Zell’s Scary Speech

Zell Miller’s RNC speech from last night is dangerous stuff. I didn’t see it live, so I don’t know what kind of response he was getting from the delegates, but anything more than uncomfortable silence and seat-squirming is disturbing to contemplate, even among those highly partisan folks. Here’s one part that’s really scary:

Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator.

And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators.

Tell that to the one-half of Europe that was freed because Franklin Roosevelt led an army of liberators, not occupiers.

Tell that to the lower half of the Korean Peninsula that is free because Dwight Eisenhower commanded an army of liberators, not occupiers.

Tell that to the half a billion men, women and children who are free today from the Baltics to the Crimea, from Poland to Siberia, because Ronald Reagan rebuilt a military of liberators, not occupiers.

In the first sentence, we have a false generalization (“today’s Democratic leaders see…”) buttressed by a false dichotomy (“occupier, not a liberator”). But it’s that second sentence that’s the real marvel. “Nothing makes this Marine madder” reminds us that he served as soldier, who is angry when “someone calls American troops occupiers…” The implication is that the Democratic leaders have said this, which of course they haven’t; he’s only asserted that that’s how they (collectively) saw things in the previous sentence. Also buried in that second sentence is the assumption that it is the troops who make themselves occupiers and/or liberators, and thus to impugn their mission is to to impugn them (and their honor and courage). But of course it’s the policymakers and other leaders who decide on the mission who determine the role the soldiers will play, not the soldiers themselves—and in any case that role will almost never fall neatly into a discrete category of “liberator” or “occupier” or anything else. The following sentences at least contain the germ of an arguable point: “This war is like World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War.” But Miller still tries to drape that point (which is asserted, but not argued) in the mantle of the soldiers who fought in those wars, as if it is their very presence that redeemed those causes.

Everything is further muddled by the fact that the word “war” has been stripped of nearly all inherent meaning. The Cold War was not a war in the same sense as WWII or the Korean War—and the latter was clearly a subset of the Cold War in the first place. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over, in the narrow sense of the word, and Miller leaves it unclear as to whether he is referring to those specific engagements or to the larger “war on terror.” But ultimately he’s not interested in such distinctions—he is merely invoking “war” as grounds for unswerving fealty to the current President, and trotting out the old nonsense that anyone who stands against it is “against freedom.” Earlier in the speech, Miller asserts that “our nation is being torn apart and made weaker” because of the Democrats and their desire to bring Bush down. Our nation is being torn apart, and it has been made weaker, by its current leaders, and that’s why Bush has to go.

Much of the rest of Miller’s speech consists of demonstrably false statements, which are less interesting than clever and misleading rhetoric. But it’s the rhetorically clever parts that are the most troubling, because framing the words in the right way can frame the terms of the argument if you let them. Consider the “war on terror.” Powerful words. They’re a consciously crafted metaphor that has succeeded in shaping all our discourse, from Republicans to Democrats to the media to people on the street. How I wish those words had never stuck. If instead of the War on Terror we had the War on Al Qaeda—or if our leaders had the honesty to say that, as something that’s not winnable in any conventional sense, this isn’t something that should even be called a war, but something else—then it wouldn’t have been so easy to sell an unrelated fight in Iraq to the American people, and all this nonsense about “we can’t change leaders while we’re at war” wouldn’t be circulating around, and both political parties might be less hung up on militaristic chest-pounding. There’s never been a better example of the power of a simple metaphor to shape reality than the “war on terror.”

UPDATE: Josh Marshall has the text of Jimmy Carter’s reply to Zell Miller.