Thursday, April 24, 2003
(I am looking for a neologism that means "the analysis of the Bush White House" in the same sense that Kremlinology used to mean analysis of the Soviet central government. Bushology seems cheesy. Any suggestions?)
The Times is also reporting this morning that Powell has gained the upper hand in his battle against the superhawks in the Bush administration. Matthew Yglesias thinks that Powell must have some new ally in the administration. He speculates that it's either Karl Rove or Condoleeza Rice.
I think the NY Times article probably has it right and Yglesias has it wrong. Rove is not a foreign policy man. I doubt that he has much of an opinion about Syria or North Korea. Rice has always been more or less on Powell's side about these kinds of issues. Cheney and Rumsfeld are clearly against Powell, so they are unlikely to be Powell's allies.
I suspect that Powell has learned how to play the game. Bush probably doesn't have an original thought in his head, but as soon as he is convinced of something - no matter who has done the convincing - he is ready to stick to it and overrule any of his advisors who feel differently. The trick, then, to getting real power in the Bush administration is to be the first person to talk about something with Bush, and make sure you don't let anyone else see him until you've convinced him. Bush is simply someone who doesn't change his mind.
It seems likely that this was the case with the war in Iraq. Bush's insistence is clearly what kept Powell and Blair from continuing towards a more diplomatic solution. It appears that whatever Bush believes really does become policy, and power in the administration comes from managing Bush.
This is, actually, probably good news - at least temporarily. Powell's harsh rhetoric towards France - unspecified "consequences" - is unlikely to be realised in any meaningful form. The "Mafia family" nature of the administration means that if Powell has the ear of the president, whatever he does will have to be supported by all of Bush's deputies.
The bad news is that Bush still seems set on keeping the UN and the international community away from Iraq, and even if war against Syria or North Korea now seems out of the question, I have noticed that the American press and Ari Fleischer have been ratcheting up their rhetoric against Iran. If my model of how the Bush administration works is true, then all it will take to get a war against Iran is for someone in the war party to get to him first.
Update: In response to my call for a neologism, Language Hat suggests leucecology In the comments, from the latinised Greek for "white household studies." Zizka proposes topkapology by analogy with the notoriously byzantine (sorry, bad pun) seat of Ottoman governance, the Topkapi Palace. QrazyQat offers up a more scatological possibility in the comments. Don Noonan in e-mail also proposes to call the Bush administration the Dubrovian White House, I assume by analogy figée with "Dubya", so presumably dubrovology would follow.
Focusing on Bush, instead of the White House in general, I've come up with a few additional possibilities. Arbustology, by pseudo-latin derivation from Spanish comes to mind, and I tracked down a Lewis & Short at the office today that offers frutectum as "a place full of shrubs." Frutectonics has a certain appeal...
The Heirs of Lee Atwater
The NY Times apparently reported Tuesday on Bush's 2004 reelection strategy. I was busy at the time, so I am only getting to it now.
Most of it is attributed to unnamed sources, but if true it's quite a radical strategy. They're planning on moving the Republican convention as near as possible to Sept. 11, 2004 in order to evade federal election financing laws that kick in once a party has chosen a candidate and in order to more fully wrap their candidate in the flag by harping on terrorism and national security.
Like ol' Lee, this strategy has no pretense of subtlety and is designed to play on the lowest public fears and insecurities. And, like Atwater's path-breaking work, it's unprecedented, very clever and may well work for Bush.
So, who thought this one up? Who are the heirs of Lee Atwater? The NY Times reports that Ken Mehlman, the White House political director, will be Bush's campaign manager and Mark McKinnon will be reprising his 2000 job as Bush's media wonk.
Mark McKinnon is a mercenary who was Democrat Mark White's spokesman in his failed 1986 reelection campaign for Texas governor. He later defected from the Ann Richards campaign to Bush in '90. His relatonship with Rove and Bush seems fairly complex. During the 1986 campaign, Rove was manager for White's Republican opponent Bill Clements. At the time, Rove claimed that Democrats had bugged his office and thereby been tipped off that Clements' campaign was hiring Lee Atwater as a strategist. McKinnon called him a lot of nasty things in response. As far as I can tell, most folks think Rove planted the bug himself in order to implicate the White campaign. Later, during the 2000 campaign, someone sent a debate prep tape intended for George Bush to the Gore campaign. Rove tried to pin it on one of McKinnon's assistants, but it turned out that she had an alibi. Once again, there is a strong suspicion that Rove sent the tape himself to entrap the Democrats, and then turned it against McKinnon. Also, while McKinnon works for Bush, it appears that he gave campaign contributions to Texas Democrats in 2002. The rumour - which I've seen in several places - is that Rove hates McKinnon personally and demanded his firing all through the 2000 campaign.
McKinnon's mercenary bent doesn't fit the Atwater profile - Atwater seemed to be a real believer in the Republican party - and none of the rest does either. Unlike Atwater, he has a wife, children, and a mother who is reputedly quite liberal. And, he just doesn't exude the kind of mad brilliance associated with Atwater's work.
Frankly, I can't get a real bead on the guy at all. Everything I've seen and read about the Bushes tells me that they have a lot in common with Mafia families: a fixation on vengeance for past slights and an obsession with personal loyalty. McKinnon doesn't seem likely to have deep personal loyalty to the Bushes and shows little evidence of a genuine personal commitment to the conservative project. He is just a man who has made his career winning other people's elections. Why Rove would want him back, considering their history if the rumours are true, is something I don't get, and I suspect that Rove doesn't want him back. Bush, however, appears to have a history of personal loyalty to his lieutenants. During the 2000 campaign, he brought in no outside consultants, unlike his father. McKinnon's place in the 2004 campaign may be a directive from Bush to reward someone who was loyal to him in 2000.
Ken Mehlman is a real Republican stalwart. He worked on Bush's 1992 campaign, Dole's 1996 campaign and ran Bush's 2000 campaign. He appears to be a real policy guy - there is no media initiative or power grab that I can find with his name attached. Ken Mehlman is not the heir of Lee Atwater.
Both Mehlman and McKinnon are election professionals. This kind of Machiavellian nastiness requires a deeper sort of scuzziness. I suspect that Karl Rove is the real mastermind behind this Atwateresque strategy.
Rove actually knew and worked with Atwater, something neither of the other men did. Also, Rove has a history of dirty tricks and image mongering. There is hardly a Democrat in Texas who hasn't been personally slighted by Rove in some way. He is vengeful and detail minded. He is the man most responsible for turning Texas into a safe Republican state, and he seems quite willing to do the same trick nationally.
Rove appears to be spending a lot of time studying past election campaigns. According to the Times, he has commissioned in-depth private interviews with past presidential candidates in order to get ready for 2004. Careful reading of the past is a speciality of certain brands of leftists (my brand to be precise), not conservatives, and it is a frighteningly sensible thing to do.
Bush has been flogging his useless economic plan at every public appearance lately, by all appearances in hopes of avoiding that sense of disconnect from the public's problems that killed his father's presidency. That directive could only come from someone with a clear sense of history. Someone who knows that things probably won't be better and might well be worse in 2004. Someone who doesn't really believe in the miraculous powers of the Bush economic plan. And most importantly, someone who remembers 1992 clearly.
That man is most likely Karl Rove.
This leads me, in a rather roundabout way, to a conclusion. Whoever runs for the Democrats in 2004 - and everyone with a part to play in trying to beat Bush - has to understand that it isn't George Bush that they are fighting. It is Karl Rove and whoever else thinks of themselves as the heirs of Lee Atwater. Beating them is going to take a lot more than having the right issues, or the best ideas, or citing Bush's horrifying record. It's going to mean finding something as powerful as the fears that Bush's people intend to evoke.
That is going to be tough.
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
Metaphors can kill
The language people here are probably all familiar with George Lakoff. Some of the people who aren't familiar with his brand of cognitive linguistics will remember his rather famous essay about the first Gulf War and his book on metaphors in American politics. Well, I guess I'm a bit behind. It seems he published another essay on the new Gulf War about a month ago and I missed it.
I think it is crucially important to understand the cognitive dimensions of politics – especially when most of our conceptual framing is unconscious and we may not be aware of our own metaphorical thought. I have been referred to as a "cognitive activist" and I think the label fits me well. As a professor, I do analyses of linguistic and conceptual issues in politics, and I do them as accurately as I can. But that analytic act is a political act: Awareness matters. Being able to articulate what is going on can change what is going on - at least in the long run.
I take a dim view of moralising, even in politics. Cries for morality in public affairs are usually cries for leaders who are larger than life, and that is the last thing I want to see in a politician. Give me a corrupt and flawed but competent and decent man over a towering figure of moral authority any day.
Lakoff, however, is using the term "moral vision" in a different sense than "moralising." He is talking about the cognitive frame - the analogies and metaphors - that we use in making political and moral judgements. This notion of thinking by analogy plays a somewhat uncomfortable role in Common Law, and a somewhat stronger role in Islamic law and theology. Lakoff believes, however, that this kind of reasoning by extended analogy is a pervasive part of human cognition. I have my issues with that idea, but they are manageable, professional disagreements and not foundational or irreconcilable ones. His application of metaphor theory to American foreign policy, however, is spot on.
And I like the term "cognitive activist." It provides a nice counter-label to "idiotarian".
Update: Sylvia in the comments points me towards this wonderful post on Fanatical Apathy covering essentially the same topic from a less academic perspective. I highly recommend reading it.
Monday, April 21, 2003
I've basically taken Easter weekend off - Easter Monday is a state holiday here - and blogging will probably be light this week, in part because I can't procrastinate at work any longer and in part because my wife is going in for some surgery at the end of the week. Lies, damn lies and statistics (currently bloggered) lists me among the blogs that have not bailed on Blogger. My wife, however, promises to write me a custom blog implementation in Cold Fusion on my own domain while she's recovering. So, my status may change soon.
I've added The Head Heeb to my blogroll. The site has a variety of intelligent, readable posts, as well as a focus on African news - something which I need to pay more attention to myself. He also has as top post right now (permalinks bloggered) a summary post on an ongoing discussion of translation in the courts for language variants that test the limits of what a language is. I mentioned the possibility that there might be some precedent for using a translator for east Carribean dialects spoken in the US, particularly the relatively widespread one called Sea Islands Creole or Gullah.
You see, I have an anecdote about Gullah. Last Christmas, I went back to Canada for my Grandfather's funeral. Naturally, the whole extended family was there, including my aunt, who is married to an American doctor and lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. My uncle the doctor has a passing interest in languages, and we got to talkng about language in the US and I mentionned Gullah. He was somewhat surprised that I would call it a language, because he always thought of it as some sort of "slave patois" and kind of demeaning.
I said that no, linguists usually think of it as a language and that there is poetry and literature in it as well as a significant contemporary community that speaks it, but that I - having never lived anywhere near the Carolina coast - had no first hand knowledge of it. At this point, my uncle surprised me by saying that his father was from Charleston and spoke Gullah.
Now, my uncle is white, southern, Southern Baptist and from a well-to-do family. He's not some Jim Crow bigot - quite the contrary - but still it came as quite a shock to me to find out that his father was able to speak Gullah - a far from high status language in the South.
So, my uncle picked up his cell phone and called his father in Atlanta on Christmas Eve and got him to read me the Christmas story from his Gullah New Testament in what I presume to be effectively native Gullah.
That is the only first-hand experience I have with Gullah. It is not simply bad English. Certainly, my own knowledge of the content of what he was saying - the beginning of the book of Luke - made it a lot easier to follow, but I expect if I had heard a regular conversation in Gullah, I would have been lost.
Creole studies is currently a controversial part of linguistics. There is some question as to where and how the Atlantic and Indian Ocean creoles came into being, and there is even a movement to abandon the label "creole" altogether. The notion of a "mixed language" is certainly a questionable one. Even English is a "mixed language," rife with French and Latin, but we would hardly say that English is a creole. My sympathies lie with the people trying to undermine the idea that creoles are something linguistically special, but I have to admit that this isn't my area of expertise. I do know that the classical story of how a creole forms is breaking down as it is subjected to more in-depth historical analysis, and the histories of the French, English and Portugese creoles spoken in the Atlantic are under particular scrutiny. I only started to pay attention to this stuff because Derek Bickerton tried to use the similarity of the Atlantic Creoles to make claims about linguistic universals that his case couldn't support.
I may write up a long post about it sometime, but I would have to do some actual research first.