Rhetorical Styles of the Left

Rhetorical Styles of the Left

Michael Bérubé: Rhetorical Styles of the Left

In my last post for Arguing the World, long ago, I tried to distinguish between two rhetorical styles of leftism?one which understands, for example, that there are substantial differences between the Bush Administration?s torture memos and the legal thinking that preceded them (or, in the UK, between Thatcherism and what preceded it), and one which seeks to blur those distinctions. Unfortunately, that post got picked up by the very fine blog 3 Quarks Daily and retitled, ?The Chomsky Left and the Krugman Left.? But that wasn?t what I meant at all. I was trying to distinguish not between Chomsky and Krugman (who, for all his virtues, is not strictly ?on the left?) but between Chomsky and Stuart Hall. [Ed. note: We take partial responsibility for the 3QD title. On our homepage, we had retitled the post “The Two Lefts–Chomsky’s and Krugmans’s.”]

But the good news is that some of the comments in that 3QD thread made my point for me: there?s a fellow who thinks that my desire to prosecute Bush and Cheney is evidence of ?flirting with American exceptionalism,? followed in short order by David Ker Thompson, a brave soul who likens me to Stasi and speaks of my ?collaborationist instincts.? In more measured tones, one commenter insists that the left can change current American policy on torture, indefinite detention, and targeted assassination only if we insist that the idea of American civil liberties has always been a myth: ?It is only when a majority knows that American morality is essentially a myth that it will have an influence on public policy. An attempt to use these misplaced beliefs to ?do good? (à la Krugman) are almost bound to backfire.?

The finest recent distillation of this rhetorical style, I think, can be found in a sentence from the introduction to a book to which I wrote the foreword (how?s that for heightening the contradictions?): ?Perhaps the largest myths to expose in our culture today still are freedom and democracy?institutional and personal conditions that are not only in steep decline in the current post-9/11 era, but in fact never existed in any significant form.? That?s the radical-left take on the Yoo/Bybee memos in a nutshell: freedom never existed, and there?s even less of it now!

On my own blog, longtime commenter Rich Puchalsky offered a much more thoughtful and sophisticated version of this critique?one in which the rhetoric of ?radical break? (according to Puchalsky) actually helps to legitimate Obama?s continuation of Bush?s policies. Here?s Puchalsky:

I?ll try to explain again why I think the rhetoric of ?this marks a radical break and must be rolled back? won?t work now.

First of all, it doesn?t appear to be true, at the most basic level. What really matters, I have to think, is whether people are being tortured?not the cultural change in America around torture. The second is bad, among other reasons, because it leads to greater acceptance of the first. But if people were saying how much they approved of torture and not actually doing it, that would not be the same evil as actually doing it.

Given that I don?t think it?s true, is it effective? Perhaps when Krugman wrote it could have been. But since then Obama has used the full rhetorical force of his Presidency to preempt it. He insists that torture is over, that the radical break is done. Convincing people that the break still exists now necessarily means radicalizing them (for some meaning of ?radicalizing”) to no longer trust Obama.

And if you?re going to have to try to radicalize people, why stop with one politician? Why not shoot for the whole American myth? That myth is in itself extremely harmful, because it excuses the same behavior again and again. It?s quite possible for people to say something like ?Obama betrayed us by continuing Bush?s torture policies!?, and then have the next politician say the same old thing?there?s a new person in charge now, the break is over, America has gone back to being the special country that can not really be evaluated by the same rules that apply to other countries.

Given that the ?break? rhetoric appears to be false, at least in the sense that I think is most important, I?d rather go for the larger target. Obama has successfully mainstreamed Bush?s torture regime, brought it from radical break into business as usual. I don?t see how we?re supposed to undo that without a broader challenge.

I have two problems with this. One is the idea that ?the cultural change in America around torture? doesn?t really matter. I think it does, although I agree with Rich that it doesn?t matter quite as much as the question of whether people are actually being tortured. The second is the conflation of my argument about the ?radical break? with the election of Obama: nothing in my argument suggests that we should see the radical break as having been remedied by the Obama Administration. Quite the contrary: I believe we have more purchase on a critique of the Obama Administration, not less, if we insist that it is continuing the lawless and unprecedented policies of the Bush Administration. Again, my model here is Stuart Hall: he correctly claimed that Thatcherism represented a radical break with the postwar welfare state, and he didn?t make the mistake of saying that the radical break was over when Blair was elected in 1997.

(Once again, to say that the policies are ?unprecedented? is not to say that no one was tortured or improperly imprisoned prior to George Bush?s election. It is merely to state the obvious, that the United States had never before adopted as state policy a formal legal opinion justifying torture and indefinite detention.)

A week later in that same thread, Puchalsky references Obama?s issuance of the order to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, and breaks down our options like so:

Actually, I thought that Obama?s recent assassination order on some not-convicted-of-anything Muslim U.S. citizen was an ever greater indication. I?m not up on the history of this: has a U.S. President ever openly declared an assassination order before?

I mean, I?m sure that U.S. Presidents have ordered their minions to assassinate people before, even though they did it covertly. I?m just not sure whether they released the order to the news media. At this point, it seems the left-of-center has a few choices. And since the left-of-center consists of lots of people, obviously some will choose one and some another and some one that I haven?t thought of. But these seem to me to be the main choices.

1. Silence.

This seems to be the most popular choice at the moment. Maybe people are thinking about what it means, or trying to come to terms with it. Maybe they just don?t want to say anything or can?t bear to.

2. Cynicism. ?Everyone does it. We only cared about that stuff when Bush did it.?

A popular tacit choice, but not a popular rhetorical choice, I think.

3. Depression. ?Everyone does it, and there?s nothing we can do about it, so forget it.?

4. Talking up the break. ?Bush started an era of open lawlessness around these kinds of Presidential actions that Obama has continued. We need to roll it back.?

OK? how? The entire functional partisan political system, from the Tea Partiers to Obama, backs this Where is the constituency for rolling it back? People to the left of Obama? That is not enough.

5. Radicalization. ?Many Presidents have probably issued assassination orders, and now they?re doing it openly. It?s not a break, it?s the final breakdown of a mirage of lawfulness. It?s time to confront the fact that the system itself is illegitimate.?

Lots of disadvantages to this one. Serves as an easy rhetorical cover for an actual 2) or 3) above. Fewer people support it than even 4). But it has the advantages that it doesn?t require doing nothing, and actually appears to be true.

I think Puchalsky is right that these are the main options. I think he is wrong to suggest that 5) is more true than 4), and that it has a greater chance of success. Perhaps we have simply reached the limits of my rhetorical imagination here, but I cannot understand why ?the system is illegitimate and always was a mirage? is preferable to ?Bush started an era of open lawlessness around these kinds of Presidential actions that Obama has continued.? Puchalsky is right that relatively few people are getting behind 4), and that fewer still will support 5). So if you?re trying to persuade Americans that their country should abide by the rule of law, why exactly is 5) the better option?

These are questions about rhetoric, but they are not merely rhetorical questions. They bear directly on everything the United States does with regard to suspected terrorists?including, most immediately, the question of whether to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in open court. So let?s see how a civil-liberties left might proceed in this case.

In The Looming Towers, Lawrence Wright writes:

On May 29, 2001, in a federal courtroom in Manhattan, a jury convicted four men in the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa. It was the capstone of a perfect record of twenty five terrorist convictions accomplished by the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York, which was headed by Mary Jo White, with her assistants Kenneth Karas and Patrick Fitzgerald. The struggle against Islamic terrorists had begun in 1993 with the first World Trade Center bombing. Eight years later, these convictions were practically the only victories that America could point to, and they were based upon the laborious investigations of the New York bureau of the FBI, particularly the I-49 squad.(382-83)

Wright calls the twenty-five convictions ?genuine and legitimate achievements that demonstrated the credibility and integrity of the American system of justice? (383). As I note in The Left At War, this is the kind of sentence the more radical left has not managed to bring itself to utter.

When I last noted this on my blog, saying that I?ve never heard any praise from the left for this kind of response to terrorism (not even from the people who called for ?police action? in response to 9/11), one of my regular to-my-left commenters responded (comment 27), ?Seriously, you?ve never seen any praise? What the hell is that supposed to prove? Is the US state a grade school kid who needs to be praised from time to time, or what??

Well, perhaps. If you criticize the actions of states, might it not be possible sometimes to praise the actions of states?without thereby infantilizing them? It all depends! It depends, for one thing, on whether one is trying to get the United States to do the right thing, or whether one believes the whole enterprise is fruitless. In the debate over how to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, I see three options:

(1) Denounce the civilian trials praised by Wright, on the Liz Cheney Rationale that they allowed 9/11 to happen;

(2) Agree with Wright that civilian trials for suspected terrorists are the right way to proceed, and that they would shore up the credibility and integrity of the American system of justice;

(3) Insist that the American system of justice never had credibility or integrity in the first place.

Once again with feeling, I do not understand how (3) is an effective argument for anyone who seeks a civilian trial for Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

For the record, I do not think he will receive a civilian trial; I expect the Obama Administration to cave on this as it has caved on so many other matters of civil liberties. If that happens, my wing of the left, I think, will prefer to say ?the Obama Administration has given in to the voices of fear and authoritarianism; this is a travesty, for there was a time, not long ago, when the United States responded to terrorism more sanely and lawfully.? Perhaps another wing of the left will prefer to say, ?the Obama Administration has given in to the voices of fear and authoritarianism; this is a travesty, because freedom always was a mirage and the system itself is illegitimate.?

Next in this series: doing the right thing in East Timor.


Addendum: Many commenters in the 3QD thread were understandably upset by this passage in my last post, in which I criticize one of Chomsky?s standard rhetorical moves: ?Though I can do without the ritual repetition of ?The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction.? I still find it impossible to read those words without hearing, ?and it was about time.?? Some readers found this to be an uncharitable and even illegitimate reading of Chomsky?s words. Obviously, I need to offer a clarification. The first version of this rhetorical move, from an interview Chomsky gave eight days after the attacks, sounded like this:

For the US, this is the first time since the War of 1812 that its national territory has been under attack, even threat. Its colonies have been attacked, but not the national territory itself. During these years the U.S. virtually exterminated the indigenous population, conquered half of Mexico, intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos), and in the past half century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal. For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way.

This is an enumeration of various U.S. crimes against humanity that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda?s attack, capped off by ?the number of victims is colossal? and the remark that this is the first time the guns have been directed the other way. Clearly, Chomsky is not implying ?and it was about time,? because there is no plausible sense in which the phrase ?for the first time, the guns have been directed the other way? has any logical or syntactical relation to the sentences immediately preceding it, any more than the virtual extermination of the indigenous population of the Americas has any relation to 9/11. Therefore, there can be no insinuation whatsoever that the attacks of 9/11 represent some kind of long-delayed moral payback for every injustice and evil perpetrated by the United States between 1812 and 2001. I apologize for suggesting that there is any such insinuation here.