Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bush Under the Klieg Lights

Metaphors say a lot about a text, particularly when the they aren’t meant to be obviously “metaphorical.” That is, the underlying metaphorical structure of a text structures the understanding of the message in important ways.

One of the basic ways this comes out in texts is the appeal to sensory metaphors. Bill Clinton “felt” our pain. I might “see” your point. Or I could “hear” where you’re coming from. Something might “smell fishy” about what you say, or it could carry a “whiff” of desperation. I could even leave a bad taste in my mouth.

We use these metaphors so often that they often don’t seem much like metaphors at all.
I’d suggest that in President Bush’s most recent bit of damage-control rhetoric in his statement and answers about the firing of several U.S. attorneys, we see two fundamental sensory metaphors at work: sight and sound. The way Bush develops them says a lot about his attitude toward his audience and the issue at hand.

A specific phrase Bush used twice In his statement and answers during his press conference called attention to this. In talking about how it would be a horrible thing to call administration officials to testify under oath, Bush alluded to putting “the klieg lights” on these poor, hardworking folk.

When Bush uses such a specific bit of phraseology more than once in a short space, you can bet it’s something he’s been told to invoke. And in this case, I think it fits in with a wider way of couching the sacked-attorney issue.

Specifically, if you look at Bush’s comments, you’ll notice a lot of “visual” language. Administration officials shouldn’t have to suffer under the “klieg lights.” The Democratic call for sworn testimony “shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts.” In fact, Bush says they seem to be asking for “show” trials. The resignations of the attorneys have become a “public spectacle.” The attorneys are “being held up to scrutiny.” Democrats “view” this episode as an opportunity to score political points rather than “finding out” the truth. If they continue in pressing for subpoenas, the opportunism of the Democrats will be “evident for the American people to see.” Rather than being taken in by the “appearance” of something, Americans should “listen to the facts.”

That last phrase is interesting. Along with loads of visual language, Bush also uses metaphors of hearing, talking, and listening. White House officials and Attorney General Gonzales are going to “explain” the truth to members of Congress. Bush has “heard” the allegations, but the American people need to “hear the truth” (a phrase he uses three separate times, in addition to “explain the truth”). Twice, he begins a statement by commanding his audience to “Listen.”

A lot of public talk includes metaphors of sight and sound. As we’ve established, we use these phrases all the time without thinking about them. What’s interesting to me is how differently the sight and sound metaphors are used.

Even just looking at the examples above, the visual metaphors tend to be negative. It’s wrong to haul administration officials out under the “klieg lights.” But if the Democrats continue refuse the president’s offer and demand subpoenas, the American people will “see” what they’re really after. Viewing is seen as an act of aggression—something that subjects the object (rightly or wrongly) to the scrutiny of the viewer.

On the other hand, speech and sound metaphors are used in positive ways. “Hearing” is the way the president assures us we will get the truth. It will be “explained” to us. Just “listen” to the president, and the facts will become known.

I’m not saying all these instances are planned. On the contrary, I think many of them are unconscious choices by the president and/or his handlers in prepping for this press conference.
But that makes them all the more interesting. The visual=negative; hearing=positive relationship in the text, while not perfect, is strong—far too strong to be mere chance.
I suggest that this has to do with the nature of the senses involved. As I said above, to be seen is a passive thing. The one who gazes at us holds the power of how long to look and for what. If you want, you can go all post-modern, Michel Foucault with this and talk about how observation or surveillance is the essence of power.

Being heard, though, is something quite different. As the late psychologist Julian Jaynes noted, to listen is in a sense to obey. It is the speaker who controls a situation, not the listener. The power relationship between the sender and receiver of the signal are nearly the reverse in a speaker/hearer relationship than they are in a viewed/viewer relationship.

So, in a speech in which Bush is attempting to characterize investigations into the attorney-firing scandal as politically motivated and to stonewall Congressional attempts to get sworn, recorded testimony from administration officials, should it surprise us that Bush tells us to “listen” to him and to his subordinates as they “explain” themselves so that we can “hear” the truth? Should it surprise us that, when it comes to the truth about Democrats on the other hand, Americans will “see” what their motivations are, that Democrats in Congress will “show” us what they’re after?

The metaphorical world that emerges from Bush’s remarks conjures up a world in which viewing is an act of aggression that is unfair when it is applied to those who are blameless (the poor attorneys who are being held up to “scrutiny” or the administration officials called out under the “klieg lights”), but is useful for getting at the truth about those who aren’t forthcoming with it (i.e., the Democrats who will “show” themselves for what they are). Such people deserve—indeed, must—be subjected to the powerful gaze of the truthseeker.

On the other hand, to find the truth about those who are forthcoming (i.e., the administration), no such aggressive acts are necessary. In fact, truth comes from listening to these people. These people hold power justly, and can be trusted to “explain” the truth to us, provided we “listen” to them. If we do, we’ll “hear the truth.” No need to scrutinize them.

And for God’s sake, don’t put them under those cursed klieg lights!

Some questions for thought:

Another obvious dichotomy Bush’s remarks draw is between the “reasonableness” of his own offer and the “partisan” and “political” motivations of the Democrats. Any thoughts on ways Bush uses language to draw this picture for us?

Is there anything to be made about how Bush places himself in the narrative he tells? Occasionally, he seems to put himself in the background (such as referring to “the White House” rather than to himself). Other times, he asserts himself quite powerfully, such as saying “I named them all [i.e., the attorneys].” Is there a pattern?

Twice in response to the first question he’s asked, Bush uses the odd locution that “there is no indication” that “anyone did anything improper.” Again, the repetition of exact language suggests something premeditated about the word choice. What should we make of this phrasing?

More info on “Gonzales-Gate”:

Washington Post
ABC News
Guardian U.K.
Media Matters
Center for American Progress

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