Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Stay the course no more

Turns out this is actually old news, but the White House speechwriters have officially dropped "stay the course" from heavy rotation in their discourse about Iraq and the war on terror.

From an NPR report by David Greene (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6369925):

One of the president's trademarks is his self-portrait as a steadfast leader. He has often invoked the importance of "staying the course" in Iraq, and finishing the job of building a democracy.

Speaking in Utah at the end of August, President Bush said, "We will stay the course. We will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed."

But that may have been the last time the president used the phrase "stay the course." On Monday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that the phrase was dropped after August. When asked about the change, Snow paused briefly before answering.

"Because it left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, 'Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy, not looking at what the situation is,' when in fact it's just the opposite."

This is an interesting rhetorical inversion. Of course, critics have been saying "Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy, not looking at what the situation is" for a while now. This is nothing new, and the fact that the White House is just now acknowledging that is pretty laughable. But Snow couches his response in such a way as to make the elimination of "stay the course" sound like a pre-emptive move, to stop critics before they can criticize.


The lead editorial in the New York Times this past Sunday captures the larger picture, of which this minor change in Bushspeak is most certainly a part.

The generrals who told President Bush before the war the Donald Rumsfeld's shock-and-awe fantasy would not work were not enough to persuade him to change his strategy in Iraq. Nor did month after month of mounting military and civilian casaulties on all sides, the emergence of a near civil war, the collapse of reconstruction efforts or the seeming inability of either Iraqi or American forces to secure contested parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, for any significant period.

So what finally, after all this time, cause Mr. Bush to very publicly consult with his generals to consider a change in tactics in Iraq? The president, who says he never reads political polls, is worried that his party could lose some of its iron grip on power in the Confressional elections next month.

It is not necessarily a bad thing when a politician takes stock of his positions in the teeth of an election. Our elected leaders are expected to heed the will of the American people. [...]

But the way this sudden change of heart has come about, after months in which Mr. Bush has brushed off all criticism of his policies as either misguided, politically motivated or downright disloyal to America, is maddening.

Damn right.

Dropping "stay the course," along with finally re-evaluating the Iraq campaign, are gestures sure enough. I wonder how often White House press secretaries have spoken so openly about the administration's word choice....

NPR mentioned the abolition of "stay the course" quite a lot today, and Jackie Northam put together a nice piece on governmental semantics, focusing on whether or not to admit there's a civil war on in Iraq. One word that stuck out to me in the report was "euphamism." (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6373560)


Saturday, October 21, 2006

The hero factor

It may be that the consideration of terrorism qua communication requires also some consideration of the hero factor. In order for someone to be an effective (semiotic) terroist, she or he must also be a kind of hero.

But, there's a caveat. The heroism must extend beyond the act or programme of terrorism. For example, the politician who is not only tough on the issues but also a family man, a churchgoer, &c. The message must be buttressed by a series of more or less unrelated adjectives.

This week I started reading "Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden," edited by Bruce Lawrence (New York: Verso, 2005). From Lawrence's introduction:
Beyond the organizer and the polemicist lies, finally, the hero. To Westerners, for whom bin Laden is the incarnation of villany, this may seem the last word in perversity. But for millions of Muslims around the world, including many who have no sympathy with terrorism, bin Laden is an heroic figure. His worldwide charisma is based not just on his success in so far eluding Americans and their allies, exhilaratig as that may be or many ordinary Muslims. It is because his personal reputation for probity, austerity, dignity, and courage contrasts so starkly with the mismanagement, bordering on incompetence, of most Arab regimes. Unlike the latter, bin Laden has demonstrated that he can forego the temptations of wealth, that he dares to strike powerful wrongdoers, and that he refuses to bend before superior might. "Bin Laden is seen by millions of his co-religionists -- because of his defense of Islam, personal piety, physical bravery, integrity and generosity -- as an Islamic hero, as that faith's ideal type, and almost as a modern-day Saladin," reports Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA unit charges with hunting bin Laden. "For nearly a decade now," observes Scheuer, "bin Laden has demonstrayed patientce, brilliant planning, managerial expertise, sound strategic and tactical sense, admirable character traits, eloquence, and focused, limited war aims. He has never, to my knowledge, behaved or spoken in a way that could be described as 'irrational in the extreme'." Indeed, for all the terror sown by his actions, concludes Scheuer, "there is no reason, based on the information at hand, to belive bin Laden is anything other than what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim. As a historical figure, viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-cold war peace." These encomia express, no doubt, the not uncommon admiration felt by professional for a particularly skilled enemy -- with the kind of overstatement to be found, for example, in writings of the British military historian Liddell Hart about German generals in World War Two. Yet even discounting their hyperbole, such CIA tributes are striking; they provoke further reflection on the man behind the many personae. (xvii-xviii)
"[A] pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim." Substitute "Christian" for that last part and you'd have a suitable description of President Bush, at least from the perspective of his adherents (and who knows, perhaps also from the perspective of his rivals, who revere him as a "particularly skilled enemy").

But there's another aspect to the hero factor, one whose efficacy and even functionality I'm unsure about, but whose necessity seems certain.

Lawrence writes about bin Laden's "posthumous legend," which for bin Laden's fans in the umma (the supposed Muslim supernation) has to do with all of his heroic characteristics; but more broadly must have to do with him infamy in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world. So it's part fame, part adoration, part infamy. Maybe.

I wonder if Bush will ever have a posthumous legend on the order of bin Laden's. More innocent lives have been lost as a result of Bush's orders than bin Laden's; and yet Bush seems somehow less infamous. Perhaps this is just because my perspective is skewed too far toward the West. But the fact is he hasn't flown planes into tall buildings; though he has caused plenty of death and mass confusion. He hasn't carried out his attacks in a symbolic fashion, like destroying the iconic side-by-side towers on the 11th day of the month, thereby creating a new icon that remains semiotically active years after. Instead, there are just air raids, ground assaults -- the same-old same-old.

For Bush, the message and the terrorism are more separate than they are for bin Laden. Bush makes public statements far more often than bin Laden, precisely because he must explain his acts of aggression as necessary to prevent the creation of a "caliphate" that would stamp out any glimmer of democracy in the Middel East. (Interestingly, Lawrence writes that bin Laden has no interest in the caliphate. On the contrary, Lawrence claims, bin Laden plans to fight the "global unbelief" until Judgment Day.) There is no permissable action for him that would be as symbolic in the Middle East as the fall of the World Trade Center has been in the West (though some in the Muslim world see a tremendous insult the invasion of Iraq, Islam's third-holiest land after Mecca and Jerusalem). Bush cannot deliberately destroy an icon on "Islamofascism" or jihadism, because there is no such icon that is also completely separate from nonradical Islam. To attack one would be to attack both. (And indeed, this is how anti-American spin doctors have construed his "crusade.")

Bin Laden, on the other hand, could attack the icons of the infidels, the strongholds of their government and economy, the dual engines of their imperialism. Lawrence is unconvinced by the argument that bin Laden's war is one for social change, arguing instead that bin Laden's motivations are purely religious.

Objectively speaking, bin Laden is waging a war against what many -- admirers and critics -- now call the American empire. But it is crucial to note that he himself never uses this vocabulary. There word "imperialism" does not occur once in any of the messages he has sent out. He defines the enemy differently. For him, jihad is aimed not at an imperium, but at "global unbelief". Again and again, his texts return to this fundamental dichotomy. The war is a religious war. It subsumes a political war, which he can wage with the terms appropriate to it, as he demonstrates in his addresses to the peoples of Europe and America. Yet the battle in the end is one of faith. (xx)
But still, at the end of the day, the targets bin Laden chose on Sept. 11 were significant as icons of imperialism. Perhaps this is only because there were no distinct icons of unbelief available. Perhaps it is only that bin Laden was able to be more daring than Bush, that he decided to go ahead with an attack whose message was aimed at unbelief but which would impact other things as well. Unbelief, in other words, was the bulls eye; but he was willing to let his darts hit imperialism as well.

In bin Laden's own sphere of influence, at least according to Lawrence, the discourse around bin Laden has been limited to his piousness and generousity -- his "great man"-hood. Perhaps he also has been able to keep the discourse so limited when it comes to his acts of terror. From the other side, the attacks that appeared to us to target imperialism targeted only unbelief.

So perhaps his infamy exists only in the eyes of Westerners. But nonetheless he has his posthumous legend ensured, both in the East and the West. What is Bush's posthumous legend, on either side of this conflict?


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Now I'm over here

So lately I've been wanting to actually put some effort into "blogging" (I still can't help using the selfconscious quotatio marks). I already had a "blog," but it was on lame-ass Angelfire. A few friends do their "blogging" here at blogspot, and I noticed that their layout was a lot less lame-ass than Angelfire's, so I decided to take my business elsewhere, er, here.

Stay tuned as I transfer my archives, and actually write new entries on a more regular basis.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Back in the saddle?

So last night, while my darling was ill and apart from me, I decided not to sit and wallow in the agony of our separation, but rather to get the fuck back to work on my "scholarly" pursuits.

That involved re-revising the extant six pages of "Semiotic Terrorism" I last altered over two months ago (and adding a short two paragraphs, about which I'm terribly pleased).

Tonight, to bolster my more peripheral arguments dealing with the contemporary discourse on (actual) terrorism, I've been slogging through some of our fine president's most recent speeches on the matter.

Of concern to me is first the terminology he uses in describing terrorists and second the syntax or presentation of these terms, with specific attention to the purported meaning of terrorist actions and American military actions. What I want to know most of all is, what message does Bush want to convey to the terrorists, or perhaps more importantly, what message would be conveyed if we do not "stay the course" in Iraq?

Combing through the official record, I've been struck by the instances in which the transcriber has reproduced Mr. Bush's teleprompter fumbles. One would think the text that plays over the teleprompter would simply be uploaded to whitehouse.gov; but apparently this isn't the case.

Speaking to the American Legion in Salt Lake City in August, the president stumbled at least three times, according to my quick scan of the transcript. Behold:

"Despite their differences, these groups from -- form the outlines of a single movement, a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology."

"On the political side, we're working closely with Prime Minister Maliki to strengthen Iraq's unity government and develop -- and to deliver better services to the Iraqi people."

"Many of these folks are sincere and they're patriotic, but they could be -- they could not be more wrong."

These fumbles are nothing to make fun of. (If I'd been delivering this or any speech, I'd have certainly a lot more than three times.) They're altogether easy errors to make -- confusing "from" and "form," saying "develop" when reading "deliver" and omiting the key but easily missable word in a negative phrase.

It is remarkable, however, that these errors are included at all. My first guess is it's taken directly from the monkeys tapping away at the network TV Closed Captioning keyboards. But surely the text is proofread, because it lacks typos or any obvious transcription errors. And the phenomenon crops up in other transcripts, so it's not a fluke.

All of which raises the question, why isn't the teleprompted text fed into the Closed Captioning machine (?) simultaneously? Does Bush frequently ad lib or something?

Either my Google skills are lacking or no one has commented on this phenomenom in cyberspace. One of my searches, however, turned up an oddity -- a site devoted to John Kerry's concession speech, which chronicles some transcription correction perpetrated by the Kerry camp.

Then two calls from the crowd nearly simultaneously: "We love you" and "We still have your back." Somehow Kerry conflated the statements and called back, "I love yours too."

He clearly wasn't familiar with the popular phrase "got your back" and so confused the statements, and responded rather nonsensically - he loves your back? A person truly familiar with the culture, with the vernacular, would not have made the mistake.

This was a remarkably telling moment: no matter how hard, and I have no doubt, sincerely, Kerry has tried to connect with the soul of the nation, to jump on the back and ride the great dragon that is our culture, he never quite connected, he never quite got it right.

This isn't something you learn, this is something you are. It is very difficult to make a broad, generally populist appeal when you are simply NOT a man of the people, when you are an upper-crust Eastern intellectual with a bizarre billionaire second wife, even if you are pals with Bruce Springsteen (who is also a multi-millionaire, by the way). That morning in the duck blind in Ohio convinced no one and rang false - it was a jarring moment that reinforced an underlying perception of opportunism, of trying to be all things to all people, of stretching oneself too thin.

Bush, with a remarkably similar early background, doesn't even try, much. He has to deal with the opposite perception that he is a dumbass and a cowboy. He seems genuinely most at home out on the ranch, on the open plains of Texas, so his patrician, blueblood heritage is largely neutralized. He is seen as a regular guy despite the accident of birth. He is of the vernacular. He isn't trying to appear to be something he is not, he isn't trying to be all things to all people.

The rest of Kerry's speech was very fine - his line, "There are no losers in American elections - we all wake up as Americans, and that is the greatest gift of all," was brilliant, and his calls for unity and commonality touching and sincere - but that one awkward, unscripted moment summed up for me why Kerry was conceding and not graciously accepting.

Fascinating also that the transcription on Kerry's site, "corrects" his misunderstanding:

Audience member: "We still got your back!"

"Thank you, man. And I assure you - you watch - I'll still have yours."

Um, no, that's not what he said. AP's text doesn't include the moment at all. See for yourself here.

FoxNews has the transcript correct here.

And here I thought I was just being overly picayune blogging about the minor tongue entanglements of politicians....

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