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Words in a time of war

June 01, 2007|Mark Danner | MARK DANNER, author of "The Secret Way to War," is a professor of journalism and politics at UC Berkeley and at Bard College. The full text of this address is available at

This is an edited version of a recent commencement address at UC Berkeley.


BEING INVITED to deliver a commencement address to the Department of Rhetoric is akin to being asked out for a romantic evening by a porn star. Whatever prospect you might have of pleasure is inevitably dampened by performance anxiety -- the suspicion that your efforts, however enthusiastic, will inevitably be judged according to stern professional standards. A daunting prospect.

Yet I agreed to do so today because if ever there was a need for a "disciplined grasp" of the "symbolic and institutional dimensions of discourse" -- as your Rhetoric Department's website puts it -- surely it is now. For today we are living under a presidential administration that not only is radical -- unprecedentedly so -- in its attitudes toward rhetoric and reality, toward words and things, but is also willing, to our great benefit, to state this attitude clearly.

Here is my favorite quotation about the Bush administration, a description of a conversation with the proverbial "unnamed administration official" by the fine journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.' "

I must admit to you that I love that quotation. The unnamed official, widely believed to be Karl Rove, sketches out with breathtaking frankness a radical view in which power frankly determines reality, and in which rhetoric -- the science of flounces and folderols -- follows meekly and subserviently in its train. Those in the "reality-based community" are figures a mite pathetic, for we have failed to realize the singular new principle of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch.

Given such sweeping claims for power, it is hard to expect much respect for truth; or perhaps it should be "truth" -- in quotation marks -- for, when you can alter reality at will, why pay much attention to the idea of fidelity in describing it?

But this is all old hat to you, graduates of the Rhetoric Department of 2007, the line of thinking you imbibe with your daily study, for it is present in striking fashion in Foucault and many other intellectual titans of these last decades -- though even they might have been nonplussed to find it so crisply expressed by a finely tailored man sitting in the White House. Though we in the "reality-based community" may just now be discovering it, you have known for years the presiding truth of our age, which is that the object has become subject, and we have a fanatical follower of Foucault in the Oval Office. Graduates, let me say it plainly and incontrovertibly: George W. Bush is the first rhetoric-major president.


IN JANUARY 2001, the rhetoric-major president came to power after a savage and unprecedented electoral battle that was decided not by the ballots of American voters -- for of these he had 540,000 fewer than his Democrat rival -- but by the votes of Supreme Court justices, where Republicans prevailed 5 to 4. In this singular condition, and with a Senate precisely divided between parties, President Bush proceeded to behave as if he had won an overwhelming electoral victory, demanding tax cuts greater and more regressive than those he had outlined in the campaign. And despite what would seem to have been debilitating political weakness, the president shortly achieved this first success in "creating his own reality." To act as if he had overwhelming political power would mean he had overwhelming political power.

Then came the huge, clanging, echoing cacophony of 9/11. We are so embedded in its age that it is easy to forget the stark, overwhelming shock of it: Nineteen young men with box cutters seized enormous transcontinental airliners and brought those towers down. In an age in which we have become accustomed to two, three, four, five suicide attacks in a single day in Iraq, it is easy to forget the blunt, scathing shock of it. The real weapon that day was not box cutters, or even airliners, but the television set, which reproduced and conveyed that astonishing picture, creating both a recruiting poster for jihad and an image of humiliation to "dirty the face of imperial power."

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