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Inarticulate, And Proud of It
27 August 2002
"I'm a patient man," President Bush said the other day. He was dressed in cowboy clothes. "And when I say I'm a patient man," he added, somewhat impatiently, "I mean I'm a patient man." The president was responding to reporters' attempts to make sense of the administration's scorching but confusing rhetoric about Iraq. His declaration of patience amended his declarations of war, seeking to douse expectations of imminent attack while promising that hostile action will come eventually.
The nation is beholding something that can only be called weird. Ever since Bush announced his new doctrine of preventive war last spring, his administration has been engaged in an unprecedented war of words aimed at Saddam Hussein.
In the beginning, the justification for "regime change" in Baghdad was entirely a matter of the threat Hussein represents but no more. Now the justification includes protecting the integrity of threat. We have to go to war now because we said we would. Language is no longer an expression of purpose but the shaper of purpose.
The United States, in fact, is in a crisis of language. This is what it means to have a president who, proudly inarticulate, has no real understanding of the relationship between words and acts, between rhetoric and intention.
Consider his heated boast about his own patience. I saw his declaration on the evening news, and it was clear that, as he began that second sentence, seeking to emphasize the first, he meant to find another way of displaying his determination. But he was, as usual, at a literal loss for words. And so he fell back on empty repetition. "When I say I'm a patient man, I mean I'm a patient man."
Bush mistakes tautology for explanation, a habit of mind marking his entire administration. Bush governs by assertion instead of persuasion. Whether the United States seeks to exercise power over the Taliban, or over Sharon and Arafat, or over Russia, or over its European allies, or even over its own citizens, the method is the same. Washington doesn't waste a moment trying to persuade the Taliban to side with us against bin Laden. Washington rejects Arafat as a dialogue partner and forgoes any effort to influence Sharon. Washington presents Moscow with ultimatums on arms control treaties.
Washington rejects the International Criminal Court instead of trying to help shape its development. On the home front, Washington claims emergency martial law exemptions from traditional court procedures. In every case, Washington is avoiding the need to explain its position with the clarity and logic necessary to change minds and win support. Instead of convincing, Washington coerces. And why? Obviously, because Washington apes the style of a president who has no capacity for the use of language as a mode of leadership.
The problem comes when, having sought to lead through the imperative voice instead of the exhortatory or the explanatory, nothing changes.
The world is beginning to act like America's sullen teenager, refusing to obey orders. Bin Laden at large. The Middle East in escalation. A nuclear arms race on the cusp of resumption. A global summit in Johannesburg enraged at US arrogance. Even Europe openly contemptuous. And at home, Antrax killer unidentified. Citizens at risk. Economy shaken.
In the face of such failure, there is nothing for the imperative voice to do but grow louder. "The level of threats has increased dramatically," a Human Rights Watch official observed, concerning recent US attacks on the ICC. "And threat inflation is a sign of a policy gone amok."
The post-9/11 mantra is "United we stand." But not so. The United States is a splintered, lost country where words have been emptied of meaning. That is a symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome, our national malady. We have been unable to give expression to terrible experiences. Our worst fears remain subliminal, but we recognize them in each other's eyes.
In mirroring this unarticulated desperation, our tautological president has been the perfect emblem of the American condition. He is the maestro of disconnect between words and experience. Having emptied the word "evil" of meaning (Iran is evil, but perhaps also our ally), Bush is now - incredibly - emptying the word "war" of meaning, too.
His vacuous reflection of our mute anguish can be consoling because familiar - hence the high poll numbers - but it is the last thing the country needs. Mawkish bluster in cowboy clothes does nothing to nurture a community of purpose. It does the opposite.
As a candidate, Bush openly displayed his willful illiteracy. At a loss for words, and proud of it. Many voters were charmed. Others were appalled. Few understood, however, that this abdication of leadership by the intelligent use of language would be dangerous to democracy at home, a grievous threat to peace abroad.