How To Ascribe Super-Powers To Words

by Belle Waring on January 22, 2005

I know it’s considered poor sport to shoot fish in a barrel, but what on earth is David Brooks talking about?

With that speech [i.e., the inaugural offering], President Bush’s foreign policy doctrine transcended the war on terror. He laid down a standard against which everything he and his successors do will be judged.

When he goes to China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there, because he called them the future leaders of their free nation. When he meets with dictators around the world, as in this flawed world he must, he will not be able to have warm relations with them, because he said no relations with tyrants can be successful.

His words will be thrown back at him and at future presidents. American diplomats have been sent a strong message. Political reform will always be on the table. Liberation and democratization will be the ghost present at every international meeting. Vladimir Putin will never again be the possessor of that fine soul; he will be the menace to democracy and rule of law.

Because of that speech, it will be harder for the U.S. government to do what we did to Latin Americans for so many decades – support strongmen to rule over them because they happened to be our strongmen. It will be harder to frustrate the dreams of a captive people, the way in the early 1990’s we tried to frustrate the independence dreams of Ukraine.

It will be harder for future diplomats to sit on couches flattering dictators, the way we used to flatter Hafez al-Assad of Syria decade after decade. From now on, the borders established by any peace process will be less important than the character of the regimes in that process.

I mean, I love Austin as much as the next girl (well, OK, a lot more than the next girl), but it has always been my distinct impression that the scope of things you can do with words has been, hmm, let’s say, overstated by his would-be popularizers. Naming ships? Hell yeah. Transforming U.S. foriegn policy by shaking democracy-supporting fairy dust on everything? Not so much. Or maybe we’re on a 40’s crooner tip, with the classic “Wishing Will Make It So“? Seriously, though, does Bobo believe this, or what?
Note to outraged defenders of liberty: I think it would be great if the U.S. stopped coddling dictators in the name of stability or anti-terrorist bona fides, but that’s because I’m a silly, utopian leftist. What’s your excuse?

UPDATE: from the Washington Post, “Bush Speech Not a Sign of Policy Shift, Officials Say; Address Said to Clarify ‘The Values We Cherish’” Right.

{ 32 comments }

1

ehle 01.22.05 at 7:00 am

Brooks is talking about a pefectly ordinary kind of speech-act — the act of making a promise. Promises have all kinds of real-world consequences, don’t they? Or am I being superstitious?

2

hobo 01.22.05 at 7:28 am

Brooks almost sounds sarcastic. I wish he was.

3

Jim Harrison 01.22.05 at 7:47 am

My guess is that nobody will remember Bush’s speech much past next Tuesday.

By the way, Brooks’ bit is itself a particular kind of speech act, a magical attempt to make Bush into somebody impressive by pretending that he just delivered the Gettysburg Address. I believe this sort of ritual activity is referred to in Sanskrit epic as “Praising the Monkey.”

4

bad Jim 01.22.05 at 7:47 am

If Brooks is right, it means the immediate release of all the prisoners held in Guantanamo and every other islet in the shadowy archipelago of detention, doesn’t it?

5

abb1 01.22.05 at 10:41 am

It means more wars, bombings, murders, oppression and torture.

For the Sake of Liberty.

Against the Enemies of Liberty.

6

Carlos 01.22.05 at 12:49 pm

Maybe if he said them backwards, like Zatanna.

7

Sven 01.22.05 at 2:16 pm

It’s says something that Peggy Noonan refuses to sail that far out on the Sea of Hack. Her take on Bush’s declamation: “Seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing.”

As a rhetorician and Crazy Jesus Lady, Peggy recognizes the power of humility. You don’t say “we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.” You lay out a righteous but ambiguous goal; describe how hard it will be to reach, given that we’re all sinners; and cloak progress toward the ends in the mystery of His will.

If, as George claimed, liberty for all humanity is an inevitable consequence of his steadfastcicity, His grace and ‘Murican ideals, why would anyone struggle and sacrifice (i.e., get off the couch long enough to affix a “support our troops” magnet) to bring it about?

Brooks, who recently announced he’s born again (proclaiming that jettisoning secularism was harder that quitting smoking) wrote ad nauseam last fall about how liberals “don’t get it” when it comes to religion and politics.

Heh.

8

Uncle Kvetch 01.22.05 at 2:31 pm

Well, the President’s good friends in Saudi Arabia sentenced 15 people to be flogged just last week for having the temerity to demand an elected government. As of this writing, the inaugural speech has not caused them to reconsider their decision. Maybe sending them another couple of billion dollars’ worth of fighter jets would do the trick.

9

Sven 01.22.05 at 3:34 pm

I know it’s considered poor sport to shoot fish in a barrel…

I just thought of a great e-business opportunity for Belle: a website in which she systematically trashes mainstream conservative columnists every weekday.

No, screw that. Liberal columnists. Conservative readers are easier to please. Fish in a barrel all around.

The site would be called Liberal Liebations. Each columnist would be represented by a Cheap Whine bottle icon with their face as the label.

Belle would be the proprietess, Connie Sewer.

10

Lee Scoresby 01.22.05 at 3:36 pm

Brooks is right that Bush’s speech will make it even more difficult for the US to look credible when it goes about the normal business of foreign policy and continues to support repressive regimes throughout the world. He’s wrong that it will force the US to do anything different. It will just make us appear that much more hypocritical.

I wrote a brief blog entry on the broader issue of what I find disturbing about Bush’s particular configuration of American nationalism and univerasalism. One should note that the basic content of his speech isn’t all that different from similar Presidential speeches since, well, the beginning of the American republic (I’ve done careful readings of many of them for a book chapter I once wrote on continuities in American foreign-policy discourse). What’s more disturbing is the context and position it represents.

11

rilkefan 01.22.05 at 3:45 pm

Austin?

12

joejoejoe 01.22.05 at 3:52 pm

I guess that whole “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” didn’t do it for Brooksie.

If those words don’t do it I’m not sure Bush’s Jeebus palaver is going to either.

13

Matt 01.22.05 at 4:02 pm

Rilkefan,
It’s J.L. Austin Belle means, of _How to do Things With Words_ fame. (I personally like _Sense and Sensibilia_ more, but it’s not as widely read.)

14

harry 01.22.05 at 4:45 pm

bq. (I personally like Sense and Sensibilia more, but it’s not as widely read.)

Not, to tell the truth, that either is a NYT bestseller.

15

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.22.05 at 5:23 pm

How To Ascribe Super-Powers To Words: Call something a treaty? Maybe an anti-genocide treaty or an anti-proliferation treaty?

16

P O'Neill 01.22.05 at 5:42 pm

Austin…Austen? But anyway, I agree with hobo, there’s *almost* a sarcastic reading of what Bobo is saying:

“When he meets with dictators around the world, as in this flawed world he must, he will not be able to have warm relations with them, because he said no relations with tyrants can be successful.”

No more looking into Pootie-Poot’s soul.

17

Donald Johnson 01.22.05 at 6:06 pm

Brooks is born-again? I thought he was Jewish. Of course he could convert.

On the speech, not that I watched or read it, aren’t American Presidents always proclaiming our devotion to liberty, truth, motherhood and generally bragging about America’s city-on-a-hill type qualities? It never stopped us from funding death squads before, so why should it now?

18

Gary Farber 01.22.05 at 7:05 pm

“…what on earth is David Brooks talking about?”

Yeah, high on wishful thinking.

Sven says: “…Brooks, who recently announced he’s born again….”

He did? Where? Cite, please?

19

Jon H 01.22.05 at 7:41 pm

“Brooks is born-again? I thought he was Jewish. Of course he could convert.”

Kind of like joining your boss’ country club as a career move.

20

Andrew Boucher 01.22.05 at 7:44 pm

21

Anders Widebrant 01.22.05 at 8:16 pm

“If Brooks is right, it means the immediate release of all the prisoners held in Guantanamo and every other islet in the shadowy archipelago of detention, doesn’t it?”

It sure does! Just listen to the speech:

“And we can feel that same unity and pride whenever America acts for good, and the victims of disaster are given hope, and the unjust encounter justice, and the captives are set free.

PSYCH!

22

nick 01.23.05 at 2:12 am

As Jon Stewart put it, in the fast, elided voice of the radio disclaimer man: ‘Offer not valid in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, China…’

23

John M 01.23.05 at 11:17 am

Bush’s speech is yet another howl from his miserable heart, another dumb kid’s plea to be taken seriously, like Fredo Corleone yelling at Michael “I’m smart too !”

24

Sven 01.23.05 at 3:30 pm

Gary, I working on finding you that cite. Brooks never said “born again,” of course. That’s my hyperbole. But really he did say he’s gotten religion, and that it was a lot like quitting smoking.

I think it’s funny, because Brooks has no idea what a Pandora’s box he’s opening when he aligns himself with the religious right. Just like Bush has no idea what he’s alluding to when he references Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.

25

L 01.23.05 at 5:31 pm

By Austin, she must mean Jane Austin — rumored to be Bush’s favorite author. I loved Winchester Park and The Persuader, but most of all that great Western novel about the rancher-farmer wars, Fence and Fencibility.

Her home page:
http://www.bluejo.demon.co.uk/austin/

26

Clancy 01.23.05 at 6:08 pm

Here’s the antidote to Brooks’ read of the speech.

27

pgl 01.23.05 at 7:05 pm

Kevin Drum notes that many Bush aids AND Bush41 are saying he was just talking smack. I guess David Brooks is implying Papa Bush lied?

28

Hieronymus Braintree 01.23.05 at 7:17 pm

Am I getting senile or wasn’t Jimmy Carter visciously ridiculed by conservatives for making human rights a centerpiece of American foreign polity? Or was the reason they hated him because he was sincere about it instead of just talking out of his ass like Tex Masculine – the regular-folk Andover pom-pom boy?

29

Hieronymus Braintree 01.23.05 at 7:18 pm

Am I getting senile or wasn’t Jimmy Carter visciously ridiculed by conservatives for making human rights a centerpiece of American foreign polity? Or was the reason they hated him because he was sincere about it instead of just talking out of his ass like Tex Masculine – the regular-folk Andover pom-pom boy?

30

Sven 01.23.05 at 8:09 pm

Well, dammit, I can’t find the smoking quote. I might have been in something I read off-line.

It was in an interview and may have been a wry Brooksian reference to this article, where he describes himself as a “recovering secularist.”

As usual, in lecturing lefties about religion he demonstrates he knows next to nothing about it. He thinks he’s discovered the Rosetta stone of Bushian rhetoric:

Many Americans have always sensed that we have a transcendent mission, although, fortunately, it is not a theological one. We instinctively feel, in ways that people from other places do not, that history is unfulfilled as long as there are nations in which people are not free. It is this instinctive belief that has led George W. Bush to respond so ambitiously to the events of September 11, and that has led most Americans to support him.

I can’t claim to be a theologian, either. But I remember enough about the Baptist sermons from my youth to know that messianic proclamations have to be tempered by contrition. Elsewise, you risk the heretical sin of pride.

That’s why Noonan feels disturbed by the inaugural address. There’s a lot of religious symbolism in support of the Bush Doctrine, but zero reference to the sins we’ve committed (or, indeed anything about the war). And despite the disclaimer about God choosing as He wills, Bush turns right around and declares that “we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.”

Brooks should ask himself why the biggest cheers for the speech are coming not from the pious, but from self-described ex-Marxists.

31

Doug 01.24.05 at 9:50 pm

Belle, can I have a pony, too?

32

Gary Farber 01.24.05 at 10:30 pm

Thanks for looking, Sven.

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