22 July 2004

Politics, epistemology, rhetoric

I recently stumbled across an article in the Village Voice in which the reporter recounts some surreal conversations with conservatives.

I open the floor to the question of why they personally revere George Bush.

Ponytailed Larry, who wears the stripes of a former marine gunnery sergeant on his floppy hat, bursts into laughter; it's too obvious to take seriously. “Honesty. Truth. Integrity,” he says upon recovering.
"One of the reasons I respect this president is that he is honest. I believe that after eight years, the dark years of the Clinton administration, we finally have a man in the White House who respects that office and who speaks honestly."

I ask why so many liberals believe the administration lies, if there might be anything to the suspicions. What about the report of the Los Angeles Times that morning, that the State Department dismissed 28 of the claims the White House demanded Colin Powell bring before the U.N. as without foundation in fact?

Delores: “You make mention of a paper in Los Angeles that made such and such a report; well, that doesn't mean it's accurate or complete or unbiased.”

Why do these folks feel that way?

To a reader like me, that stuff is just stupefying. To my eyes, the three characteristics of Bush and his administration are the Iraq invasion catastrophe, the terrifying disregard for civil liberties, and the unremitting, reflexive lies. As a fair-minded person, I find myself experiencing epistemological vertigo. How could someone interpert things in a way that so contradicts my own understanding? Either they are deluded or I am. And a thoughtful person knows how many opportunities there are for self-deception and must guard against them.

But Bush's pattern of lies is not debatable. Consider this stunning example: Bush explained his decision to invade Iraq, in a joint press conference with Kofi Annan, saying, "We gave him [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." Hans Blix's UN team entered Iraq to begin a series of weapons inspections on 18 November 2002; Bush made this statement 14 July 2003. “Honesty” and “integrity” are not the words that I would choose to describe anyone who could say that.

So how is this possible? I submit that Bush does something with successfully signifies honesty and integrity to conservatives.

Linguist George Lakoff talks about this. He talks about it at length.

Over the last 30 years [conservative] think tanks have made a heavy investment in ideas and in language. In 1970, [Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. [There are many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s.]

And now, as the New York Times Magazine quoted Paul Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts. They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.

Bush, like the entire Republican rhetoric machine, is speaking using a sophisticated vocabulary that conservatives recognize as reflecting their values. The Republican party is very deliberate about this stuff.

More specifically, for evangelical Christians, Bush is visibly one of them. I don't think that this is simply deliberate; Bush is clearly a genuine evangelical, and speaks that language. PBS' Frontline did a sophisticated documentary on this, "The Jesus Factor," with interviews with major evangelical leaders, footage of Bush, and commentary by some very smart people. Check out the terrific website for the documentary: it has the whole program available online, plus interview transcripts and lots of other goodies.

Notable in that program was the story of the Iowa caucuses during the 2000 primaries. In the Republican debate, the moderator asked the candidates a viewer's question about which political philosopher or thinker the candidate identified with. Steve Forbes picked my own favorites: John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. John McCain went for the Founding Fathers and Teddy Roosevelt. Alan Keyes was also down with the Founding Fathers, using it as an opportunity to wink toward strict constructioninsm. Bush's answer?

Christ, because he changed my heart.

... long pause ...

I think that the viewer would like to know more on how he has changed your heart.

Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me.

Doug Wead, an evangelical leader who advised the elder Bush's campaign, describes that moment as powerful for evangelical viewers.

I think that was instinctive, and genuine ... It may have helped him, because of the fact that it was so obviously uncalculated to evangelicals. I mean, the media elite and non-evangelicals see that statement, and they think it's calculated. The evangelicals know it's not calculated. They know it didn't help him, so they tend to believe it's true.

With that kind of resonance, Bush projects honesty and trustworthiness and virtue to his base, and that's what his base will see no matter what he actually does.

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