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Tuesday, August 27, 2002
Inarticulate, And Proud of It
by James Carroll
''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
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
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
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
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.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company
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