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The Good, the Bad, and the Rhetorically Challenged

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Appearing like Brigadoon out of the smog of American political discourse, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed is a weirdly clear-eyed piece that reads as a reminder that power doesn’t have to speak in the babbling gibberish of our leadership.


“It is alarming,” writes Putin, “that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.”

I had been hoping that a president would express that thought in a serious and concise way, but this is not the president I had in mind. Politicians, even those of the ex-KGB variety, can intend something and speak directly toward that intent. Even Putin’s howlers are delivered with a kind of nakedness that makes them borderline endearing: “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust.” It’s such polite bullshit, you could even call it diplomatic.

Compare Putin’s argument that the United States should practice caution before charging into Syria to the argument made earlier this week by president Barack Obama. Obama’s speech traveled in every direction at once: demanding action and declining to take it, parsing the boundary between extremely limited military strikes (good) and “pinpricks” (bad). The president of the United States seems somehow unable to speak, unable to say clearly that if he intends X, then he will attempt Y. Neither is secretary of state John Kerry rhetorically consistent when he compares taking action against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to taking action against Adolf Hitler and then, in nearly the same breath, promises that the United States would undertake only an “unbelievably small” set of actions if it came to it.

This great muddle of American political speech—the impossibility of connecting what people say to what they intend to do—grows from a rigidification of false categories, a hardening of the cartoon that our politics have become. In contemporary American discourse, there is a side populated by the good guys and a side populated by the bad guys, and the two have always existed. And so the UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff can write, without irony, that the Puritan leader John Winthrop was a seventeenth-century New Deal progressive, a great social leveler.

“This is the morality that informs the Declaration and the Constitution,” Lakoff writes. “It is the morality that led to emancipation, to universal suffrage, to the New Deal and the Great Society, and Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear — with the recognition that we are all in this democratic experiment together. It is what, from the beginning, has informed the formation of The Public. It is that sense of morality that we must maintain.”

When you know that there is, and has always been, a set of good guys with uniform, transhistorical values and a set of bad guys with uniform, transhistorical values, and that the politics of each side has remained consistent over time, then the deviations from these hard truths can be . . . confusing. To wit, at The Atlantic this week, staff writer Noah Berlatsky finds himself quite astonished to be opposed to a military strike against Syria. After all, Berlatsky understands anti-interventionism to be strictly a racist teabagger thing:

Given [the] history, the libertarian, anti-government thread of conservative isolationism starts to look more than a little repulsive. The liberal, federalist interventionists, like Wilson and FDR and LBJ, want to intervene on behalf of various non-white folks. The anti-interventionists (like, say, John Calhoun or Charles Lindbergh or David Duke) don’t want to, because intervening on behalf of non-white folks is dangerous federal overreach.

And how kind it was of Lyndon Baines Johnson to intervene on behalf of Kim Phuc, who deserved American liberal benevolence on account of her non-whiteness.

And why did William Walker keep invading Nicaragua? Because he was intervening on behalf of non-white people. Must have been another anti-racist thing.

In fairness, Berlatsky is “the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics,” which qualifies the Atlantic writer to write pieces that link history and contemporary American foreign policy. I will just add that, you know, ahem.

Cartoonish discourse both produces and sustains the cartoon politics and the empty bloviating from the far left of our political spectrum to the far right.

Image: President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin walking in Ireland Pete Souza/White House.

Chris Bray is a sometime history professor and is writing a book about the history of American military justice.