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· Wherein I Briefly Invoke Kenneth Burke's Take on Political Style ·

I've taken a quite personal interest in the Iraqi War. My son recently received an email from an old college friend — a Chicago honors graduate who, after working some time in New Orleans and gardening for Harvard, decided to join the Special Forces. He is now facing some new duties in Baghdad.

I can assure you that Chris is an intelligent, courageous, honorable young man, serving us all well. Doubly ready not only by education but by training, he may possess, indeed, academically and militarily, even more than our President, so I'm looking forward to what our Commander in Chief will have to say on TV tonight.

President Bush is now facing some tough political realities himself, some represented historically in a chart I've included here — all widely cited from the Wall Street Journal just before our 2003 invasion:

From the WSJ, March 19, 2003

Invasion Proclamation Real Goal Result Lessons for U.S.
Napoleon Bonaparte's conquest of Egypt, 1798-1801 Egyptians have been "tyrannized ... I have come to restore your rights ... we are friends of the true Mussulmans Personal carving out of glorious new empire that would cut France's main enemy Britain off from India France driven out by revolts and British attacks. But in turbulent aftermath Egypt gets a modernizing dynasty Muslim mobs are easily stirred up against foreign occupiers; France gained nothing, and soon had to confront the next Egyptian regime
British conquest of Iraq, 1914-18 Our armies come as liberators from strange tyrants ... it is the hope and desire of the British people that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness Initially vague World War I plan morphs into neo-colonial domination to secure oil Britain keeps military bases in Iraq for first half of 20th century and oil flows. But thousands die in repeated revolts as Britain sets the political stage for the past half-century of strife in Middle East Even with international legitimacy, controlling Iraq required the use of brutal force and acceptance of previous ruling elite
British, French and Israeli Attack on Suez Canal, 1956 Reverse Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal To oust Egypt's charismatic leader and Arab nationalist hero, Gamal Abd al-Nasser Israel achieved war aim of international sea access to port of Eilat. But Nasser bounced back to challenge Western goals. Britain saw its domination of the Middle East eclipsed by the United States, and Prime Minister Anthony Eden lost office Without international legitimacy, the best-laid war plans crumble
Israeli Invasion of Lebanon 1982 To crush Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian guerrillas and to force Lebanon to sign peace treaty with Israel. First, to end rocket attacks on northern Israel. Then: "resistance ... is tantamount to suicide" -- Israeli leaflet dropped from the air on Beirut Arafat and his men survive Beirut siege. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon is disgraced. Iran- and Syria-linked suicide bombs and kidnappings hit U.S., French and Israeli targets, and Israeli occupiers were forced out by radical new Hezbollah militia. Rocket attacks on northern Israel continue Even poorly armed guerrillas can hold back superior armies in big cities; domestic support evaporates when leaders exceed stated war aims and casualties mount; hostile nearby states can spell disaster for foreign occupiers

This is by way of preparation today for my main theme. Turning on Kenneth Burke's The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), it adduces but one chapter, "Types of Meaning: Semantic and Poetic Meaning," distinguishing between what we'd perhaps call "denotation" and "connotation." At its heart is a clear grasp of what, citing Arnold Toynbee, Burke calls "withdrawal," a "transition from a system of social values grown unfit for the situation they would encompass, to a new order of values felt, correctly or not, to be a more scrupulous fit for the situation."

Toynbee [Burke writes] has laid stress upon the period of "withdrawal" undergone by founders of religious structures. It is a period of hesitancy, brooding, or even rot, prior to the formation of the new certainties they will subsequently evangelize and organize.

Although I can't begin to mark the fullness of Burke's point — turning on yet another distinction between our going "through" and "around" such structures — I can quote, at least, from one stylishly Burkean passage:

If a dismal political season is in store for us, shall we not greatly need a campaign base for personal integrity, a kind of beneath-which-not? And I wonder whether we might find this beneath-which-not in a more strenuous cult of style. This effort has been made many times in the past — and as regularly has been despised at other times, when there was no longer any need for it. Style for its own sake? Decidedly, not at all. Style solely as the beneath-which-not, as the admonitory and hortatory act, as the example that would prod continually for its completion in all aspects of life, and so in Eliot's phrase, "keep something alive," tiding us over a lean season. . . .

Do not get me wrong. I am pleading for no "retreat" to anything. . . . Let our enlistments remain as they are. I am asking simply that the temper of our enlistment undergo a change of emphasis. That the norm of our tone cease to be the insulting tone that "talks down" to people. Nor would it be a presumptuous tone, that laid claim to uplift them. But rather a tone that would plead with us all, with the writer-to as well as the written-to. As quoted in Kenneth Burke, On Symbols and Society, ed. Joseph R. Gusfield, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, 102; above 86.

I'll be eager to see which tone Mr. Bush — or his several political speech writers — will take with us tonight.

Besides Chris, I have some millions of other Americans also in mind.

Mr. Bush now having delivered himself of his speech, I'll let you assess his own political style.


Especially apt to this judicial task is Eliot Cohen's A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War.

The rising, concluding eloquence of his two last paragraphs is even more apt to Burke's demand for a "cult of style."

Posted by Styles on July 31, 2005 09:38 PM

"O, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive."

Posted by loretta Markle on August 1, 2005 11:30 AM

The speech reminds me of a late night info-commercial. I believe Mr Bush wants me to buy something.

Posted by J VanOrsdol on August 9, 2005 11:59 PM

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