Wednesday, March 30, 2005

SOTU as bullshit

As everyone knows, the neocon right was overcome by paroxyms of rapture at Bush's celebration of democratization in his State of the Union address last month. He went on and on with purple passages of this sort:
The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom.... We've declared our own intention: America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world... We are witnessing landmark events in the history of liberty. And in the coming years, we will add to that story.
Now consider this trenchant passage from Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" (which, incidentally, is available in complete form on line here):

Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about "our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind."

The orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country's history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false.

Rather... the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on.

I think this is just right as an account of humbug and bullshit, and it bears directly on the similarly pretentious (excuse me, "visionary"!) rhetoric of democracy that Bush proffered the nation last month.

It's not that Bush or his speechwriters don't believe in the words they are saying and writing about democracy, progress and the world-historical mission of the United States. But that's not what is motivating them to say or write these things. Rather, what the SOTU speechwriters and Bush are aiming for is to convey a certain impression of who Bush is: that he is a glorious, strong leader whose values and instincts are sound and whom therefore you, the passive listener-citizen, should uncritically trust to make decisions on your behalf--especially on topics such as eviscerating Social Security and extending tax cuts for the rich. The goal is not as extreme as to create a totalitarian cult of personality, but it does share with such efforts a desire to neutralize critical political reasoning.


bill barnes said...


While there's a lot of truth here, seems to me there's also a failure to recognize the degree to which Republican intellectuals, after and in reaction to the 60s, came to believe that "ideas matter" and to use patriotic mythology in the service of the pursuit of hegemony. The Bush whitehouse is a mix of the public relations personal-image-mongering that you and Frankfurt describe with a Straussian version of political education -- mobilizing and reinforcing a version of patriotic mythology that is usable as a support for Republican hegemony. To a degree, they do care about what narrative of the founding fathers and American history is dominant, because they recognize such as a political resource (or obstacle). Of course, they're not willing to actually debate American history, to actually engage other points of view, to risk the authentic political education of the audience. But that doesn't mean they have nothing in mind other than personal-image-mongering.

Jack Mercer said...

PP. Please take a moment to go to the News Snipet to take immediate action on an issue that threatens America's children. Your activism is appreciated!