Identification and Interest: Personality Problems and “I Told You So”


The Politics of Identification: Or, Bush’s Personality Problem

In addition to critique the incoherent discourses justifying the Iraq War, Cindy Sheehan and the Gold Star Families for Peace sought moral clarity by also going after Bush for the killing of innocents. In doing so, they personalized their rhetoric in the hope that it would dramatize the divide between the anti-war movements message of reconciliation and Bush’s personal “crusade.”37 Sheehan had already written that President Bush had shown “arrogance,” had “nothing in his eyes,” and lacked “any real compassion” during a 2004 meeting.38 But she was further enraged when, in a speech on August 3, 2005, President Bush said that US troops killed in Iraq had committed a sacrifice “made in a noble cause.”39 Sheehan, certain that the causes for the war were ignoble, was confident that the President would be unable to articulate the noble cause when pressed to do so. Despite Sheehan’s message being directed at the causes of the Iraq War, and the fact that the Bush Administration’s strategy of silence was a matter of political calculation rather than personal insult, her approach encouraged additional personal attacks on the President’s character. Consequently, a claim that had already existed at the margins of the anti-war movement became its most popular theme: the Iraq War was the result of a personality problem.

In his book Beyond Sexuality, Tim Dean criticizes a politics of identification particular to how identification disputes power through rhetorical exclusion and regulation of “inside / outside or human / abject borders.”40 By characterizing Bush as a soulless man beyond understanding, Sheehan founded her rhetorical critique of the war on a deep personal incommensurability that she substantiated even further by publicly connecting her disdain for him through the intense loss of her son. Dean argues that such identification becomes a mechanism for a restrictive, paranoid politics of binarity, especially if subjectivity is treated as a function of one’s self-image rather than the psychic unconscious (which would make it social, historical, and cultural).41 In addition to describing Sheehan’s rhetoric, the politics of identification also helps explain the conservative assault on Sheehan, which utilized a double bind within the incoherent discourses justifying the war to turn the criticisms she leveled at Bush back on her. The usual crowd of right-wing pundits – Matt Drudge, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh – attacked Sheehan by challenging her integrity as a mother and as an American. Limbaugh, for instance, argued that Sheehan was faking her case.42 Drudge went after Sheehan by publicly releasing an email written by a member of her extended family accusing Sheehan of “promoting her own personal agenda and notoriety at the expense of her son’s good name and reputation,” and of standing at odds with “the rest of the Sheehan Family” that “supports the troops, our country, and our President, silently, with prayer and respect.”43 These attacks share in the political strategy Sheehan herself constructed – she sought to use her position as the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq to undermine Bush and other high profile figures of his administration. Consequently, conservative criticism did not focus on her politics but the authenticity of her claims by suggesting that she was an unloving parent politically profiting from the death of her son. This starkly demonstrates the binarist for-or-against structure of the politics of identification; these arguments were nearly the same ones Sheehan brought against Bush – that Bush really lied about the justifications for going to war with Iraq and that he only went to war to profit himself and his friends.

Mary Thomas and Mathew Coleman further problematize the economy of ridicule directed at Bush by providing geopolitical arguments against treating the Iraq War as a personality problem.44 Rhetorically opposing United States policy by narrowly criticizing Bush, they argue, separates the identity of Bush from the symbolic power that he wields and falls short of challenging whatever geopolitical power extends beyond Bush’s term as President.45 To tie the Iraq War to Bush, for instance, gives an artificial beginning and expiration date to a complex of power that extends far beyond the office of the President or even the Pentagon. Proving the veracity of Thomas and Coleman’s claims, the anti- war movement was so deeply invested in opposing Bush that it lost most of its momentum when Barack Obama took office.46 The emotional relief to have Bush gone was made evident when President Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize simply for setting a “new climate” in Washington.47 Yet his charismatic approach does not indicate a change in the two-party monopoly that is the foundation for American governance – the War on Terror has continued and the military industrial complex only expanded.48 In fact, the Obama Administration serves as a case in point of how the liberal and conservative forms of sovereignty share the same structure of authority – while one governs, the other recharges until the pendulum swings in the opposite direction.49 So, with a nation of people driving around with ‘Obama for Peace’ bumper stickers on their cars, the United States has enlarged its domestic spying practices, continued extraordinary rendition, bombed Yemen and Libya, extended the Afghanistan War, and intensified conflicts through drone warfare.50

Capturing Interest: Or, The Narrative of ‘I Told You So’

Much of the anti-war sentiment was expressed in the register of truth and truth alone. For a dramatic example of the anti-war attempt to win the war through truth-statements, consider Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, which was released a few months before the 2004 general election and became the top- grossing documentary of all time.51 In his signature style, Moore combined investigative journalism and folksy outrage to criticize Bush, his handling of the War on Terror, and the media campaign that accompanied the Iraq War. Although Moore’s film was massively popular, it did not focus on political strategy or social movement, but rather a form of consciousness-raising that ‘speaks truth power.’ The political efficacy of speaking truth to power deserves examination. Being ‘right’ or ‘correct’ only has an indirect ability to effect change. Truth alone does not transform reality. Rather, “‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.”52 Therefore, as crowds of anti-war protests paraded around with caricatures of Bush, they were not standing on the authority of undeniable truths but forging a certain deployment of bodies and signs for a political purpose.

The point of this paper is not to critique the rhetoric of a single person. In fact, analyzing Sheehan as a celebrity and not as a person reveals a wider structure of power. In the summer of 2005, the anti-war movement participated in celebrity culture as much as other protest groups of the time – while Cindy Sheehan began a campout in front of the President’s ranch, Bono and a string of music superstars headlined the Live 8 concerts for Live Aid.53 Celebrity can, in fact, be a site of struggle rather than a dead-end for politics.54 However, as Jeremy Gilbert warns, celebrity is expressive of the anti-democratic nature of capitalism, particularly when the collective identity of a group is dependent on a single individual.55 Yet movement celebrities like Sheehan can be described in terms of what Steve Cross and Jo Littler call “assemblages of emulation,” which “harnesses the potential of people to dream” of a celebrity in a collection of affects that “speaks of connections that can be magnified.”56 Considered in these terms, the role of movement celebrities against the Iraq War becomes clear: they produced and directed subjects who repeated an ‘I Told You So’ narrative in order to share in the pleasure of opposing the Iraq War.

Protest does not introduce truth into public discourse as if the nation is engaged in a single monolithic discussion, but as Lauren Berlant argues, it creates “affect worlds” where people are bound by “affective projections of a constantly negotiated common interestedness.”57 The clearest demonstrations of this affective projection are slogans over the false pretenses for war, which carried with them strong affective charges of pleasure. On their face, the protest mobilized arguments that suggested that if President Bush and his war planners were proven factually incorrect then the war would become untenable. Yet the most immediate effect of the expression was the constitution of a counter- public based in the pleasure of ‘sharing in the truth.’ As a consequence, the anti-war movement was built on strong affective ties without an immediately comprehensible connection between the strength of its communities and a political plan to end the war. While the movement may have been impaired by a lack of political strategy, even when it was equipped with cogent strategies, the anti-war left found it difficult to translate publics that shared different affective sentiments. Affective pleasure allowed the anti-war establishment to stay the course even after the Republicans defeated John Kerry in the 2004 election by casting his opposition to the Iraq War as the position of an elitist intellectual – for in defeat, members of the peace movement had something to be proud about: they were part of a well-defined group with strong, recognizable voices that knew the Iraq War was a bad idea from the start. Ultimately, the anti-war movement had a lot of emotion that never converted into political force.

Much like the personalized criticism of Bush, the pleasure of the ‘I Told You So’ narrative relied on the binary, paranoid, and defensive quality of a politics of identification. In fact, many self-certain liberals became so dead-set on proving the Iraq War wrong that they became petty policy experts and party hacks with politics no better than those on Capitol Hill. Celebrities played a large part in this cultivation of policy expertise. Martin Sheen took a break from playing a president on television to give the nation policy advice,58 and Sean Penn, actor turned international peace delegate, took trips to Iraq so that he could speak “on behalf of the American dead and wounded” from personal experience.59 These self-styled policy wonks enacted a classic politics of performativity, whose aim is to unsettle the nature of mastery and reveal its contingent nature.60 By imitating subjects of power, such performances aim to dispel belief in the source of that power. The anti-war movement was soon able to marshal its own experts who could mimic and sometimes even out-perform the policy analysts and war planners. These experts usually employed ‘law and order’ rhetoric that lauded law respecting-citizens who were doing their best to hold a renegade President and his cabinet in check. One example was the effort to impeach President Bush, which was launched in earnest with Representative John Conyers filing a resolution in late 2005 to create an investigative committee to consider impeachment.61 However, as Tim Dean argues, performances of power that aim to rhetorically reveal or critique power misrecognize that power is structured by a very real desire with a material basis that cannot be disputed – only directed or disrupted. Attempts to dispute the official policy behind the Iraq War by being ‘more royal than the queen’ thus ended predictably: movement celebrities would trot out military reports or international law chapter and verse without suggesting how such policy prowess would end the war. And if anything was certain, it was that the Bush Administration was not soliciting public advice on how to run the war. So, as long as the self-righteous liberals obsessed over the rightness of their policy position, they traded the struggle over political power for the performance of expertise.

To summarize, the Bush Administration’s justification of the Iraq War can be analyzed through queer critiques of rhetoricaly, such as Halperin’s theory about the incoherence of homophobic discourses, which help explain why rhetorical opposition was often ineffective. The shifting justifications for the war given by the Bush Administration created a moving target held together by the collective trauma of 9/11 and fantasies that connect pleasure and violence. Rhetorical attempts to dispute administration justifications one-by-one did not build an effective political opposition to the war, in part because of their resulting rhetoric, which cast the war as a result of a presidential personality problem and offered an ‘I Told You So’ narrative. The first rhetoric produced a binarist politics of identification that mirrored Bush’s own divide “you are either with us or against us” approach that impeded a deeper analysis of the geopolitical effects of American power. The second rhetoric produced emotional publics fixed on self-righteous shared truths at the expense of political strategy.

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