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Speech, Speech, Speech

On one level, I think this was clearly Michael Gerson's most impressive contribution to date. In an admirably short span of time, he managed to unite a number of different subjects around not only a common theme, but a common analytic framework. He also managed to do so with significant rhetorical force. Truly an impressive accomplish, from the standpoint of a writer. I'm going to try to write up an analyses of both the rhetorical and philosophical aspects of the text at a later point because I think it's an extraordinary piece of work. As a substantive intervention into American and world politics, however, it's utterly trivial. I expect it will have set the hearts of Oxbloggers all 'round the world a-twitter, but minds are made up. Our actual policies take the following shape:

"Outposts of Tyranny":
  • Cuba
  • Burma
  • North Korea
  • Iran
  • Zimbabwe
  • Belarus
Allies In the War On Terror
  • Tunisia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Uzbekistan
  • Egypt
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
Ambiguous Third Category
  • Russia
  • China
  • Vietnam
  • Syria
Specifically Cited By Bush Administration As Models of Democracy
  • Pakistan
  • Algeria
One Election Makes a Democracy In...
  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq
  • Palestine after Arafat died
One Election Does Not A Democracy Make In...
  • Venezuela
  • Haiti
  • Palestine before Arafat died
You all see, no doubt, where I'm going with this. You can take current American policy toward any country on this list and offer a decent defense for acting the way the Bush administration has acted. What you can't do is look at American policies toward all of these countries -- toward the world, in short -- and come close to explaining how this constitutes an instantiation of the Gerson Doctrine or reflects any sort of coherent view of the world. But he's a hell of a speechwriter.

January 21, 2005 | Permalink


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"What you can't do is look at American policies toward all of these countries -- toward the world, in short -- and come close to explaining how this constitutes an instantiation of the Gerson Doctrine or reflects any sort of coherent view of the world."

You miss the unifying factor of this worldview: a country's willingness or lack thereof to submit to Washington's will.

And FWIW, while Gerson is a true master of political rhetoric, (the best on the right since Peggy Noonan's heyday), the Doctrine you speak of is the Cheney doctrine, not the Gerson doctrine.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 12:43:06 AM

I'm still wondering how, through all this talk of tyranny, democracy, and freedom, Sudan hasn't come up, despite the active genocide in Darfur? They sign an agreement with the South and suddenly Darfur becomes a non-issue?

Posted by: Judah Ariel | Jan 21, 2005 12:55:46 AM

Also: there is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of...


Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Jan 21, 2005 1:04:07 AM

when you put it that way ...

Posted by: praktike | Jan 21, 2005 1:11:13 AM

Was there a speech today? I was walking my dogs. You could pay me to listen to an hour of that man, but it would be expensive.

In defense of Presidential bullshit, John Kennedy wasn't really willing to "pay any price" for spreading freedom, and didn't, and millions suffered. Every President in my memory has sincerely wanted to maximally increase world freedom within constraints of resources and conflicting choices of where to use them.

George W Bush is the first I can imagine who actually wants to decrease world freedom and justice.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 21, 2005 1:11:24 AM

what about Libya? I imagine that would get a category all to itself.

Posted by: right | Jan 21, 2005 1:20:37 AM

don't tell Chuck, btw.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 21, 2005 1:30:46 AM

Well, after invoking the Nooner in my comment upthread, I see via Drudge that the woman herself panned the speech in a pretty funny column which refers to the administration as suffering from "Mission Inebriation".

One choice graph:

"Ending tyranny in the world? Well that's an ambition, and if you're going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth."

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 1:43:40 AM

I don't think I've ever read a Noonan column that didn't make me feel I'd been transported to another world.

This is America. We have a lot of good songs. And we watch inaugurals in part to hear them....

President Bush sided strongly with the moralists...in a way that left this Bush supporter yearning for something she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance....

Some things are constant, such as human imperfection, injustice, misery and bad government. This world is not heaven. The president's speech seemed rather heavenish....

(pinching myself)

Posted by: Swift Loris | Jan 21, 2005 2:56:28 AM

According to Jon Stewart, the speech used the word freedom 27 times, the word liberty 15 times.

Posted by: Swift Loris | Jan 21, 2005 2:59:15 AM

You forgot Poland!

Posted by: Joel | Jan 21, 2005 6:36:01 AM

I finally watched the speech, and I must say I disagree with the pans of Noonan and many of the non-partisan pundits.

The compassionate part of the "compassionate conservative" equation has always been the rhetorical. The conservative part is the policy, of course.

But if you could somehow ignore all the policy behind it, Gerson creates speeches that appeal to ideals I very much share. And that rhetorical appeal to compassionate values is very much a key to Bush's ability to hang on to half of a country who mostly don't like his policies.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 6:53:04 AM

This was just more of what we always get from Bush/Gerson: a fine speech full of lofty ideals, but strangely disconnected from reality.

Posted by: RC | Jan 21, 2005 7:33:40 AM

Nice observations Matt. They can also be summarized, more concisely and pithily, by quoting Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, on last night's News Hour, pointed out that in relation to the concrete realities of formulating policy, the speech was "vacuous."

Now, the really scary thought is the one that came a bit later in that discussion, from the mouth of Walter Russell Mead, namely that the players in this administration actually believe that the fact of Bush's re-election means that the nation as a whole concurs with thier view of Iraq as a success, and therefore a model which can plausibly be applied to the rest of the world. Which raises the question, vis a vis Brzezinski's point, whether or not the members of this administration realize that there *is* a reality which they need to take into account when formulating policy that is significantly different from the world-view which they like to articulate in thier rhetorical pronouncements.

If the answer to that latter question is 'no,' and there are real reasons to think it might in fact be, then we are in for an enormously scary time in the next few years.

Posted by: Ed Kazarian | Jan 21, 2005 7:43:54 AM

A couple more points about the speech.

Many people have commented on how it is a logical extension of the whole American Exceptionalist position that has run throughout our history -- a quick perusal of Roger Williams' or Cotton Mather's sermons will provide some very interesting reading in this context.

What I have not yet seen is a clear articulation, on the basis of the fact that this exceptionalist position carries with it the dual presumptions that 1) we are the most moral nation on earth (and in some cases, this is cashed out religiously as the idea that we are literally a nation of the 'elect' in the Calvinist sense of the term); and 2) that we have a duty to rectify the rest of the world morally (in the religious sense, again, this being in order to prepare for the thousand year reign of the risen Christ on Earth), that 'exceptionalism' here needs to be connected to the basic universalizing tendencies of Christianity in general and evangelical Christianity in particular. In fact, given the reported depth of Bush's commitment to a rather stringent evangelical (read post-Calvinist) set of Christian principles, it should not be all that surprising that, once he was forced by events to abandon the isolationist version of the exceptionalist position (his pre-9/11 policies of withdrawal from the international community), he should replace it with a militantly universalizing one.

In short (and if one does the research into this one will find that this is part of a very long tradition, though one that has usually been tempered in American politics with restraining elements of 'deist' rationalism and secularism, and therefore has rarely, if ever, recieved such a radical articulation from a truly significant official voice) those who observe that what Bush is articulating here is not really anything new are quite correct, with the following caveat: the principles are not new, but one of the oldest parts of our intellectual history; however they have not, or only very rarely, been articulated in such an uncompromising fashion as even a theoretical basis for actual policy.

This leads to a second point, namely that what is perhaps significant here is that there is a creeping transformation of the notions of democracy and self-determination which are embedded in the idea of 'freedom' as it is depolyed in contemporary American ideology into militantly universalizing ideals which are functionally similar, again, to those of evangelical representatives of universalizing religions like Christianity (and, I should mention in this context, Islam). Furthermore, insofar as self-determination *and* democracy mean, in this context, something that essentially includes capitalism (if they are not based on it, Marx's theory of ideology to which you refer in another post would suggest), then one might also connect what Bush is doing here to what many theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari being notable early examples, have noted about capitalism, namely that it is at its very core a universalizing practice.

And, in conclusion, if you buy all of the above, then a very interesting world picture starts to emerge. One of the cherished dogmas of the contemporary right is that the revolutions of 1989 in eastern Europe represented the final victory of 'capitalism' over its historic rival 'communism' -- the very fact of China's continued political adherence, at least nominally, to a communist system notwithstanding (and here not unreasonably, since there is very little about the current Chinese economic system that is anything 'but' capitalist). Thus, there is, at least embryonically, a really existing fact that could be denominated 'universal capitalism'. Now, insofar as this economic reality is not only logically congruent with the universalizing versions of the moral and political notions embedded in the notion of 'freedom' under discussion, but also connected to it in an 'ideological' base-superstructure relationship, then it is not at all surprising that thinkers on the right who are already inclined to view the 1989 revolutions as a fundamental justification of thier interests are also inclined to see a set of universalizing political and moral transformations of the world scene as something approaching a fait accompli as well as something which they have a moral duty to advocate and concretely work to advance.

In other words, these people have spent the past fifteen years or so convincing themselves that once we 'won' the cold war there was quite literally nothing left of any significance to stand in the way of the realizion of thier ideological goals and that all that was really necessary was to 'enlighten' the poor, ignorant masses of the world as to the 'reality' of thier freedom--or, in other words, to convert them. Nothing, as far as I can tell, better explains the almost callous acceptance on the part of the neo-cons of the idea that the democratic transformation of Iraq (and by extension, as the president's speech suggests, anyplace else in the world) would simply be a matter of removing whatever inessential obstacles, like a tyrranical government and a state-controlled media, continued to stand obstinately in the way of its accomplishment.

As far as these people are concerned, there is only one significant reality, namely that of 'univesal capitalism,' which by itself entails the nascent and immanent realization at a political and social level of 'universal freedom' and everything which appears to be contrary to that reality is nothing more than an inessential moment which can be easily overcome.

I will leave it to all of you to draw the rest of the conclusions about why this is scary... which by now should be obvious.

Posted by: Ed Kazarian | Jan 21, 2005 8:20:28 AM

Empty speech. Empty suit.

I'm going to disagree with MY; I thought Gerson's speech was trite--it was phoned in. It was as if Gerson believes that if one repeats 'freedom' and 'liberty' like a mantra, it will happen. All in all, there was a major disconnect between Gerson's mantra and Bush's policies as well as a lack of any hope this administration really understands the global dynamics at play.

Gerson is certainly capable of better efforts.

Posted by: Jadegold | Jan 21, 2005 8:30:25 AM

i think Jenna summed it up nicely.

Posted by: cleek | Jan 21, 2005 8:32:03 AM

Sorry about the blockquote.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 21, 2005 8:42:44 AM

"Sorry about the blockquote."

Huh. I actually thought it was a pleasant design decision.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 8:49:05 AM

I'm going to disagree with MY; I thought Gerson's speech was trite

By itself the speech seems trite but the context makes it interesting - kind of like a Hallmark Mother's Day card read by Oedipus.

Posted by: freeliberty | Jan 21, 2005 9:06:29 AM

Bush professes to believe that he can change the hearts of men through warfare.

Posted by: cdw | Jan 21, 2005 10:50:45 AM

Annnnd scene.

Posted by: The42ndGuy | Jan 21, 2005 11:00:29 AM

I sounded to me like an expansion of one of the best speeches President Bush ever gave--the one at West point.

"For decades, we have tolerated oppression in exchange for stability; however, this policy got us much oppression and little stability. It did not work, and I have changed this policy."

Posted by: SamChevre | Jan 21, 2005 12:19:34 PM

Shorter Matthew: Bush says he is for freedom, but he hasn't been able to extend freedom to every single country in the entire world in the space of 4 years. What a hypocrite!

Posted by: Al | Jan 21, 2005 12:40:34 PM

40 polling places for 2 million voters in Mosul. (see Drum)

Opium up and drug/warlords in control.

Allied with dictators, etc.

Well reasoned, Al.

Posted by: MattB | Jan 21, 2005 2:54:52 PM

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