By confabulating freedom and liberty Bush's speech writers seek to strip both of meaning, writes Azmi Bishara
Contemplating Bush's speeches there is the temptation to discuss words and their meanings. But Bush does not write his own speeches. Commentaries on his inaugural address of 20 January in the US press make it clear that Michael Girson was responsible for the speech which underwent 22 revisions.
Rarely has the business of ghostwriting and revising presidential speeches been talked about with such candour. Ghostwriting has long been an open secret. Now, though, the American establishment sees no harm in admitting that the president of the world's sole superpower is unable to pen a quarter-hour speech. Nor do people presume he should be capable of this task, or that this is even an issue to begin with. It is all perfectly normal now to see the president's word cobblers in a press interview, offering an exhaustive postmortem of the drafting process.
This applies not only to the US but to many other countries in today's world -- an undoubtedly new world in which charisma has assumed a new meaning and, more importantly, in which the concept of lying has undergone a complete upheaval. The lie has become the truth. Whereas formerly the fact that the president did not write his own speeches was something to be kept from the people, it is now no longer necessary to conceal the lie. The president can now recite speeches, feigning conviction in words everyone knows he never wrote but without having to feign he wrote them. To some people such open deception passes for honesty.
We can probably assume that Bush at least engaged in the revision process. What is certain, though, is that the speech was the product of a collaborative endeavour by Washington's ruling clique. As such it merits close analysis.
Like many other recent Bush speeches his inaugural address was charged with ideology and emotive symbolism. His speech writers, whatever else one may think of them, are particularly adept at manipulating ideological platitudes, popular psychology and mass culture. I am unaware of any other national leader who wields extinct terms and phrases from the Age of Enlightenment with the flair of Bush's speech writers expect of their boss. Not since the end of the Socialist order has ideology been so press- ganged into providing the moral justification of a regime. Any European leader would cringe before bringing out the heavy rhetorical artillery that blazes throughout Bush's speeches. But then the US is the most ideologically zealous government in today's world.
Bush, in his speech, used liberty 45 times and freedom 27. Analysts were not overly concerned -- perhaps rightfully so -- with pointing out the difference between the two words, one of which is of Latin origin and the other Anglo-Saxon. If at one point the terms were synonymous their meanings have gradually diverged. Today one is "free to go", a bird that has fled its cage flies "free" and we sing "freedom is another word for nothing left loose". One cannot substitute liberty for free or freedom in these expressions. Although both terms convey the sense of liberation and emancipation, freedom implies the general absence, or removal of, externally and internally imposed constraints, whereas liberty has a specific socio-political application dependent on a system of laws and regulations.
Bush, in his address, uses the words interchangeably. This is not because Bush's speech writer was unaware of the difference but because his aim was to blur the distinction between freedom, which is still an unresolved issue for many Third World countries, and political liberty, under which heading are many issues now precariously up in the air in American society.
The following sentence from Bush's speech has been understood as his administration's off the peg justification for further military or non- military intervention. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."
Bush is desperate to convince American public opinion that he is defending their freedom at home by defending freedom abroad, and that this is why US forces are in Iraq. But the claim begs many questions. Why appoint Alberto Gonzales, champion of torture in the "fight against terrorism" as attorney-general? And how can increasing restrictions on civil liberties in the US be explained?
The gradual transformation of the US itself into a police state exposes the hollowness of the ideological rhetoric. Outside the US we find other jarring contradictions. Why, for example, is the liberty of the Palestinian people inconsistent with the liberty of Americans? Is it not in the interest of American liberty to promote liberty in Palestine? Why should Israeli democracy continue to conflict with the liberty of the Palestinian people?
Venezuela offers another case flagrantly at odds with Bush's rhetorical equation. Why is the freedom of the Venezuelan people to choose their president -- a process repeated nine times through elections and referendums over the past nine years -- so inimical to the liberty of the American people that Washington has felt it necessary to intervene, once with threats and at other times by supporting the opposition via funds such as the National Endowment for Democracy? Must Hugo Chavez be kept out of office at any price, regardless of how many Venezuelans want him in office?
One corollary to the "survival of liberty at home equals liberty abroad" premise does not bode well. The claim that in the long run it is impossible to safeguard human rights without liberty implies, on the surface, that reformers cannot be assured that such rights will last if they are presented in the form of concessions by dictatorships without the necessary political and legal frameworks to bolster them. But, against the background of Abu Ghraib and the appointment of Gonzales, it can also be taken to mean that the pursuit of liberty justifies the abuse of human rights because the realisation of liberty is the ultimate aim.
There was one sentence in the speech that revealed with spine chilling clarity the ulterior purpose behind Bush's rhetoric: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." This must be the most insidiously propagandistic statement I have ever read. Nothing more clearly epitomises this administration's determination to compel the public to identify with the ideology of the state. The American people are to understand that their "deepest beliefs" and their interests are one and the same thing. Taken in the context of this speech, and in conjunction with Bush's other speeches, they should further understand that it is now in America's interests for that most American of beliefs -- liberty -- to be wielded as a primary instrument in foreign policy and the pursuit of imperial hegemony. On this, moreover, Bush is explicit: "Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honourable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time."
Just in case anyone had not yet realised, Bush informed the American people that their nation had a holy mission and asked them, in the name of national security, to put their hearts and souls into supporting that mission. Imagine an Arab leader pronouncing this in Arabic. It would have our neo-liberals wringing their hands at the very least.
But Bush does not leave the subject there; he couches the mission in philosophical terms with which no enlightened leftist could take issue: "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events."
The writers of this speech clearly listened in on discussions among their university colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s over the relationship between freedom and historical imperative and between subjectivity and objectivity as propounded by Hegel, Marx and the neo-Hegelians. Well, there's nothing wrong with a dose of anti- determinism, enlightened leftists might have thought, with a quick breath of relief. But, just as quickly, Bush knocks the wind out of them with a single punch: "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by the author of liberty."
Now, not only is the mission once again cast as a historical imperative but also as an article of faith. One does not have to look far for the inspirational source for this sentence. It is to be found in a speech by the neo-conservatives' godfather, Barry Goldwater who, when running as Republican contender against John Kennedy in 1964, said "this nation was founded upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom".
The current Republican administration has distinguished itself from other Western ruling establishments by its determined blending of religion and politics and its frequent mention of God in its political rhetoric. That this administration was elected in the first place reflects a political culture comprising geographically discreet demographic components. These components, furthermore, like to hear their president mouthing fundamentalist pieties even if he does not believe them. They want a president who delivers this kind of speech, whether he wrote it or not and whether he believes what is on the paper he is reciting from or not, because it offers some kind of assurance that their conservative identity is safe and strong against the forces of social dissolution and decay that come with consumerist society.
A whole gamut of expressions used by this administration can be traced to Goldwater and, to a lesser extent, Reagan, as we follow the traditional line that links liberal capitalism with the capitalism of the jungle in popular American conservative discourse -- that vehicle for voicing a collective conservative identity juxtaposed to the non-conservative elites who can be transformed into the enemy at the click of a switch.
It is doubtful whether large sectors of the American public realise that they are being mobilised against their own interests, or that their self assertion in the face of degenerate liberal elites has been welded into an ideological cloak for policies that have, and will continue to, rebound against them.
It is their sons and daughters who will die in wars in which they are being urged to do more and sacrifice more, while Bush cannot even take the trouble to mention the name of the country in which the lives of American soldiers are being sacrificed today: "Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfil and would be dishonourable to abandon."
You can just hear the speechwriters' minds churning as they put the text through refinement after refinement: should we bring up Iraq in the broad historical framework of the wars America fought, such as the Civil War in which "our soldiers fell in wave upon wave in defence of the free republic" or should we give concrete figures to show the sacrifices our soldiers made in Iraq? Evidently, they came to the conclusion that even the mention of Iraq would sour the tone of the inauguration.
As he kicked off his second term George Bush stirred the admiration of the Economist (15-21 January, 2005). In its opinion Bush is one of few American presidents to set an ambitious agenda for his second term. Generally, it observes, the second term is one of scandals -- Nixon had Watergate, Reagan Irangate and Clinton Monica Lewinsky -- or for sitting back and waiting for the forthcoming presidential elections after the midterm congressional campaign. Bush, however, is determined to make his mark. He has proclaimed the campaign for liberty around the world as his forthcoming battle. In addition, he is going to pack the Supreme Court with ultra- conservatives and press ahead with his project for an "ownership society" by privatising social security, the last remnant of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Bush wants to forge a new deal of his own, and he is getting the fullest encouragement in this from the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and other organs of the "free" press. His plan is to "empower" the worker, the employee or whoever pays social security taxes by putting this money in a private savings account, or otherwise invest it, thereby freeing the government from the burden of paying pensions to retirees until they die, pensions which as life-expectancy grows will run into trillions. On the basis of this demonic argument Bush intends to subject the fate of millions of average retirees, who have worked and paid their monthly dues their entire lives, to the fluctuations of the stock market and other forms of speculation.
When introducing the New Deal, Roosevelt spoke of four types of freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom from want and freedom from fear. This was his response to a major economic crisis. Bush's new deal threatens the first three freedoms, the third of which inspired Roosevelt to establish the social security system. As for the fourth freedom, Bush has distorted this into the freedom to disseminate fear, which rapidly translates into the freedom to restrict all other freedoms and liberties.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
By confabulating freedom and liberty Bush's speech writers seek to strip both of meaning, writes Azmi Bishara