Robert L. Ivie, Indiana University
Abstract: George W. Bush is a Burkean devil of rhetorical seduction. His demagoguery in the service of empire masquerades as a test of Christian faith and of faith in a Christian man, calling on Americans to make their nation right with God by exterminating an international devil. His "war" is a bastardization of religious thought akin to Hitler’s "Battle." Understanding what these two disquieting discourses hold in common helps to identify a difference that is crucial to finding America’s democratic voice.
THE SIMPLEST STATEMENT is sometimes the surest sign that a fundamental attitude has become fixed in public culture. Jodi Crawford’s straightforward response to CBS Evening News correspondent Jim Axelrod on May 11, 2004 ("War") was just such an instructive moment. Axelrod’s election-year report came that night from Allentown, Pennsylvania, a so-called "swingtown" that anchorman Dan Rather billed as "a microcosm of America in most every way – including how it votes in presidential elections." Crawford’s husband was a National Guardsman with a year left on his tour of duty in Iraq. A soldier in his platoon had just been killed in combat. Crawford was understandably worried and wished that the war could suddenly end so that her husband could return home safely. Yet her faith in the president was unshaken. She would vote for George W. Bush "because he’s a Christian."
The war was turning undeniably bad. America’s occupation of Iraq was becoming a quagmire reminiscent of Vietnam. U.S. casualties were on a dramatic rise. Shocking pictures of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners appalled the nation and offended the world.1 Members of the international "coalition of the willing" were beginning to recall their troops from Iraq. Public opinion in Europe was overwhelmingly hostile to the U.S. invasion and occupation. Terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere was intensifying. Elite newspapers such as The New York Times were calling for the president to sack Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and to overhaul a failed foreign policy ("Donald Rumsfeld").
Yet, Jodi Crawford stood by her president and his aggressive policy of preemptive warfare because he was a Christian. Her simple declaration of faith opened a window on the nation’s soul for anyone to witness while watching and listening that evening. America’s war on Iraq was animated by religious conviction; it was a test of Christian faith and of faith in a fellow Christian; it was no more and no less than a war waged against evil, a fight to preserve the nation’s soul personified in its president. Americans were making themselves right with God at home and abroad by slaying the Devil’s henchmen. Down home in this microcosm of the nation, Christian America was crusading for a righteous cause and was determined to win an apocalyptic war of civilizations.2
Kenneth Burke, consistent with his penetrating critique of the "bastardization of fundamentally religious patterns of thought" in Hitler’s infamous "Battle," might very well consider Crawford’s simple expression of her Christian convictions to be something of a representative anecdote and, as such, evidence of a dire prediction come true. For this was the very kind of "medicine" that Burke warned could all too easily be concocted and consumed in America – a sinister, unifying snake oil that promised to cure the nation’s democratic vices and divisions with a dose of crude fascist magic. The materialization of this distorted religious motive was exemplified in the selection of an international devil figure. For Hitler’s Germany it was the international Jew; for Bush’s America it is the international Islamic terrorist. Once the international devil was essentialized, all "proof" of his deadly omnipresence was henceforth automatic and all of secular (now global) capitalism’s complex shortcomings could be simplified and too easily accounted for by projecting them onto a palpable and convenient scapegoat. By excising in this way the Babel of democratic voices "fallen upon evil days," the divided nation could ignore its internal inadequacies and focus instead on its unifying foreign foe. The curative function of the scapegoat mechanism caricatured religious thought, Burke observed, in order to advance a "noneconomic interpretation of economic ills" and to purify "imperialistic drives" in the image of a perfectly evil enemy, an image conveyed through the deceptive demagoguery of "endless repetition" and emotional trickery that left the nation’s problems unsolved and calamity at hand ("Hitler’s ‘Battle’" 219, 191-92, 194, 196, 200, 202-03, 204, 210, 217, 219-20; Burke’s emphasis).
Burke’s critique of Hitler’s "Battle" is a cautionary tale come true in Bush’s "war" on evil. The rhetoric of these two demagogues, although not the same, is disturbingly similar and equally powerful, each drawing from a common well of propaganda techniques to misappropriate a people’s sacred convictions. In each we see a strategic scaffolding of the theme of evil adapted uniquely to circumstances and culture. Hitler and Bush? Who would have thought that a likeness of any kind, let alone one of fascist demagoguery in the service of empire, might ever be drawn between this notorious German dictator (the persona of modern evil) and an American president, especially a Christian man?3 Yet, this was the very possibility that Burke foresaw in his appraisal of Mein Kampf even before the U.S. had entered World War II and inaugurated an American century now morphed into an open-ended and vaguely defined global "war" on terrorism.4 In Burke’s prescient words:
There is nothing in religion proper that requires a fascist state. There is much in religion, when misused, that does lead to a fascist state. . . . Our job, then, our anti-Hitler Battle, is to find all available ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle. ("Hitler’s ‘Battle’" 219)
Just as it would be misleading to reduce Bush’s rhetoric of "war" to a mere replica of Hitler’s "Battle," we could miss the significance of the differences between them without also observing what they hold rhetorically in common.
Indeed, Bush is the devil of rhetorical seduction for our time.5 He is, to clarify, a Burkean devil figure of the sort found in The Rhetoric of Religion, where Burke constructs a discourse between The Lord and Satan in which the latter is portrayed as an agile youth who wears a fool’s cap while speaking in friendly terms. The Lord is affectionately amused by his young, over-hasty, and mercurial interlocutor who suffers no nuance and delights in advancing simplistic solutions to complicated problems. "The idea of hell," The Lord cautions, "is the idea of a really perfect ending" (276, 312, 315-16.). And then the scene of the conversation suddenly goes dark and formless with a loud bang. Burkean evil is the error of hubris, the stupidity of pride and of denying the basic logological truth "that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness" (Burke, Attitudes 41; Burke’s emphasis).
Blinded by terministic hubris and determined to make things simple, human societies and their spokespersons are all the more capable of bonding against a convenient scapegoat to the bitter and violent end. Evil, in this sense, is banal, not demonic in the traditional image of a fallen angel, as Hannah Arendt has observed about Adolf Eichmann. The doers of monstrous deeds refine stupidity into mundane thoughtlessness through the medium of "clichés, stock phrases, [and] adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct" (Arendt 3-4). Evil is thereby made into an ordinary, common, everyday, shallow, and routine phenomenon uninterrupted by moments of reflexivity. The banality of evil is the absence or collective loss of imagination, the calcification of a tragic frame of acceptance for want of a Burkean comic corrective. 6 Thus, Bush-the-thoughtless-president would speak for every Christian American in the mind-numbing and pretentious cliché of a righteous fight for freedom regardless of its monstrous consequences.
Demagoguery of this kind is habitually self-righteous and cynical – a Janus-faced discourse of public presidential pronouncements and secretive vice-presidential maneuvering, of irrepressible smirks accompanying gratuitous appeals to patriotism. Populist pretensions serve elitist interests without the slightest sign of embarrassment. Fractured, folksy speech is Bush’s bond with the people even as he promotes massive tax cuts for the rich and reduces social services for the rest while assuring the nation that this is best for everyone. It is a rhetoric of advertising and public relations gimmicks that knows no shame. It is a bold rhetoric that invokes freedom to justify coercion while eroding human and civil rights, that proclaims the principal excuse for invading Iraq irrelevant after no weapons of mass destruction could be found, and that stages Veterans Day presidential visits with hospitalized soldiers just ahead of cutting veterans’ benefits. It is a rhetoric that promises senior citizens reduced drug costs and greater choice but commits them to annual prescription cards while allowing providers to alter prices weekly. It is a rhetoric that claims to leave no child behind even while reducing funding for public education, that purports to respect the environment while opening it up to the degradations of unsustainable development, that announces a billion dollar investment in hydrogen-fueled automobiles but fails to mention that the research funds are dedicated to petroleum-based methods of generating hydrogen, and so on. 7
Such a rhetoric would self-destruct were it not a rhetoric of evil. 8 Indeed, the administration was floundering before 9/11, lacking political traction and public support. It took a devastating terrorist attack on Manhattan and the Pentagon by radical Islamists from the Middle East to sanction and sanctify American imperialism in the name of civilization but in the service of globalization. 9 The genius of this discourse was that it lay hidden in plain sight. Its duplicity was apparent for anyone to see but not to recognize as anything other than an expression of Christian duty and faith, at least by a governing majority. An unrestricted war on evil was declared that awful day to smite the enemies of God.
The open secret (perfected by Bush’s handlers in his first campaign for the presidency) was to stay on message and say it often. Thus, each presidential communication after 9/11 was laced with simple reassurances that Americans are good people defending themselves against evildoers. Of course, the president was careful to appeal overtly and directly to his fundamentalist Christian political base. Abortion, gay marriage, and secular education were among the sins against family values that he promised to prevent and punish. 10 But the rest of the nation was also implicated in the president’s moralistic discourse of American exceptionalism, undeterred even by graphic images of sexual humiliation perpetrated by U.S. soldiers on their Iraqi captives. These admittedly "abhorrent" practices, the president assured the world, did not represent the real America. The America he knew was "a compassionate country that believes in freedom" and "cares about every individual," and whose soldiers are "good, honorable citizens" sent to Iraq to "promote freedom" ("President Bush Meets"). Besides, the real atrocity was the brutal revenge beheading of "American citizen, Donald Berg." His "savage execution," Bush insisted, should remind Americans "of the true nature of our terrorist enemy, and of the stakes in this struggle" against "their barbarism" ("President’s Radio Address"). 11 Indeed, this discourse of good versus evil was so barefaced and unashamed that a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, could declare for all to hear, without a word of comment or contradiction from the White House, that he was appalled at those who were appalled by the photographic evidence of prisoner abuse ("Abu Ghraib Spin").
The president’s rhetorical strategy for constituting a moral majority was obvious to everyone. Newsweek’s lead article in its April 26, 2004 edition, for instance, was entitled "The Gospel According to George," the point of which was that Bush’s faith would "guide him – in Iraq and at the polls." He was delivering a "secular sermon on the strategic value of bestowing freedom upon the planet." Bush’s best speech writer, Mike Gerson, was a "master of the Biblical cadence." Bush "would rather preach than answer questions – or ask them. He leads and runs unapologetically on faith, dividing the world and the presidential campaign into two discrete spheres: one for patriots who believe in his policies and vision, and one for everyone else." He appealed to "a higher father" for moral strength rather than seek advice on Iraq from his own father. In Bush’s "Manichean" campaign strategy, Kerry was the treasonous nonbeliever (Fineman and Lipper). And much of America agreed with their president, including Darryl W. Jackson, who complained to Newsweek about its story being critical of Bush for leading unreflectively by faith and vision: "What could be more reflective and deep than distinguishing right from wrong, or good from evil? What nobler vision exists than one premised upon such deliberations?"
Indeed, from the beginning, religious faith was one of the fundamentals of what became "the most radical presidency in modern times," according to political commentators Eric Alterman and Mark Green. The Bush administration united the Republican Party around three extremist constituencies: "the religious right, big business and the neoconservative worldview." Bush himself was a "born again Christian" who lived (as G. K. Chesterton has said) in a "nation with the soul of a church." Although he remained true to big business interests and neoconservative ideologues while overseeing a revolution in U.S. priorities at home and abroad, Bush’s radical persuasion was most distinctly messianic. His faith freed him and his followers to "do the right thing" and "not worry about what comes next." Often, others of the same persuasion did the talking for him. Billy Graham’s son, the Reverend Franklin Graham, gave the invocation at Bush’s inauguration and later was invited to address soldiers in the Pentagon even after calling Islam "a very evil and wicked religion." Bush’s deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and war-fighting support, Lieutenant General William Boykin, characterized the war in Iraq as a fight with Satan and proclaimed that his God was bigger than the Muslim god, that his God "was a real God" and the enemy’s "was an idol." Just as Reverend Graham received no presidential rebuke, General Boykin was not removed from his post but instead affirmed as a fine soldier (Alterman and Green 2, 331, 4, 6, 338-39, 332).
Alterman and Green ask how Bush could get away with such extreme talk, and they answer their own question by listing some of his common tactics. His modus operandi, they observe, was "to say one thing and do another," getting away with it by offering vague answers while speaking in tautologies and non sequiturs. Sometimes he would talk left and govern right, doing the opposite of what he declared. Other times he would make assertions confidently that could not be disproved immediately. Another maneuver was to substitute an emotional obfuscation for a direct answer to a difficult question. Lying-by-reflex, yet another tactic, turned presidential misstatement into the banality of dishonesty. Additional stratagems included denying accessibility to uncooperative journalists and gearing up the right-wing attack machine to discipline prominent persons who occasionally spoke out against the administration. By these and similar means, Bush insured "that the massive political, social, economic, and environmental revolutions currently underway in America" would continue "taking place just beneath the radar screen of public debate"(Alterman and Green, 7-9, 334-38, 10).
Most importantly, Bush was able to muffle debate over what mattered by persisting in a righteous strategy of overt-but-unacknowledged deception. Secrecy, omission, misrepresentation, obfuscation, dissembling, lying, ad hominem, doublespeak, bullying, and worse were acceptable measures for a decent Christian man on a Christian mission (indeed, a crusade), so long as he remained fixed and true to his fundamental convictions. 12 Any and all means were justified by a holy end. This was the integrating theme of his post-9/11 presidency. All rhetorical roads led back to the "Rome" term of Christian faith, which many Americans could profess openly and most others were constrained by culture and propriety from publicly criticizing. And like Hitler’s innate nation of Aryans, itself a "sinister secularized revision of Christian theology," Bush’s America would be purified by dissociation with evil through a great battle with Islamic terrorism. Through this vessel of a perfect devil term, America would achieve its "symbolic rebirth," much as Burke noted that "the projective device of the scapegoat, coupled with the Hitlerite doctrine of inborn racial superiority, provides its followers with a ‘positive’ view of life." Moreover, this salvation by slaying a palpable and materialized scapegoat provided a "spiritual" motivation for global dominance that "was ‘above’ crude economic interests." The international terrorist was everywhere, requiring the American equivalent of "Aryan ‘heroism’ and ‘sacrifice’" to overcome the Islamic counterpart of "Jewish ‘cunning’ and ‘arrogance.’" Bush himself became the nation’s "one voice," its "inner voice," that stilled the parliamentary wrangle that was Babylon (Burke, "The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle" 202-03, 205, 207-08).
As the president assured the graduating class of Concordia University, America’s moral ideals and convictions are endowed by the Creator and thus are universal to humankind. America’s gift of liberty to the world is the Almighty God’s gift to all of humanity. Bush was moved to emulate a great life, noting that "important work in this world can be done by towering figures." Just as Martin Luther changed history and every life holds the possibility of serving God, "all work – in an office, on a farm, in the home, or in the halls of government – should be done to the glory of God." And just as American soldiers "are sacrificing for the security and freedom of Afghanistan and Iraq," a good, decent, unselfish, courageous, compassionate, and loving people fighting for the glory of God "will not allow Afghanistan and Iraq to fall under the control of radicals and terrorists who are intent on our own destruction" ("President Delivers"). All of this because, as the president had said before at his ranch in Crawford, Texas on August 31, 2002, "Our nation is the greatest force for good in history" (quoted in Johnson 1).
Indeed, the arrogance of the president’s Christian humility (yet another pretentious distortion of religious principle), uttered in the name of an exceptional people, was extended in full force to shed the burden even of American shame so starkly documented by those digital images from Abu Ghraib. In a speech staged dramatically at the Pentagon, flanked by his vice-president, secretary of state, leading generals, and the recently pilloried secretary of defense, Bush insisted that the abuses perpetrated by a few misguided and unrepresentative U.S. soldiers, who would be held accountable for their disgraceful behavior, were a poor excuse for anyone "to question our cause and to cast doubt on our motives" as a nation or to disparage "the goodness and the character of the United States Armed Forces." America’s respect for its degraded and detained Muslim foe was founded on the promise of a sacred secular conversion of the now prostrate enemy to a higher calling and more civilized ways. In Bush’s transparently coded language, "We have great respect for the people of Iraq and for all Arab peoples – respect for their culture and for their history and for the contribution they can make to the world. We believe that democracy will allow these gifts to flourish . . . [that] freedom is the answer to hopelessness and terror; that a free Iraq will lead the way to a new and better Middle East; and that a free Iraq will make our country more secure" ("President Bush Reaffirms"). America would make itself safe with God by completing its mission of mercy and conversion in the Middle East. As Burke points out in A Rhetoric of Motives (xiii, 5-13), such killing and dying is powerfully symbolic of conversion, transformation, and rebirth: "For the so-called ‘desire to kill’ a certain person is much more properly analyzable as a desire to transform the principle which that person represents" (Burke’s emphasis). What is true of a person is even truer of a whole people.
How long the nation will continue to indulge itself in pious extremism is impossible to judge. The cycle of rightwing radicalism presently operating in the political mainstream began boldly over four decades ago with Barry Goldwater’s resounding declaration, as the Republican candidate for the presidency, that extremism in the name of liberty is no vice. It continued throughout Ronald Reagan’s presidency with his dogged determination to vanquish an evil Soviet empire. Previous to and continuous with this present cycle (sustained by Bush’s preemptive rhetoric of evil), America struggled through one Red scare after another, including the infamous era of McCarthyism. Indeed, Americans by now may have become thoroughly habituated to the demagoguery of Orwellian rhetoric in one form or another.
One hopes that is not the case, and Robert Reich believes that it isn’t. Although he acknowledges that radical conservatives (whom he calls "Radcons") have dominated public discourse and set the national agenda, he insists that the majority of Americans are ripe for returning to more sane and less fearful politics. True American ideals are more liberal and mainstream than in their Radcon caricature, and "liberals have always stood in sharp opposition to fanaticism and violence, and against religious bigotry, totalitarianism, and nationalist zealotry." Moreover, real conservatives are cautious and skeptical of "big ideas, grand plans, risky moves" and revolutionary agendas like those advanced by radical conservatives. Yet the vocal alliance of right-wing ideology and evangelical Christianity has left liberals and the Democratic Party in silent disarray. To understand rightwing radicalism, Reich pointedly observes, one must understand its "notion of evil":
To Radcons, the major threat to the security of our nation, the stability of our families, our future prosperity, and the capacity of our children to grow into responsible adults is a dark, satanic force. It exists within America in the form of moral deviance – out-of-wedlock births, homosexuality, abortion, crime. It potentially exists within every one of us in the form of sloth and devastating irresponsibility. It exists outside America in the form of "evil empires" or an "axis of evil."
There’s no compromising with such evil. It has to be countered with everything we have. Religious faith and discipline are the means of redemption. Punishment and coercion are the only real deterrents. Fear is the essential motivator.
This is the "overarching principle" that "connects Radcon foreign policy and domestic policy with evangelical Christian fundamentalism" and that constitutes "a coherent system for thinking about and dealing with any problem" (Reich 6, 17, 9, 22). All rhetorical roads lead to and depart from this Manichean premise.
Reich makes as good a case as anyone for resisting the present banality of evil, a debilitating condition of warped and thoughtless moralizing that, as I have argued here, has been expressed overtly and shamelessly by the Bush administration in order to make the international Islamic terrorist into an all-too-perfect-and-convenient scapegoat for what ails the United States. The rhetoric of evil constructs a shallow patriotism, Reich observes, a crass "America First" chauvinism, rather than "a positive patriotism that’s better suited to our time." He offers several good reasons for supporting a hopeful and reformist version of patriotism that preserves civil liberties, protects the right of democratic dissent, upholds the nation’s moral integrity and credibility in international relations, and assumes one’s fair share of the burden of citizenship and responsibility for others. This is a moral patriotism, he argues, that keeps church separate from state and thus does not impose any particular religious belief on public policy. Nor does it generate its moral urgency by demonizing the Other. It is a "sensible public morality" instead of ideological rant or religious dogma, a restored liberal morality that encourages rational argument and actual debate (Reich 146-47, 186-89).
The ways of reason and rhetoric, however, are never quite the same, and political culture is constituted rhetorically, as is political reason. If Kenneth Burke is correct, this means politics as a dramatistic act is inflected toward tragic frames of acceptance and rituals of redemption through victimization that can be ameliorated more or less by persistent efforts to articulate consciousness-raising comic correctives. Burke’s liberalism is, I think, ultimately more pragmatic than Reich’s and certainly not dogmatic like Bush’s religious demagoguery. One cannot hope to overturn radical conservatism and rightwing Christian fundamentalism, at least not in the near term but I suspect never, because it is a mere permutation of the deeply ingrained cultural principle of victimage, which is "redemption by vicarious atonement." As Burke so well understood, "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." Such guilt can be processed case by case but never finally resolved. No one myth can be made true and all others made false. Symbolic action must always balance myth and logic, holding each accountable to the other, so that societies might hope to muddle through the tangled complexities of political relations. There can be no perfection without bringing the human drama to a violent close (Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 219, 235-36, 241, 258).
In this sense, the Burkean lessons of Hitler’s "Battle" would seem to apply to our understanding of Bush’s "war" on evil; we should be forewarned and hopefully somewhat inoculated, even motivated to resist and reply. And yet something about Bush remains distinct. Like Hitler’s rhetoric, Bush’s demagoguery lacks subtlety of appeal. Both discourses are blunt instruments of propaganda, non-apologetic, perfectly banal, and thus truly mendacious. Hitler, though, bastardized religious patterns of thought to valorize Nazi gangsters as German saviors and deployed sexual imagery to feminize the masses so that they could be led by the Fuhrer as the Aryan folk’s dominant male orator, wooing them ultimately to command them and vanquishing the rival Jew who would poison their blood. The equations of this associative argument worked out so that Germany’s salvation and idealism equaled absolute obedience to Hitler’s inner voice (Burke, "Hitler’s ‘Battle’" 219-20, 195, 207). The similarities here are noteworthy but not sufficiently instructive. Munich became Mecca, and Hitler supplanted God in the Third Reich, which was a religious abomination and sheer heresy. No such sacrilege would ever persuade Americans to abandon their church or to worship the state and its dictator.
Bush, ultimately, is a Christian man who remains rhetorically subordinated to the true God. He is a believer, not even a prophet, an ordinary, purified, and reborn man of the people, a leader of a worthy (even exceptional) nation, not a king or tyrant. He is firm in his faith and decisive in his decisions, proudly (even arrogantly) humble before God whom he worships along with his fellow citizens instead of expecting the people to worship him. He represents his people before their Lord and sends them on their holy mission. He is fallible but unbending in his basic purpose, always moving forward true to the cause, undistracted and undeterred by misguided criticism or other impediments, guided only by God, faith, and intuition. Bush’s rhetoric of evil, then, is a much purer rhetoric of religion than Hitler’s "Battle," and far more persuasive under present circumstances than any more authentic replica of Nazi rhetoric could have been. Thus, it does not quite ring true to label Bush as Hitler’s rhetorical heir, even though he qualifies as a Burkean devil. Analogies are never identities and can be misleading if they are taken as such. Bush like Hitler bends religion to rhetorical purposes but unlike Hitler never transcends religion, and thus one is ultimately shamed into silence. This is the hard lesson about Bush’s "war" on evil that Americans must somehow learn in order to recover their more nuanced democratic voice without losing their claim to faith. The price of silence is too high.
1 As one alert reader of the Boston Globe pointed out, members of the Bush administration systematically euphemize troublesome behavior, characterizing a pattern (and apparently a policy) of torture by U.S. soldiers, including deadly beatings and rape, as isolated incidents of "abuse," "excesses," "humiliation," and "having sex" with a female prisoner (Verrillo).
2 This is a theme consistent with the religious fault line between the West and Islam perceived by Huntington. For an update, see Lifton.
3 A cluster of characteristics commonly associated with fascism include deploying the themes and imagery of the nation’s dominant religion for propaganda purposes, demonizing enemies to serve as scapegoats for unifying the nation, appealing repetitively and blatantly to nationalism and patriotism, pandering to fear and national security, undermining human and civil rights, militarizing society while expanding the power of law enforcement agencies, favoring a corporate culture of business and industrial power while suppressing labor, controlling news media and stifling dissent, and promoting an expansionist foreign policy. There are other common features such as contempt for intellectuals and the arts, corruption and cronyism, election fraud, and sexism. For a recent report on the perceived relevance of such traits to the current Bush administration, see Stille. For a critique of what he calls a neo-fascist militarization of American political culture, see Giroux.
4 Burke’s classic essay on Hitler’s "Battle," found in The Philosophy of Literary Form (the original edition of which was published in 1941), initially appeared in the summer issue of 1939 in The Southern Review. For a discussion of the metaphorical quality of the Bush administration’s so-called war on terrorism, see Ivie, "Rhetorical Deliberation." It should be noted, too, that Bush-administration "neocons" and architects of the preemptive warfare doctrine are fond of referring to their labors as the inauguration of a second American century. A useful treatment of these neocons is provided in James Mann.
5 Freelance journalist Wayne Madsen portrays Bush as a different kind of devil, something incurably evil in the conventional sense instead of egregiously and dangerously wrong in the Burkean sense. Noting that Bush "proclaims himself a born-again Christian," Madsen argues that he is instead a neo-Christian who wallows in "a ‘Christian’ blood lust cult," which is a "cultist form of Christianity, with its emphasis on death rather than life," and that he embeds himself in "Goebbels-like speech fests" in military settings. Pope John Paul II, according to Madsen’s account, worries that "Bush’s blood lust, his repeated commitment to Christian beliefs, and his constant reference to ‘evil doers’ . . . bear all the hallmarks of the one warned about in the Book of Revelations – the anti-Christ."
6 I extrapolate here from Burke’s discussion of frames of acceptance and rejection and the comic corrective in Attitudes toward History 30-44, 166-75. As Burke scholars know well, the "comic" in comic corrective does not translate into laughter primarily or even necessarily. Instead, it refers to the lesson of humility learned non-fatally by unmasking pretension before over-inflated protagonists over-reach themselves with drastic and irreversible consequences, as in tragedy. "Like tragedy," Burke writes, "comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. . . . [by] picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken" (Burke’s emphasis 41). The critic’s comic corrective returns a degree of complexity and flexibility to an otherwise reified and overly simplified definition of reality, or tragic frame of acceptance, that functions as a social motive. "A well-balanced ecology requires the symbiosis of the two": tragic frame and comic corrective (167). Without the comic corrective, the tragic frame leads easily to victimage, but together they "enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting . . . [with] maximum consciousness" (Burke’s emphasis, 171). As Rueckert so clearly explains, "Many of the modifiers for comic are terms that stress the need for a wider frame, one that is an amplifying device rather than a diminishing or reductive one; there is a need for a perspective that includes an awareness of ambivalence and irony, that promotes the ability to see double, to use and recognize metaphor, to see around corners, to take multiple approaches. In other words, the comic perspective must acknowledge that life – reality – is not static but is always in process and that we must adopt a frame that accounts for the true complexity of the human situation and resists the mind’s compulsion to reduce this complexity to an oversimplified, orderly set of terms" (119; Rueckert’s emphasis).
7 Indeed, a cottage industry has cropped up just to keep track of the Bush administration’s many misrepresentations, equivocations, and prevarications. In addition to the regular online postings of The Daily Mislead and other such sites, numerous books are available, including Rampton and Stauber; Huberman; Schulz; Hentoff; Kellner; Franken; Moore; and many more.
8 For other treatments of Bush’s rhetoric of evil see Ivie, "Evil Enemy"; and Ivie, Democracy and America's War on Terror.
9Much has been written recently on the theme of American empire and globalization. See, for example, Bacevich; Michael Mann; Newhouse; Garrison; Johnson; and Boggs.
10 For a popular expression of this reactionary worldview, see Savage
11 A little more than a week later, in a nationally televised address from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Bush insisted that "this vile display [the decapitation of the young American] shows a contempt for all the rules of warfare and all the bounds of civilized behavior. It reveals a fanaticism that was not caused by any action of ours and would not be appeased by any concession" ("President Bush’s Address").
12 Multiple examples exist of the administration taking direct action to besmirch its critics, including the apparently retaliatory outing of a CIA agent who was the wife of former U.S. diplomat, Joseph C. Wilson, after he made public that the purported Iraq-Niger uranium deal was a hoax, the same deal that the president had cited as evidence of WMD and as grounds for invading Iraq. Similarly, Richard A. Clarke, who served Bush and before that Clinton as National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, anticipated and suffered attacks from the Bush administration on his loyalty and credibility after publishing his widely publicized and critical book, Against All Enemies. Perhaps more routinely, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, Lawrence Di Rita, charged in a public letter published by the Washington Post that the Washington Post’s concern over the administration’s violations of the Geneva Conventions was no better than the despicable behavior of the errant soldiers in Abu Ghraib ("The Policy of Abuse").
"The Abu Ghraib Spin." Editorial. New York Times on the Web 12 May 2004. 12 May 2004 http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/12/opinion/12WED1.html.
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Boggs, Carl, ed. Masters of War: Militarism and Blowback in the Era of American Empire. New York: Routledge, 2003.
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