Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Words in a Time of War

Mark Danner addressed the new graduates of the U.C. Berkeley Department of Rhetoric recently.

"Now I turn to you, my proper audience, the graduating students of the Department of Rhetoric of 2007, and I salute you most heartily. In making the choice you have, you confirmed that you understand something intrinsic, something indeed…. intimate about this age we live in. Perhaps that should not surprise us. After all, you have spent your entire undergraduate years during time of war — and what a very strange wartime it has been.

When most of you arrived on this campus, in September 2003, the rhetorical construction known as the War on Terror was already two years old and that very real war to which it gave painful birth, the war in Iraq, was just hitting its half-year mark. Indeed, the Iraq War had already ended once, in that great victory scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, where the President, clad jauntily in a flight suit, had swaggered across the flight deck and, beneath a banner famously marked “Mission Accomplished,” had declared: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

Of the great body of rich material encompassed by my theme today — “Words in a Time of War” — surely those words of George W. Bush must stand as among the era’s most famous, and most rhetorically unstable. For whatever they may have meant when the President uttered them on that sunny afternoon of May 1, 2003, they mean something quite different today, almost exactly four years later. The President has lost control of those words, as of so much else...

I give you my favorite quotation from the Bush administration, put forward by the proverbial “unnamed Administration official” and published in the New York Times Magazine by the fine journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004. Here, in Suskind’s recounting, is what that “unnamed Administration official” told him:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

I must admit to you that I love that quotation; indeed, with your permission, I would like hereby to nominate it for inscription over the door of the Rhetoric Department, akin to Dante’s welcome above the gates of Hell, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Both admonitions have an admirable bluntness. These words from “Bush’s Brain” — for the unnamed official speaking to Suskind seems to have been none other than the selfsame architect of the aircraft-carrier moment, Karl Rove, who bears that pungent nickname — these words sketch out with breathtaking frankness a radical view in which power frankly determines reality, and rhetoric, the science of flounces and folderols, follows meekly and subserviently in its train. Those in the “reality-based community” — those such as we — are figures a mite pathetic, for we have failed to realize the singular new principle of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch.

Given such sweeping claims for power, it is hard to expect much respect for truth; or perhaps it should be “truth” — in quotation marks — for, when you can alter reality at will, why pay much attention to the idea of fidelity in describing it? What faith, after all, is owed to the bitch that is wholly in your power, a creature of your own creation...

Let me read to you a bit of an account from a young Iraqi woman of how that war has touched her and her family, drawn from a newsroom blog. The words may be terrible and hard to bear, but — for those of you who have made such a determined effort to learn to read and understand — this is the most reality I could find to tell you. This is what lies behind the headlines and the news reports and it is as it is.

“We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over…

“So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I…

“When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. ‘We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don’t know what he looks like.’

“…We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and everywhere body parts.

“We were asked what we were looking for; ‘upper half’ replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. ‘Over there.’ We looked for our boy’s broken body between tens of other boys’ remains; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

“Millennia later we found him, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.”

The foregoing were words from an Iraqi family, who find themselves as far as they can possibly be from the idea that, when they act, they create their own reality — that they are, as Bush’s Brain put it, “history’s actors.” The voices you heard come from history’s objects and we must ponder who the subjects are, who exactly is acting upon them."


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