(Un)Framing the Sign
If one were to believe the commenters visting here from progressive sites over the last several days, my various suggestions that the propagation of ideas, memes, and particular narratives can have actual, empirical, real-world consequences…well, that’s just crazy talk!, some kind of a wingnut fantasy—like, say, an all white world, or a barefoot woman baking pies in every kitchen.
It matters not to these skeptics of certain well-established ideas of the necessary conjoining of epistemology and rhetoric—ideas, I should point out, that have been widely disseminated in both their postmodern and structuralist forms by intellectuals on the left (see, for instance, Hayden White, or Frederic Jameson’s Marxian The Political Unconscious, especially his idea of metanarrative, which seems particularly apposite as one skims through a series of remarkably similar “progressive” critiques)—that the vast majority of information is gleaned and assimilated through cultural heteroglossia, with a particular narrative often gaining the upperhand and becoming, for the majority of the culture, the dominant frame of reference.
Suddenly, all of this is pure bunk (a “gem” of “blame shifting”)—intellectual piffle that many on the left have spent the last 40 years describing and advocating, but which they now wish to distance themselves from, having decided that words, rhetorical formulations, and the framing of narratives matter not a whit: almost 4 years of negative media coverage, partisan backbiting, and the shaping of the administration’s persona by both the press and the Democratic party (Buscho = liars who keep secrets and who are systematically taking away our civil liberties in a power hungry attempt to take over the world, install a Christian theocracy here at home, and herd the sheeple into pens, so that a very few rich Republican neocons can eat caviar off of toast points while laughing at the misery of the proles), the argument goes, have had no effect on shaping public opinion, and, regardless of what the International Crisis Group says (or, for that matter, what the terrorists themselves say), somehow the argument coming from many the left these days is that their words and actions have no consequences. Though, sadly, the same cannot be said for the government, whose every step alienates and offends nearly every civilized human on the planet and turns them against us.
But be that as it may.
Anway, I bring all this up by way of introducing a pair of essays that deal with just many of the questions we’ve been discussing here of late. First, here’s Daniel Henninger, writing in the WSJ. From “So one may ask: Has Washington gone insane?”:
[…] This persistent belief that George Bush committed a major moral crime, which was refuted by the Robb-Silberman Commission, had consequences. It has led many people in Washington’s standing institutions—Congress, the press, the intelligence and foreign-policy bureaucracies—to think they’ve been released from operating inside the normal boundaries that allow political Washington to function, that allow partisans to do business, whether on foreign policy, Social Security or homeland security.
Over the Bush years that code has been displaced by a new ethos that to resist policies that flowed from such a “lie,” anything goes—such as leaks about the most sensitive national security programs or published “dissents” by recently retired CIA officials like Paul Pillar. Compare this ethos to that of the U.S. intelligence community that ran the Venona program, producing invaluable signals intelligence on Soviet espionage activities from 1943 onward without any participant revealing its existence. No such achievement is imaginable now.
Instead every issue that emerges becomes an illegitimate extension of the original “lie”—the NSA wiretaps, the Guantanamo detentions, Abu Ghraib, terrorist interrogation techniques, the Plame affair. This is a dangerous game. Raised to this level, policy becomes a super-heated moral Armageddon that makes mere politics impossible to manage. One then might ask: Do you want this government to fail? To which a tragicomic response is appropriate: Are you insane?
The idea Henninger puts forth here essentially mirrors that of Jameson’s metanarrative — in this case, “a framework upon which an individual’s own experiences and thoughts may be ordered”—which, once adopted, influences the way all of the individual integral narratives (the various stories—from Abu Ghraib to WMD to WP) are framed, ordered, and assigned a subjective importance based on how well they reinforce the grand overarching (master) narrative.
And it is becoming increasingly clear, at least to me, that part of the master narrative of the anti-war left is to deny that the kind of anti-war dissent I and others have criticized (which does not included legitimate criticisms based on policy, strategy, tactics, but rather is directed at the repetition of discredited memes, out of context quotes, deliberate falsehoods, and an ends-justify-the-means Machiavellian approach to ending what they consider to be an unjust war), has had no effect on the war at all—either on weakening public resolve, or on emboldening the Iraqi insurgents or al Qaeda as an organization.
That is, they have begun including in their narrative of the war the new meme that any criticism of their influence is based on a denial of responsibility by warmongers for their exclusive blame in the “failure” that is Iraq, a blame that derives from their Cult-like support of President who instigated—by way of a “lie”—a venture that was destined to fail right from its “illegal” inception.
On that point, here’s neo-neocon, discussing how and why some of these integral narratives—all of which support the anti-war metanarrative—develop and take hold. From “Fear: charges and counter-charges (the only thing we have to fear is…)”:
[…] Concerns about the dangers posed by terrorists, hesitations about the wisdom of press leakage of possibly sensitive security material, all of these must be labeled as unwarranted fears—as Alexandra explains, “as some sort of phobia”– so that they can safely be ignored to pursue a different agenda. And what is that agenda?
It seems to have two interrelated parts. The first is to have a role in bringing down a detested President—and in this, there is precedent. Apparently, the Times is aching to relive its dragon-slayer days (Richard Nixon being the original dragon): the publication of the Pentagon Papers, when the Supreme Court upheld the Time‘s right to do so despite government claims of national security threats. The aftermath of this lawsuit helped to bring Nixon down—with his own guilty cooperation, of course, since the Watergate burglary was motivated partly by a desire to get the goods on Pentagon Papers leaker Ellsberg (see this).
But I mentioned that the “neocons are motivated by fear” accusation has a second (although absolutely related) agenda, and that is fear of the consequences of overreaching by the executive branch of the government. Many conservatives have this fear, too (and libertarians are extraordinarily sensitive to it). But it’s a question of at what point each group draws the line between acceptable intrusions and unacceptable ones, and what they might consider justification for those intrusions. National security is far more likely to be considered a justification by conservatives than by liberals or leftists, who have a history of seeming to actively downplay such concerns.
The legacy of Vietnam is that the left has a lingering mindset that considers national security concerns to almost always be mere excuses for government spying. This is the sort of approach that led to the famous CIA/FBI firewall (I discuss the firewall’s development here)). The left, and many liberals, seem to feel that the raising of security issues in these situations is almost always bogus–a sort of screen, used by a proto-totalitarian government to cover its own misuse of power, with the goal of getting away with domestic spying on its enemies, and the further consolidation of its own power.
If this is the conception, then national security concerns must be downplayed in almost all cases, and the role of fear as motivation for those concerns exaggerated instead.
One need not scroll far into my comments section—or glance at any major leftwing site—to see this particular meme in action: warmongering conservatives are really but bedwetting cowards hoping to God that Pappy Bush will protect them from the evil robed brown men who are gonna blow them up.
Whereas liberals? They aren’t scared at all—the whole “Islamist” threat has been overblown and used by the Bushies as a scare tactic to terrify soccer moms and win votes (until, that is, the Bushies support a deal that would allow the UAE to take over some administrative port management: at that point, the Islamist threat becomes “grave” and “severe.”)
The point of all this being that the lesson we should draw from the last few days of “coversation” with my “progressive” critics is that their denial of responsibility for their own actions—which they consider to be righteous—is simply an integral narrative that they’ve added to bolster their master narrative for the war: it has been a colossal failure that has made the world less safe—with the adminstration’s arrogance, hubris, and greed solely to blame for this condition, save for the assist given the Buscho cabal by the warmongering enablers who supported (and continue to support) the campaign.
(h/t Terry Hastings)