Presented at The Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society
Iowa City, May 1999
The weeks upon weeks of impeachment hearings through which we recently suffered have provided a plethora of rhetorical treasure. This is no less true for Burkeians than for other rhetorical scholars. In fact, Burke offers us some unique ways of understanding what happened and perhaps why the attempt to overthrow Clinton failed.
One of the most striking phenomena of the impeachment cycle was the absolute hatred evinced by the Clinton foes. Indeed, Clinton has always managed to arouse in his detractors something more than a rational spirit of critique. In 1993, driving into school on a rural Texas highway, I saw a bumper sticker on a pickup truck: “Impeach him, hell! Get a rope!” At the time I saw this slogan as a comment on our violence-ridden society, where fruitful democratic disagreement was endangered by people who responded to political setbacks with assassination threats. Now I tend to think that the bumper sticker was another manifestation of Clinton’s special ability to draw out in certain people the lowest angels of their nature.
University of Chicago professor Jonathan Lear offers a Freudian explanation for this phenomenon. Lear remarks that “no one is interested in sex, though each party thinks the other is, and somehow the nation seems to be talking about nothing else” (25). He also remarks on other aspects: for example, that the “rule of law” rhetoric employed by the House managers undercut itself because, in fact, it was used to justify the way in which Ken Starr singled out the President for special treatment (25). Lear urges that we explain the feeding frenzy by looking for “a mythical structure in which we are all unconsciously participating” (26). He believes that the grounds of the myth he intends to explicate are more “primordial” than “the Christian myth of sin, human sacrifice, and redemption.” These foundational grounds are “the conditions of civilization itself” (26).
In Lear’s reading, Clinton’s sin is that he acted as if he believed himself above the laws governing the human interactions that make civilized cooperation possible:
Freud posits a pre-civilized state in which an all-powerful leader--the “primal father”--rules over the tribe. He has sexual access to all the women, and he subjugates the men or drives them out. The defining moment of civilization occurs when the sons band together, overthrow the father, and form a civilization by instituting strict rules of sexual access. . . . [These rules guarantee] that no one man can possess all the women--and thus threaten a return to a pre-civilized state. (26)
Lear concludes that “Clinton must die as primal father in order to be reborn as repentant son” (29). The religious cast to the drama, for Lear, is an overlay on the more basic act of patricide.
Lear himself points out one immediate problem with his reading: that Clinton, as the first baby boomer to attain the high office of president, is more of a brother than a father (29). He also reminds us that the president’s efforts at self-flagellation were never enough for his tormenters, who insisted on depicting him as beyond redemption (26). I would point also to the failure of the American public to join in the demand that their “father” be cut down. If we were living out an unconscious mythology, it would seem to be one especially cogent for the press and conservative Republicans.
Burke offers us a reading of the impeachment process that braids together some of the loose threads of Lear’s analysis. Like Lear’s, Burke’s explanation taps the depths of subconscious motivations to which we may not always have full access. I suggest that the assault on Clinton is an example of Burke’s scapegoat paradigm.
For the record, explaining the impeachment as an attempt by Republicans to make Clinton their scapegoat does not imply a moral exoneration of Clinton. Like many others, I am torn between my awareness that I could not have voted differently in those two elections and my concern that in so voting I may have contributed to the ascendancy of an immoral man. But I think that this is a dilemma with which many Americans are grappling, and perhaps Burke will offer an explanation of why so many of us finally acted as we did.
As we know, Burke posited that language is our most fundamental human capacity and that language imposes on us certain ways of dealing with our worlds. Central to these linguistic impositions is the concept of a hierarchical Order (41; RM 191-92).* As a ladder of ever more inclusive generalizations, language drives us to imagine a culmination, an all-inclusive perfection in which every antithesis is subsumed and every contradiction tamed (25-26, 277, 299). In Burke’s theory, this perfect Order entails within itself the concept of Disorder; since the Order is a construct of language, it contains within it and is susceptible to that hallmark of the linguistic capacity, the negative: the ability to say no to Order, to disobey (181, 187). Moreover, we can never achieve this perfect Order because we can never incorporate all the differences and divisions that plague us into a perfect whole (303). “Divisiveness is in itself a ‘fall,’” Burke tells us (279). We respond to our role of disrupter of Order with guilt (210, 285).
Burke sees this relation between Order, division, and guilt as far more primordial than any father-son conflict, since it is intrinsic to our defining characteristic, language, and is the condition of any such divisiveness as that which allows us to name a hierarchical relationship between a father and a son. Burke also believes that our unconscious myths are paeans not so much to power as to form. A fall is a dramatic act that must end. If the end is stasis with the Order destroyed, the comforts of form itself are denied us; the perfection implicit in language is gutted. To destroy form, for Burke, would be to destroy language. There has to be a conversion, a return of the fallen to its rightful place in the Order. With perfection restored,the cycle can begin again (191).
But to achieve this return to Order, what we must cast out is the “no,” the disobedience that marks us as capable of resisting the commands of Order and thus as separate from it; we must negate our original negation (218, 290, 294). In actuality, we, as the language-using animal, are the “no.” So to eliminate the demon of “no” would necessarily be to eliminate language--or ourselves. Some do choose mortification or self-destruction, which can take the form either of suicide or martyrdom (208). But more commonly, we choose a substitute, a symbolic offering in our place (294).
This substitute--the sacrificial scapegoat--is a special creature. The most effective scapegoat, as one who can repair the “perfect” sin, that is, the total disruption of perfection that must result from one flaw, must him- or herself be “perfect”--either, as Burke says, the perfect enemy or the perfect innocent (191, 200, 217). By combining both sacred and accursed in one symbol (192), the perfect scapegoat can erase, or in Burke’s word, bridge, the division between them (304). This is its function: to somehow enable the purifying reabsorption of the fallen into the whole. Burke points out that scapegoats are often chosen from among those who are “set apart”--for example, priests (200). They are always those who embody or personify difference or division, either the fomenters of divisive acts or the possessors of a trait or identity that is seen as disrupting an otherwise unified whole.
Moreover, the ability to say “no,” Burke says, is an aspect of personhood; it is what makes us persons capable of acts rather than objects capable only of passive or mechanical motion (187-88, 202-03, 286; LSA 11). Thus our “sin” is bound up with who we are, with the choices that we make within the window of freedom provided by the power to disobey. “[M]ortification,” Burke writes,
does not occur when one is merely ‘frustrated’ by some external interference. It must come from within. The mortified must, with one aspect of himself, be saying no to another aspect of himself. . . . [He is] seeking a sacrificial vessel upon which he can vent, as from without, a turmoil that is actually within. (190-91)
Thus, the scapegoat must, in some way, be consubstantial with us because what it must take with it when it goes must be some aspect of us, our sins. The scapegoat’s principle role is not to redeem itself. Rather, it serves to purify or redeem the group that has chosen it as a sacrifice because of its power to represent the group’s defining sin (GM 406).
Clearly the Christian cycle of sin and redemption is a forceful exemplar of the scapegoat paradigm. In a Burkeian reading, the Christian story becomes far more primordial than the Freudian father-son drama because the redemption pattern is inherent in language. The question of atonement is central, not an overlay. But it is not Clinton whose redemption was actually at stake in the impeachment proceedings. Instead, it is the atonement and purification of the most vocal of Clinton’s critics, the conservative Republicans and their religious allies, that was at issue. Clinton was in fact their scapegoat, the one they set apart, burdened with their sins and labeled the perfect enemy, and tried their best to cast out.
This claim entails that Clinton represents some flaw in some overriding Order that these foes wanted to protect. They themselves most often named this Order “the rule of law”; thus, this rule of law with which Henry Hyde and other moralizers equated themselves must contain within it a central flaw that, like the “no” in language, cannot be cast out in actuality because of its defining importance and therefore must be cast out symbolically. How can Clinton--a Democrat, a quasi-liberal, a draft-dodger, a marijuana-experimenter, a fornicator--represent something intrinsic to the conservative, moralistic, “rule of law” and the group that mantles itself with that phrase? My answer lies in an essay, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” written 28 years ago by a sociologist named Daniel Bell.
In a 1978 foreword, Bell describes himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture” (xi). Not all of Bell’s arguments about twentieth-century culture are relevant to this inquiry. The book is a plea for a retreat from what Bell sees as the ravages of an unrestrained modernism. Much of what frightens Bell is the set of conditions that he and innumerable others after him label the “postmodern.” Modernism itself is to blame for much of the disruption that he laments, especially three characteristics he points to: its “rage against order, and in particular bourgeois orderliness” which results in an “emphasis . . . on the self, and the unceasing search for experience”; its “effort to achieve immediacy, impact, simultaneity, and sensation by eliminating aesthetic and psychic distance”; and finally, its “preoccupation with the medium,” which for Bell translates into “expressions of the self” by shifting attention away from communication about content onto the artist’s ability to manipulate materials (xxi-xxii). Timothy W. Crusius writes about Burke’s suspicion of the concept of unfettered “free play” in some postmodernisms and his focus on the contribution of the “social, the historical, the traditional in everything we do and say” (83), so there might be some interesting points of comparison between Burke and Bell among the important differences, but such an analysis is beyond the scope of this paper. What is interesting about Bell’s argument in relation to Burke is Bell’s recognition that the emptying out of meaning and moral content that arises from unrestricted reduction of all reality to the free play of interpretation was set in motion and blindly abetted by the very people who call most loudly for a return to moral values. Bell claims that capitalism created the excesses of modernism and in the process exposed its own central flaw.
Here, in Bell’s words, is his proposition:
The basic American value pattern emphasized the virtue of achievement, defined as doing and making, and a man displayed his character in the quality of his work. By the 1950s, the pattern of achievement remained, but it had been redefined to emphasize status and taste. The culture was no longer concerned with how to work and achieve, but with how to spend and enjoy. . . . On the one hand, the business corporation wants an individual to work hard, pursue a career, accept delayed gratification--to be, in the crude sense, an organization man. And yet, in its products and in its advertisements, the corporation promotes pleasure, instant joy, relaxing and letting go. One is to be “straight” by day and a “swinger” by night. This is self-fulfillment and self-realization! (70, 71-72)
Bell sees this contradiction in values as inherent in the complex interactions within American culture: “the claim of the American economic system was that it had introduced abundance, and the nature of abundance is to encourage prodigality rather than prudence” (75). But prodigality overturns the “theological and sociological foundations of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which was in turn the foundation of the American value system” (75). Such a divided society--and perhaps even current iterations of capitalism itself, Bell worries--cannot long thrive.
My purpose here is not to explore or critique Bell’s theory but rather to show its power to explain the impeachment hearings if linked to Burke’s scapegoat paradigm. Quite simply, the economic and religious conservatives who most loudly expressed their enmity toward Clinton are the ideological heirs of Bell’s ascetic Protestants--hence, their championship of moral values, self-discipline in the face of temptation (which Clinton did not practice), and the bourgeois orderliness symbolized by the rule of law. Yet in the very values they would promote are the seeds of Bell’s hedonism: the laissez-faire markets, where one’s ability to make money, a visible testament to moral merit, depends on one’s willingness to push people to buy anything, including sex.
In what follows, I collapse distinctions among varied groups who characterize themselves as conservatives. But despite differences--even tensions--among members of these groups, I think the ones from whom we heard most, the most morally inflamed, largely tried to speak in one voice and to project an epideictic of blame that emanated from what they wanted people to see as a common center. Not only did they want this center to be defined as the place where the rule of law reigned, they also wanted it to stand for all that was supposedly once good about America and could be again if Clinton and the corruption he represents could be expunged.
In this traditional American landscape, capitalism occupies ambiguous coordinates. In a recent review of works by a number of self-identified conservatives, Alan Wolfe contends that “conservatism began as a protest against modern capitalistic democracy,” with its insistence that the masses have the reason and right to rule themselves rather than succumb to strictures handed down by self-appointed elites (39). Conservatism has failed to take hold in America, Wolfe believes, because when it tries to “assert its true agenda” of tradition, aristocratic rule, and foundational Truth, it is irrelevant to modern life, but any attempt to render it relevant dilutes it until it “eventually transform[s] itself into the very liberalism it claims to detest” (39). Capitalism, with its evocation of rational choosers, is properly a capital-L Liberal phenomenon, but in recent American history, it has associated itself with conservatism, to some extent because of conservatives’ championship of limited government, but also because of the belief embedded in the Protestant ethic and echoed in the justice-as-desert strain in both old and new conservatism (Wolfe 37) that material success is an indicator of virtue. In this view, the sober, moderate, and hard-working deserve to be rewarded, and generally are. The successful entrepreneur makes visible the efficacy of conservative values and thus becomes the conservative hero, and anything that maximizes the rewards accruing to those values and thereby makes people more likely to observe them should be encouraged. Yet it is this veneration of the successful achiever that portends the very slide into closet liberalism (or even libertarianism) that Wolfe predicts and Bell laments. Like Wolfe, Bell sees this slide as inevitable given the degree to which capitalism has insinuated itself in, and now drives, the American system. Both Wolfe and Bell take conservatives to task for their inability to detect this slippage. Burke contributes the analytical tools by which we can make visible the conservative House Managers’ efforts to disguise, both from the public and from themselves, their complicity in the Disorder represented by the capitalist contamination.
To sum up, the central flaw Bell locates in capitalism--particularly the capitalism that sets itself up as the arbiter of moral merit--is its conjunction of production and consumption. This flaw is the irreconcilable tension between the creation of abundance and the hedonism that puts abundance to use. This contradiction cannot easily be banished: an entire economic system depends on it. Unless they constantly create freewheeling, hedonistic consumers whom they would actually like to despise, the capitalists implicitly glorified by Clinton’s attackers cannot practice the production from which their virtue supposedly derives.
If Burke is right, when one person, especially one already set apart, already a little bit different, can be seen to embody perfectly the thing a group would like to deny or banish, that person becomes fodder for the scapegoat machine. I submit that for champions of the capitalist system, Clinton is such a person. Certainly he has been cast by his foes as the embodiment of hedonism, as many commentators recognized when they described the impeachment as an outgrowth of the culture wars in which Clinton stood for the 1960s culture of free sex and drugs. At the same time, in several ways, he has also come to represent much that the House Managers would have liked to retain for conservatism--for example, the triumph of the American system. He has come to stand up as a icon of material success. Not only is there his personal success story, there is also his ability to coax from the wayward capitalist system a totally unexpected, tenacious economic prosperity that has left his detractors with very few tangible failures to snipe at. There is his usurpation of Republican themes, his redefinition of himself as the champion of policy (if not personal) morality, the one who wants to take care of families and save children from tobacco and make America into a truly unified society by healing its divisive wounds. In many ways, as his leftist critics have charged, he has succeeded in out-Republicaning the Republicans, leaving them struggling to define him as outside their ranks.
Just as importantly, Clinton rose to power because of his appeal to the very consumers capitalism found itself forced to create, people who perhaps recognize his history and his abandonment to self-gratification in themselves. He is not only capitalism’s chieftain, he is its child. As Burke points out, one’s child is an ideal scapegoat: “slaying a beloved and only son would contain two elements: by thus ‘killing himself” vicariously, the father could simultaneously be destroyed and be saved” (RM261).
The degree to which Clinton represents an internal conflict for conservatives and capitalists becomes even more striking when we look more carefully at the implications of the order that he is supposed to have violated, the system described by that sonorous phrase, “the rule of law.” On the one hand, capitalism is supposed to succeed if its practitioners abide by an asceticism of self-discipline, self-control, frugality, and attention to rules. Yet paradoxically the central tenet of capitalism is the necessity of an apparently anti-conservative freedom, as embodied in the “free” market and “free” enterprise. A constant complaint of both conservatives and capitalism is that rules like government regulation stifle the freedom the market demands. Capitalism as appropriated by conservatism justifies this wayward insistence on freedom by distinguishing between people and their capital-creating capacity. People should follow rules, but the production of capital and commodities should remain unfettered. Giving producers of capital freedom from regulation has been justified in many ways--for example, in the name of competition, which, for conservatives, carries ethical weight. Free competition, in which no rules limit the options open to those creative and bold enough to discover and use them, is supposed to be the force that separates the elect and deserving from the sluggards and wastrels. Such allegedly ennobling competition is also justified by invisible-hand theories like supply-side economics, which tries to derive ethical results from amoral processes--that is, the good for all of society is assumed to follow from the unleashing of the money-making impulse. Enabling the winners on the competitive field by getting out of their way is cast as a means of raising all boats and thus doing maximum good for the most people. So for captains of acquisition, morality is actually associated with the absence of rules.
One irony in this ambivalence about rules is that it is arguably in their public behavior that capitalists are supposed to be free of rules, if one can somewhat reductively define “public” as behavior that affects other citizens’ lives. Private citizens, meanwhile, defined as those who simply come to work everyday and thus don’t have such profound public influence, must be ever ready to submit to their freewheeling masters’ rules. The Clinton scandal made visible this confusion between public and private and their relationship to morality. The perjury charge could be read as an attempt to hold Clinton publicly responsible for private acts. But in contrast to the public acts of capitalists, which are supposed to be unfettered, Clinton’s public acts were those for which he was to be sanctioned. The conflation of public and private via the act of perjury--which, of course, Clinton himself enabled--made it possible for the House managers to punish vicariously, through Clinton, a cultural resistance to the rules circumscribing the sober, hard-working, early-to-bed-and-rise organization man. They were able to assert symbolically exactly which free behavior was to be permitted and which was to be proscribed. Rhetorically, the Order symbolized by the rule of law was able to display its ability to ferret out and mete out punishment to violations of the distinction between self and capital-producing capacity--the very distinction that Bell would say capitalism, of necessity, blurs. That the capital-producing capacity, for the House Managers and their colleagues, was to remain unaffected is manifest in the fact that Clinton’s acts in this capacity, his actual public acts like policy decisions and fund-raising strategies, have never been and probably never will be presented for judgment in the well of the Senate. I am not the first to suggest that if they were, the actual scope of the rule of law--whom and what it really covers--would become achingly plain.
Finally, what exactly does the rule of law in capitalist culture most often protect? I would suggest that it most often protects private property. It seems designed to put burglars, embezzlers, and the ultimate transgressors of property, murderers, in jail. But, again, Clinton played out this function of the rule of law in such a way as to cast doubt on the apparent order it is supposed to guarantee. Intrinsic to the idea of hedonism is the ability to free oneself to experience everything, and the ultimate actualization of such freedom is to break down the rules that mark certain pleasures and experiences out of bounds. What is most likely to mark such boundaries and put some pleasures off limits are rules about property and personal space. As Lear points out, Clinton seized the women. His trespass in claiming them as objects of possession derived directly from the power given him by capitalist society and from the license to ignore rules of ownership built into the capitalist gestalt. This license prevails because the actual laws that govern capitalism are the “natural laws” of the market, which, at their purest, are ultraDarwinian, endorsing a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that the very word “competition” implies. Such natural laws make ownership a function of power. In such a system, the Order behind the rule of law is really anarchy: a Hobbesian war of all against all, an ironic transformation of a concept into its opposite that Burke teaches us especially to appreciate. Thus Clinton’s seizure of the women, which was perfectly legal, fell well within the logic of free enterprise, which at its purest states that anything you can get and hold onto is yours.
So, finally, Clinton’s foes demonized him in an effort to mark him as repugnant to their sense of Order because he represented, in stark detail, that Order’s contested grounds: its ineradicable tensions between production and consumption, between freedom and control, between public and private, between free enterprise and morality. His apologies were dross to his attackers because his personal redemption was never at stake. For the managers, what counted was their own integrity and purity, an obsession that drove them to differentiate furiously Clinton’s sexual misconduct from that of Hyde, Barr, Gingrich, and Livingstone. Though Clinton was a child of their own making, they had to define him as special, as set apart from other, ordinary sinners, a project that was made easier by his high office: as Lear notes, it was because he was so exalted that his accusers were able to cast his sins as especially evil and to demand prosecution that no one else would have been required to submit to. As an ideal scapegoat, he could have been either especially pure or especially sinful; as a tainted president, symbol to the nation, he was perfectly both at once.
A final enigma in the impeachment drama was the public’s general refusal to be caught up in the blood lust. Some commentators subscribed to the possibility that the public worried just a bit that the judgment being visited on Clinton might one day be directed at them. But some members of the public blamed neither Clinton nor themselves but the “culture”--that is, they suggested that Clinton was playing out a story embedded in our assumptions and values, and they seemed to hint that these assumptions and values could stand some work. Another way of looking at this reaction is to say that the public shifted the pentadic focus from the agent, Clinton, to the scene, ameliorating not only Clinton’s guilt but their own, and thus dulling their need for a scapegoat.
At first glance, such a shift of focus looks like a refusal of responsibility, and indeed it may be. But recall that scapegoating is one of the deadliest of our rhetorical strategies. Its fullest manifestation is violence. Clinton’s expulsion, though at one level only symbolically violent, would have done actual violence to another order that many explicitly saw as competing with the rule of law: the orderly handing over of power in the electoral process. The public’s ability to step out of the scapegoat process allowed them to defer its inherent violence until the next election, a strategy that reduced it to an “orderly” reversal, a decision about blame in a less virulent environment.
Burke tells us that the scapegoat process is cyclical; no sooner will we banish one victim than we will begin looking around for the next (233-36). He also tells us that it is rhetorically necessary and therefore its real violence is at some level ineluctable. But as Crusius reminds us, he leaves open the possibility that we can critically assess the rhetorical pressures our language and our obsession with perfect Orders place upon us (172). It is worth asking whether the kind of deferral enabled by the American public’s scenic shift might not be a strategy for dealing with the implacability of the process. What might a world be like where, in a spirit of irony, we recognized but deferred dealing with at least some of our villains. Deferral, in the Clinton case, gave people a chance to look at events from more than one perspective and thus develop, perhaps, the more ironic perspective that contributes to critical reflection. This is not to say that delay in some moral crises does not carry its own dangers. But I can see in deferral a subtle kind of redemption in that it may serve, in some small way, to weaken the bonds of our rhetorical essence, freeing us just a bit from the need to simply obey our trained incapacities (PC 6-10)--our tendencies to be ruled by orientations that don’t always serve us well.
Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. 1976. New York: Basic-Harper, 1978.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1969.
---. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 1935. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1954.
---. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1969.
---. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. 1961. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1970.
Crusius, Timothy W. Kenneth Burke and the Conversation After Philosophy. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.
Lear, Jonathan. “Freudian Slip.” The New Republic 28 Sept. 1998: 25-29.
Wolfe, Alan. “The Revolution That Never Was: Why Conservatism is a Tribute to Liberalism.” The New Republic 7 June 1999: 34-42.
*All references are to The Rhetoric of Religion unless otherwise noted.