Susanna J. Sturgis    


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On Rhetorical Excess

To the Editor:

"The point," wrote J.H., in his fine letter to the editor (Letters, April 17), "isn't who's right and who's wrong about the war . . . The point is rhetorical excess, the willful misrepresentation of a political point of view, the slander of dissent from the left." Bravo, Mr. H. I commend you too for being kinder and more circumspect than I, who might have rudely pointed out that Mr. [M.V. Times editor Doug] Cabral's dewy-eyed trembling at the thought of four brothers in the military is nothing new: middle-aged men, somewhat jaded and no longer lithe, are forever sighing over the unblemished bodies and buoyant energy of young men, even as they send those young men off to die.

Mr. H. has addressed one of the most troubling aspects of this war: the notion that "support our troops" is a nonpartisan slogan, one that can and should unite all USians -- all patriotic, right-thinking USians, that is. No matter what your beliefs, the assumption goes, our valiant young men and women in uniform must not go unsupported. There's something compelling about this. As a writer and a frequent exponent of non-mainstream views, I know that support gives you courage when your own falters. Lack of support can feel like depression, as if there's no good reason to keep moving forward. But the most valuable support is often not uncritical; it is perceptive, honest, and courageous enough to point out the weakness in the argument, the flaw in the story. Beware the person, or the government, that requires continual uncritical support. Remember the tale of the emperor who, lacking counselors and subjects who dared tell him the truth, marched down the street buck naked? (In the G-rated version, he gets to wear his undies.)

The Bill of Rights was written and enacted by men who questioned authority -- who not only questioned authority but resisted it. And the authority they resisted was duly constituted and legitimate. By the standards of their time, our founding fathers were traitors. When I find little else to admire in my country, I remember that this country was founded by men who were deeply suspicious not only of the divine right of kings but also of the divine right of any god who demands blind obedience. They were not ignorant of war; they did not believe that an army could be run like town meeting or Parliament. But would they have idealized the troops of the Light Brigade, of whom Tennyson wrote "Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die"?

I suspect not. I suspect they would have supported those troops by not sending them into that useless charge, and by not giving orders that would trouble the conscience of any soldier raised to practice democratic principles.

When war comes calling, drums beat, bugles blow, and the idea of dying for freedom, or being willing to die for freedom, advances to the fore. Is Freedom such a bloodthirsty god that dying (and killing) is her highest form of worship? How do we know this? Maybe what Freedom loves more is a little fresh air, a little exercise. Maybe Freedom is right now sitting on the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, shaking her head and thinking, "I'm looking for a few good men and women who trust the Bill of Rights and dare to give those amendments a good workout; who dare not only to speak the truth but to seek it out and hear it." She has to be wondering, not for the first time, why so many USians are more afraid of freedom than they are of war, as long as the war is being fought somewhere else.

It is true, as B.D. (Letters, April 17) suggests, that in the United States we citizens can question our government "without being dragged out in an alley in the middle of the night and being shot in the back of the head." Sophisticated societies have subtler and more effective ways of encouraging silence and silencing dissent. Money, both the granting and the withholding of it, usually works pretty well, and when that fails, the tactics of J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Richard Nixon, among others, are there for the emulating. The real brilliance of the U.S. system as currently practiced is that no thugs are necessary: we shut each other up quite effectively by equating flag waving and sloganeering with love of country and respect for democratic principles. And, as Mr. D. surely knows, over the years the United States has supported politically, economically, and militarily quite a few governments that practice systematic thuggery to keep their citizens in line, so let's stay off the moral high horse, shall we?

C.V.R. (Letters, April 17) refers to the "pitiful grasp of history" of "latter-day street corner prophets," which I take to mean anyone whose analysis he disagrees with. History has so many lessons to teach that it's a pity that Mr. V. R. and others so often stop with Truman and Stalin, Chamberlain and Hitler. Prompted by a speaker at a local antiwar rally, P.T. (Letters, April 24) went back to the history books and studied Hitler's rise to power. Sobering, isn't it? It's unsettling to realize that Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, were not psychotic powermongers who came out of nowhere and turned ordinary human beings into mindless automatons. Unsettling -- but encouraging too. To stop a raging bull in its tracks requires extraordinary courage and probably a lethal weapon. But to recognize and help defuse the conditions that contribute to that rage? This is something any of us can do, and without leaving home.

History has much to say about the intimate linkage of terror, terrorism, and persecution. I commend to you, for instance, Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare, a revealing and persuasive exploration of the connection between the Salem witch persecutions of the early 1690s and the warfare -- terror and counterterror -- between Anglo colonist and native Wabanaki on the colonial frontier. History has much to say about the dangers of being stuck in one's particular view of the world. From a biography of Samuel Finley Breese Morse, I learned that the visionary inventor of the telegraph and Morse code also believed that the Bible justified the enslavement of Africans, that U.S. abolitionists were the tools of Great Britain, and that Irish Catholic immigrants were tools of the pope, who was in turn a tool of the Austrian empire. And for a brilliant, chilling portrait of an amoral powermonger at work, check out Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning Master of the Senate. It's about Lyndon Baines Johnson.

For insight into why "they" -- many Arab people and governments -- are not big fans of the West, one could do worse than to read up on the Versailles treaty that ended (hah!) World War I, particularly the sections that deal with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the British and French mandates. Be grateful that in 1783 there were no superpowers eager to rush into the "vacuum" created by Britain's departure from its former colonies; had there been, "we" might be as bitter as "they" are now.

You're right, Mr. H.: the point is rhetorical excess. Rhetorical excess is easy, but it doesn't do much to promote clear thinking or well-considered actions. Knowing what you're talking about is hard. Calling attention to the emperor's no clothes is far harder, even when the evidence is right before you and you're no slouch with the language. If we all do our best, maybe Freedom will come down from the Lincoln Memorial and walk among us again.



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