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.