in the thoroughly tragic form his oratory took: He described a perfect, let's even say perfectly potent, agent (himself), performing a perfect act (thoroughly vanquishing and eliminating a perfect enemy responsible for all of Germany's ills, to say nothing of this adversary's universally destructive nature dating back as far as the Fall of Rome), for a perfect cause (the establishment of a thousand-year Reich that would be the envy of the world, if not its master, a veritable heaven on earth), by way of a perfect agency (a united citizenry composed of head and hand striving together obediently and self-sacrificially for the good of the Fatherland), within a perfectly dire scene in which chaos and ruin were at the doorstep. It is this perfectly tragic drama, in its formal features, that so insidiously mimics the Divine perfections of the Christian story.

Burke does not explicitly make these connections in his critical article, first published in the Southern Review. Hitler used the religious form, particularly the Western religious form, to work his rhetorical magic. George W. Bush employs religion in both form and content to mesmerize America and bring to fruition the radically conservative revolution the Weyrich's, Buckleys, and Falwells have long sought.

More later.

Ivie's Essay

The structure of sacrifice in the tragic drama of Bush's war on evil is somewhat anomalous, isn't it? As Ivie has rightly noted, the perfected scapegoat is front and center, the international Islamic Terrorist. These terrorists are responsible for most of our growing budget deficit. They are the cause of our problems with pacification in Iraq. They reside within in locations like up-state New York. They're presumptively charging across our borders in droves to the south and north, prompting alarm about our immigration policies among the paleo-conservatives, at least. They concoct plans in Germany, set off bombs in Spain and Bali, and foment riots and unrest in Indonesia and the Philippines. And they are simply 'evil, motivated against us not by anything we have done by way of foreign policy, only by hatred of our freedom. (Susan Sontag, one of Burke's students, was savaged by the Right for her response to 9/11 in The New Yorker. She offered actual reasons for what the terrorists did. That offense was cited in her recent obituaries.) Ubiquitous and expressive, as Ivie describes it, of some dark force in man, woman, and the universe, they pose an all-embracing threat to our survival in the 21st Century.

Yet, we, the vulnerable citizenry of this embattled land, are asked to do almost nothing in the way of self-sacrifice in the face of this global threat. Intense motification of a kind customarily accompanies profound victimage. That's the logic of a tragic drama. Self-denial in support of the common cause is dramatically implicit in a call to a difficult and long-term effort to destroy a cunning and globally aggressive foe. One of FDR's reasons for hawking war bonds in the 1940s was, reportedly, to enhance Americans' sense of sacrificial participation in the global conflict---to say nothing of rationing, drives of many kinds, women in the workplace, frozen rents and prices, and a diminution of partisan politics. Bush asks for nothing except ever-steeper tax cuts, especially for those with high-incomes; an all-volunteer army, no draftees; and a continuation of free trade initiatives that transfer more and more of our industrial base, some of it of military significance, abroad. Only a few of our civil liberties are to be relinquished in our war on terrorism.

Doesn't this dramatic inconsistency expose the phoniness at core of Bush's war on terror?

Tragedy in the Offing

Excellent article, and it includes one of my favorite passages in Burke: "The Bible, with its profound and beautiful exemplifying of the sacrificial principle, teaches us that tragedy is ever in the offing. Let us, in the spirit of solemn comedy, listen to its lesson. Let us be on guard ever, as regards the subtleties of sacrifice, in their fundamental relationship to governance."

But I do think that Ivie misses the full extent of Bush's scapegoating, and one of the things that makes it most effective: i.e., that Bush scapegoats not just the terrorists but also the media and liberals. The great majority of the scapegoating of the last is done by proxies like Coulter and Limbaugh, although the Kerry campaign allowed Bush himself to trot it out more explicitly. Bush and his echo chamber rotate between these scapegoats very proficiently, I think.