No Comment — June 1, 2007, 9:44 am

The Rhetoric-Major President

We’re at peak commencement season right now, and so far we’ve paused in this column to note several speeches by administration figures – Cheney’s disgraceful speech at West Point, Gates’s noble address to the midshipmen in Annapolis. But from all the texts I have seen, one commencement address really stands out for its immediacy and importance. It was delivered a few days ago by a former Harper’s writer, Mark Danner, at the University of California in Berkeley, and it’s called “Words in a Time of War.” Danner labels President Bush as the first “Rhetoric-Major President,” and he deconstructs the Bush presidency’s use of cheap political rhetoric to obscure reality. Here’s a snippet, in which Danner reflects on the same fairly obscure (but very consequential) document on which I will have some words to say in the upcoming July issue of Harper’s:

It was the assumption of this so-called preponderance that lay behind the philosophy of power enunciated by Bush’s Brain and that led to an attitude toward international law and alliances that is, in my view, quite unprecedented in American history. That radical attitude is brilliantly encapsulated in a single sentence drawn from the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2003: “Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism.” Let me repeat that little troika of “weapons of the weak”: international fora (meaning the United Nations and like institutions), judicial processes (meaning courts, domestic and international), and…. terrorism. This strange gathering, put forward by the government of the United States, stems from the idea that power is, in fact, everything. In such a world, courts – indeed, law itself – can only limit the power of the most powerful state. Wielding preponderant power, what need has it for law? The latter must be, by definition, a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state, after all, makes reality.

Now, of course, the Bush rhetoric is imploding all about him, pointing to the risk a politician takes when he pursues inflammatory rhetoric dangerously at odds with reality. Bush believed that his words and America’s military power had the power to craft a new reality, but in this he was like the sorcerer’s apprentice of that famous poem by Goethe, who has now unleashed forces he cannot control (“Die ich rief, die Geister,/Werd ich nun nicht los.“)

Danner’s remarks appear today in an abbreviated form in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times but it’s best to read the whole text—crafted as a commencement address to the Rhetoric Department, but its proper audience is our entire nation.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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