We Vote for Brand X
From The New Criterion.
February 28, 2007.
After checking the obituaries section of The Times of London for war heroes, explorers and outdoorsmen, people I know, writers and journalists, academics and school-teachers — for The Times, like other British papers, quite often does run non-paid obituaries even of lowly school-teachers, missionaries, clergymen and others who may be supposed to have lived exemplary lives, not just the politicians, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who dominate American obituary columns — I always turn to the "Letters to the Editor" section. I don’t know if you can positively say that this section of the paper is all that it was back in its greatest days, when it was renowned for lightly-worn scholarship, wit and the whimsicality of lengthy correspondences on such subjects as the earliest day of the year on which a cuckoo had been heard, but it’s still pretty good. In particular, the letters that appear in the cuckoo slot — that is, toward the bottom right hand corner of the page — are nearly always worth reading. They are often witty, wise, even epigrammatic, or they tell you something you didn’t know.
Around the time of President Bush’s "Surge" speech last month, there was a brief correspondence there about how, in Britain as in America, the marketing of everything from eggs to television sets offers consumers sizes that run from medium (or standard) to extra-large. Both Geof Wilkins of Bowdon, Cheshire, and Jane S. Haworth of Thames Ditton, Surrey, wrote to complain that bread, in particular, could only be bought in medium, thick and extra thick slices. To this observation, Mike Pinder of London wrote in reply that "it is not thin-sliced bread which has disappeared, but the word ‘thin.’ Open a medium-sliced loaf and you will find the bread has been thinly sliced. What has disappeared is the genuine ‘thick-sliced’ loaf, for within the wrapper you will find slices of medium thickness." The point is that marketing, like language itself, has an existence and a logic more or less independent of the things it describes. What counts as thick or thin has no real existence. To Mr Wilkins, "medium" is too thick; to Mr Pinder, "thick" is too thin. And this difference over taste and "consumer choice" can be exploited by marketers. At some point their research must have showed them that, however thick or thin a slice of bread, prospective buyers don’t like to hear it described as thin.
That research, by the way, strikes me as being out of date, though I have not tested the hypothesis. Perhaps the marketers’ focus groups are all too busy fine-tuning the language of politics to revisit it. For President Bush’s speech on the "surge" of additional troops for Iraq, mentioned above, is a good illustration of the extent to which our political battles have become battles over language. The word "surge," we surmise, must have tested well in the administration’s focus groups — or better, at least, than such alternatives as "reinforcements," suggesting that the troops already in place are beleaguered and losing ground, "bump" — as in "a bump in the road"? — or (Condoleeza Rice’s word) "augmentation," which is now inescapably associated with a certain kind of cosmetic surgery. "Surge," by contrast, must have suggested something more positive: a temporary but powerful force, like a tsunami, after which there would be a return to the status quo ante, at worst, and, at best, a peaceful if devastated landscape from which the troops already there could be withdrawn. Let’s surge ‘em, guys!
But the Democrats weren’t having any of the "surge" — neither the word nor the thing. "This is not a surge; it's an escalation," said former Clinton hand and House Democratic leader, Rahm Emanuel, "and we want to make sure the definition is correct." By "definition," of course, he meant "connotation," adding that,"When the American people voted for change in November, this is not what they had in mind." I wrote in this space last month about the charged language of the "civil war" which, shortly after the election, it became a Democratic talking point to insist on calling the Iraqi insurgency. Why? Because "civil war" was inevitably redolent of Vietnam and the reason why (in the Democrats’ and the media’s mythologization of that war) fighting in Vietnam was such a bad idea. The same was true of "escalation." It was an old euphemism from the 1960s whose associations with the failed policies of Lyndon Johnson have made it politically radioactive ever since. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, in his eagerness to attack the President with both loaded words at once, mixed them together nonsensically when he accused him of "choosing to escalate the civil war."
Or was he advancing a new conspiracy theory which had American troops actually encouraging more and bloodier clashes between Sunni and Shi’ite in order to give themselves an excuse to remain there? Anything’s possible, I guess, but it’s more likely that Senator Reid only had a vague idea that the more gratuitous analogies between the war in Iraq and the one in Vietnam you can come up with, the better it is for your side. He still has a way to go before he catches up with Frank Rich of the New York Times, who is already living in an imaginary world he has constructed for himself out of legends from the great days of the heroic media. That’s why he is now stirring in to the routine Vietnam comparisons of his weekly philippics on the op-ed page references to Watergate as well. "It wasn’t Democrats or the press that forced Richard Nixon’s abdication in 1974," he wrote, a propos of the "surge" speech, " it was dwindling Republican support." Hoping for a repeat of the glory days, he proceeded to call on Senator John McCain or Senator John Warner to play the Goldwater role and gently inform their President that the game is up.
What might they say, I wonder? "Looks like Frank Rich and the New York Times and Cindy Sheehan and the whole anti-war left were right all along, Mr President. You might as well give up and go back to Crawford." What a beautiful dream that must be for Frank!
Both cause and consequence of each side’s bringing its own words to the table to describe the same things has been in this case as in others to lock political discourse into a rhetorical stalemate and entrench political differences. "Surge" vs. "Escalation" is like "pro-life" vs. "pro-choice." This is language used not to argue or persuade, which democratic societies used to think was what politics was for, but for quasi-commercial purposes. Instead of being offered any real choices, the public were being offered rival political trademarks or brands — like Coke vs. Pepsi — and their respective slogans. I’m not up to date with these, but I seem to remember that Coke was "the real thing" — unless you were a member of "the Pepsi generation." And, as with Coke vs. Pepsi, the energy and resources poured into the struggle for market dominance between the two often bears little relation to the substantial difference, if any, between them. Even where the differences are substantial, as in pro-life vs. pro-choice, they are unconnected to the slogans, since both sides are pro-life and pro-choice, only differing on the questions of what constitutes life and who gets to choose, and when — differences designed to be hidden by the sloganeering.
The phenomenon is a good illustration of the less desirable consequences — for the moment I can’t think of any more desirable ones — of the marketing approach to politics which, for the last 30 or 40 years, both parties have conspired to bring about. In the present case, it was an indication that all political or military discussion of the war itself, or of the more general anti-terror policy of which the administration saw it as a part, had ceased. To the opposition, Iraq had become nothing but an albatross to be well and truly hung round the neck of the administration; to the administration thoughts of the best strategy for victory or retreat — always the only real options in war — were inevitably overshadowed by thoughts of how to get the albatross off its own neck before 2008. In practice, the only question that remained about the war was, could a politically crippled President and his minorities in both houses of Congress still conduct it with any hope of success in the face of such implacable, passive-aggressive opposition from the majority party?
For the Democrats offered no alternative to the "surge" that they derided as an "escalation" — not even the alternative of withdrawal. Once again, the political commercials were designed to disguise the stark choice of victory or retreat. In interview after interview Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic speaker of the house, echoed Rahm Emanuel in repeating the mantra that her party had been elected, and that she had been made speaker, "to take us in a new direction." And what direction might that be, pray? Somehow, neither she nor Mr Emanuel nor anyone else ever got around to saying. They never quite proposed a withdrawal or a retreat — though there was some gingerly-ventured talk of "redeployment," a word which must have tested better in the focus groups — but they were also opposed to anything in the way of an advance. In fact their "new direction" turned out to be the old direction under the marketers’ label of "new" because it belonged to the new majority party. It suited the Democrats’ political purposes for the war to remain just as much of a political liability for President Bush and the Republicans as it was, and they didn’t care who knew that they weren’t going to do anything to let the enemy — not the Iraqi insurgents and terrorists, of course, but the hated Republicans — off the hook.
Probably some historian will undertake to prove it illusory, but my sense is that once, and not so long ago, such a blatant preference for the party’s over the national interest would have been politically damaging, to put it no more strongly. Politics has never stopped at the water’s edge, I seem to have read somewhere recently. Always the struggle for power has been all that matters, and the rhetoric about putting country above party has been just that: a typical attempt to disguise naked power-lust in more becoming garb. I don’t believe that this is true but, true or not, it clearly represents some kind of political watershed when the opposition party have arrived at the point where it feels it can do away even with the pretense of putting the national interest ahead of its own. Democrats are now loud and proud about having all but officially adopted the slogan of the British war-protesters of a few years ago — "Not in my name" — as if it were a policy, not a gesture.
Thus they undertook to pass a non-binding resolution condemning the President’s war strategy, knowing that it could do nothing to change that strategy but might well do something to encourage the enemy — the one that was shooting at American soldiers in Iraq rather than the one that was sending them there to be shot at — and so bring about its failure. And no one but a few Republicans thought that that was outrageous. Some Republicans were even said to be prepared to join in. So long have we been engaging in the politics of moral posturing, it seems, that we have forgotten that there is any other kind. As Frank Furedi noted of the "Not in my name" crowd three years ago (see my "‘Root-causeism’ and Electability" from the New Criterion of April, 2004), "how you feel, rather than what you believe in, has become the defining feature of political protest." And, "insofar as it represents an attitude, ‘Not in my name’ is a statement of individual preference and represents an opt-out clause, rather than an attempt to alter the course of events. This is a shrug of the shoulder, which reflects a mood of general anti-engagement as much as it does a weariness towards war."
It’s one thing for anti-war protestors to adopt such an aggressive policy of non-engagement, but surely something more serious when the main political opposition party does it. Such an irresponsible approach to the major political and geo-strategic issue of our time would be impossible without the commercialization of political speech — that is the selling of one’s own brand without reference to the competition, whose arguments that they offer a superior product are simply ignored. Thus, like Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, the majority leader in the house, and Dick Durbin, the second ranking Democrat in the Senate, responded to the "surge" speech by saying that "The American people want a change of course in Iraq. We intend to keep pressing President Bush to provide it." Of course he just had provided it but, because they didn’t like the change of course that he had provided, they chose to react as if he had done nothing at all. That’s what you can do when you’re speaking only to your own supporters and sympathizers. Why give the other side free publicity by acknowledging that they’ve got anything to offer?
The Democrats’ allies in the media duly fell into line behind this approach. "Americans needed to hear a clear plan to extricate United States troops from the disaster that Mr. Bush created," editorialized The New York Times. "What they got was more gauzy talk of victory in the war on terrorism and of creating a ‘young democracy’ in Iraq. In other words, a way for this president to run out the clock and leave his mess for the next one." Uh, excuse me. That’s not quite right, is it? The talk of victory may have been gauzy, but he also outlined a clear plan: beef up the troops by enough to squash the insurgency and so let the democracy emerge. It’s one thing to say that this plan won’t work. I myself have considerable doubts — as probably President Bush and his advisers do too. For them it’s a last, desperate throw of the dice. But there’s something a little weird about saying that it isn’t a plan at all. Or there would be if the New York Times any longer bothered to pretend that it was an independent newspaper and not the Democrats’ unofficial advertising agency.
Nor was it only on the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspaper of record that the Democrats’ marketing slogans were run in lieu of "analysis." Under that rubric on the front page the day after the President’s speech, Sheryl Gay Stoltberg was in no mood for pussyfooting. "By stepping up the American military presence in Iraq, President Bush is not only inviting an epic clash with the Democrats who run Capitol Hill. He is ignoring the results of the November elections, rejecting the central thrust of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and flouting the advice of some of his own generals, as well as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq." Such "News Analysis" had obviously dismissed the new plan as no plan at all but just more of the same — which just happened to be the Democratic line. When her piece continued on an inside page, Miss Stoltberg was also as keen as the Democrats to pin the scarlet V for Vietnam to the presidential chest: "Wartime clashes between presidents and the Congress are a familiar thread in American history," she wrote. "But perhaps no president since Richard M. Nixon has so boldly expanded an unpopular war." Again and again, "analysis" gives way to a note of personal hostility, even hatred for the President: "In a sense, it is a predictable path for Mr. Bush. This, after all, is the same president who lost the popular vote in 2000, was installed in the White House by a 5-to-4 vote of the Supreme Court and then governed as if he had won by a landslide." This is analysis? Only those who share the author’s dismally low opinion of their president could think so. But then everybody at The New York Times, even editors who would once have known better, pretty obviously does share that opinion.
As a companion piece, Sabrina Tavernise and John F. Burns helpfully told us that, "As President Bush challenges public opinion at home by committing more American troops, he is confronted by a paradox: an Iraqi government that does not really want them." What paradox? Of course it doesn’t want them! It wants to turn the Shi’ite militias loose instead, the forestalling of which disastrous course is most of the reason for having to send in more Americans in the first place. This undoubted truth has to be dressed up in diplomatic language, of course, but there is no journalist who doesn’t know that this is what is behind the President’s decision — and none that I’ve heard who has a better suggestion to cope with a clearly unacceptable situation in which the democratically elected government of Iraq is conniving with ethnic cleansing. In the absence of any such better ideas, journalists prefer to play dumb about what everyone knows would be the result of an American pull-out and adopt the official Democratic line that pulling out — or setting that saving "timetable" for pulling out — would in some vague way allow the Iraqis to "sort their own problems out."
Sure it would! By allowing the majority Shi’ites to kill or drive out the Sunnis, thus creating either an Iranian client or the sort of weak state that would allow terrorist groups to function at will, as is the case in Lebanon and was — and may soon be again — in Afghanistan. Looked at in this way, you could say that the war is going remarkably well. For casualty levels that are quite low by historical standards, we are propping up two middle eastern governments that are friendly enough to US interests not to allow either of these things to happen. The only problem is that we can’t continue to prop them up indefinitely. Either they must consolidate their own power with our assistance or, without it, embrace one or more terrorist factions and other anti-US forces in its stead — or give into a terrorist free-for-all completely. I’m as reluctant as The New York Times to think that the Bush plan for "escalation" is the only thing that’s now on the table which offers any hope at all of bringing about the best (from any conceivable American view) of these three options, but no one in the media or the Democratic party can suggest anything else that’s not a mere advertising slogan.