Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is There a Subtext?

It is not news that President George W. Bush cannot utter the text of a short paragraph without tripping over at least one of the words or phrases. This may well be a combination of a calculated effort to give the impression of being "jes' plain folks" running into occasional attempts to improvise beyond the prepared text as a sign of taking the text seriously. These blunders are familiar fodder for comedians (and their writers, now that they are back at work). However, in the spirit of the Freudian slip, the question remains as to whether or not any of those blunders reveal a subtext that may tell us more than either the text or its "folksy" delivery can reveal.

I would like to consider this question in light of the report that Associate Press Writer Ben Feller filed from Kigali, Rwanda, this morning. Given that the bedrock of Bush's faith-based policies has been opposition to evil in all its manifestations (disregarding any philosophical complexities surrounding the nature of that concept), we might learn something from the utterances he delivered from one of our more recent "hearts of darkness." In the tradition with which Cambodia converted the former high school, which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge after they invaded Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to bear witness to the many atrocities committed at that site, Rwanda has build the Kigali Memorial Centre to bear witness to the genocide of 1994. One way to read Feller's account of this visit is that Bush took it seriously enough to refrain from the usual games he plays with his script:

"It's a moving place. It can't help but shake your emotions to their very foundation," Bush said after walking through its rooms and gardens. "There is evil in the world and evil must be confronted."

Later, by [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame's side, Bush displayed how shaken he was by what he saw. "I just can't imagine what it would have been like to be a citizen who lived in such horrors, and then had to, you know, gather themselves up and try to live a hopeful life," he said.

Still, even if taken in the sincerity of its face value, there is something about that turn of phrase "I just can't imagine" that reveals evil as an abstract concept defined more by the direct assertions of Scripture than by reflection on what happens in the world we actually inhabit. After all, neither Cambodia nor Rwanda was the site of some apocalyptic battle between Christ and Antichrist. The battles fought there were of men against men; and, without that "sense of reality" about the "dark side" of behavior in the social world, all these post-horror memorials cannot leave us any the wiser, no matter how stark their revelations may be.

Ultimately, however, these words simply highlighted aspects of the Bush worldview with which we were already familiar. Of greater interest was when he chose to parlay that worldview into a "legacy message" for his successor. Here is Feller's transcript of his words:

I would tell my successor that the United States can play a very constructive role. I would urge the (next) president not to feel like U.S. solutions should be imposed upon African leaders. I would urge the president to treat our — the leaders in Africa — as partners. In other words, don't come to the continent feeling guilty about anything. Come to the continent feeling confident that with some help, people can solve their problems.

This is a case where the slip of a single word, "our," may unlock the message that Bush really wanted to deliver. It is a message from the mentality of the Cold War, in which the African countries (most of which had only recently emerged from colonial status) found themselves obliged to choose between Communist support or the presence of "freedom-loving Americans." Indeed, it is the message that emerged from the White House shortly after the initial shock of 9/11: those who are not with us are against us. The possessive pronoun discloses the nature of its very label, possession rather than partnership. As I have previously suggested, the war against the poor is ultimately a war of a new perspective on ownership (which is to say human slavery); and the possessive pronoun reminds us that this war is being waged overseas as well as within our own borders.

Needless to say, the spirit of possession is the spirit of totalitarianism (which, along with evil, was the other primary focus of investigation by philosopher Hannah Arendt). The very concept of "order" in the "New World Order" (a phrase we do not hear as much these days) derives from decisions made without opposition or deliberation. This, too, lurked in the subtext of Bush's legacy message:

If you're a problem solver, you put yourself at the mercy of the decisions of others, in this case, the United Nations. And I'm well known to have spoken out by the slowness of the United Nations. It is — seems very bureaucratic to me, particularly with people suffering.

This led, according to Feller's account, to Bush delivering the following conclusion:

Take problems seriously before they become acute, and then recognize that there's going to be a slowness in the response if you rely upon international organizations.

Is this, then, the legacy that Bush wishes to leave the world, a revival of new-world-order thinking, where the Christian injunction to love your neighbor is replaced with the capitalist goal of owning your neighbor? If so, then there is something to be said about the ways in which would-be candidates from both parties have been distancing themselves from the current Administration!

Feller then wrapped up his report with a final episode:

Before leaving for Ghana, Bush and the first lady visited a school where they spoke with children, who are members of an anti-AIDS club, working to spread the word about preventing the disease. The two dozen children, all dressed in white shirts and khaki pants, chatted for about 20 minutes with the Bushes, who sat outside on a hillside in low-slung, hand-carved wooden chairs.

"Thanks for being leaders," the president told them.

I suspect I have to go back to reading William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity before I can figure out those four valedictory words. My guess is that a thorough application of Empson would probably be overkill. Nevertheless, there is something about Empson's approach in terms of a conflicted mind that may tell us more about the way Bush reacted to this group than any geopolitical theory could hope to tell us; and if, in spite of all those professions of faith, Bush's mind is as conflicted as all that, those who have been warning us that he can do much more damage before the end of his term may be on to something.

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