The incoherent discourses that justified the Iraq War were not politically ineffective; to the contrary, they trapped opponents in rhetorical disputes that failed to upset the war effort. The personalized ridicule of President Bush and the ‘I Told You So’ narrative behind Cindy Sheehan’s opposition to the Iraq War confirm that rhetorical challenges to state violence often fall into traps like those set for disputing homophobic discourse. Treating the Iraq War as the result of a personality problem, anti-war rhetoric created an economy of ridicule that failed to engage larger questions of geopolitical power and furthered a politics of identification that dismissed criticism before its claims could be evaluated. The ‘I Told You So’ narrative created an emotional politics of shared truths that helped produce large publics critical of the Bush Administration, yet they developed greater commonality through celebrity and amateur policy expertise rather than a political plan for ending the war.
In addition to blurring the categories of the usual politics of identification, the Code Pink interruption of McCain’s speech illustrates another capacity of subjects of desire: to generate events. Unlike many of the other direct actions at the Republican Convention, which were quickly dismissed, the Code Pink disruption cause a specific type of rupture that explains why McCain was compelled to continue addressing what he declared to be a non-event – these disruptions caused trauma. As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis write, psychoanalytic trauma is “an event in the subject’s life defined by its intensity, by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization.”97 Therefore, it is McCain’s simultaneous dismissal of and inability to move beyond the interruption that constitutes trauma, and it is this trauma that transformed the protests from mere actions into true events. Consider an example that carries considerable historical weigh – Mario Savio’s stirring speech during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement urging others to use their bodies in direct action:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.98
Against the more traditional interpretation of Savio’s prescription, that bodies should be used to physically clog spaces of power, perhaps we should perform a more psychoanalytic reading – that the suasive power of politics can be interrupted by jamming its symbolic machine with bodies that mutter, which frustrate rhetorical attempts to contain the desiring force of bodies through the politics of identification. Moreover, jamming the symbolic machine is not painless, it produces trauma, but it is not the pain of an individual subject but a shared blockage with potentially enormous effects. Continue reading “The Trauma of the Real: Or, Unspeakable Acts”
Soon before President Bush left office, he had a pair of shoes thrown at him during a press conference on his farewell journey to Iraq. The thrower was Muntadhar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist upset with the American occupation of his country. In the middle of the press conference, al-Zaidi stood up, yelled, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” and threw a shoe at Bush.62 Before security personnel were able to intervene, al-Zaidi launched another shoe, saying, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” Showing just how unaffected he was by the whole ordeal, Bush later laughed it off by saying, “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw,” further shrugging of the protest with the comment, “I don’t know what the guy’s cause was. I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it.”63 As a strategy of confrontation, al-Zaidi’s shoe-ing follows Voltairine de Cleyre’s classic definition of direct action as one of the “spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation.”64 Moreover, it matches the essential characteristics outlined by direct action advocates, being confrontational, public, disruptive, and illegal.65 Yet it was unable to affect Bush, probably because it was immediately contained by the politics of identification, which raises an important question: can other types of embodied protest disrupt power? Continue reading “Failed Rhetoricality: Bodies that Mutter”
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. Continue reading “Identification and Interest: Personality Problems and “I Told You So””
The movement against the Iraq War began with incredible force. At this time, the leading anti-war narrative espoused the strength of a vibrant civil society in opposition to the Bush Administration’s march to war. Riding high from the successes of the alter-globalization demonstrations, most notably a recent European Social Forum, the movement emphasized the importance of global popular opinion as the voice the people.24 Numbers swelled, and on February 15, 2003, protest against the Iraq War drew anywhere between six and thirty million people in over 600 cities worldwide.25 The event was championed as the loudest and clearest message ever sent by civil society. One New York Times columnist was so amazed by the epoch-defining nature of the event that he wrote, “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”26 This intervention unfortunately failed to prevent the war. In hindsight, it is obvious that the message was transmitted clearly but did not have the intended effects on those who had their hands on the levers of state power.
Exasperated by the failure to prevent the Iraq War, the previously vibrant anti- war movement took steps to re-unify itself. So at the June 2003 United for Peace and Justice National Convention, a lengthy unity statement was constructed to build a united front to end the war.27 After Bush was reelected in 2004 and the search for weapons of mass destruction was officially called off, however, a number of groups became increasingly confrontational.28 The first step in the turn toward confrontation was to construct a line in the sand through a system of identification that ran parallel to Bush’s “with us or against us.”29 This polarizing identification had two important parts: ad hominem attacks on President Bush’s personality, and an ‘I Told You So’ narrative repeated by movement celebrities. To spread their message, liberals and progressives brought their case against the war before the court of public opinion. A small group of celebrities provided the public face of the criticism, with each wearing affiliations on their sleeves as if to point supporters toward the organization of their choice. Of those media personalities, the most vocal was Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed while serving as a solider in Iraq. Her presence at an action at a mass demonstration in the new phase in the anti-war movement in September 2005 is worth describing in detail. Continue reading “Rhetorical Challenges to the Iraq War”
President Bush’s ex post facto justification for the war was quite vague: “that the Iraqi people are much better off without Saddam.”8 Daalder and Lindsey argue, however, that the wide berth of this justification relies on the “basic but highly salient fact that there would not have been a war without his argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an unacceptable threat that was both immediate and serious.”9 Restoring clarity to the Bush Administration’s initial claims about WMDs seems hardly possible, given the incoherence of the discourse through which the justifications for war were presented. As James P. Pfiffner points out, administration officials made WMDs a moving target, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz claiming that the verifiable presence of WMDs was not the paramount issue for policymakers while Secretary of Defense Colin Powell was asserting its centrality.10 Pfiffner concludes that even while President Bush made “few untrue statements” and accepted some widely shared claims, his statements were also systematically misleading, gave false impressions, and defied the better judgment of others.11
Sentimentality aided the Bush Administration’s incoherent war on public opinion. The Bush Administration pitched the war as the perfect plan to fill the emotional void left by the September Eleventh attacks. President Bush associated Iraq with 9/11, expanding the targets of the War on Terror to an “axis of evil” – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – during his State of the Union Address in 2002. And during the one-year commemoration of the attacks at Ground Zero, he formally announced his intentions to attack Iraq. Rhetorically ‘sticking’ the attack in New York to Iraq, he made a promise: “What our enemies have begun, we will finish.”12 With this full-scale media blitz, the Bush Administration amplified the emotional resonance between 9/11 and his campaign against Iraq, leading supporters to offer over-the-top acclamations, such as “turn Baghdad into a parking lot. You know, blow up the bridges, blow up the factories. Just level it,” or “I’m kind of excited to be here now. Someday we’ll tell our children that we were in Washington when the war started.”13
The union of multiple contradictory discourses and the politicization of loss is a combination is familiar to queer activists. Challenging what losses count as grievable was essential to turning collective mourning to militancy during the AIDS crisis.14 Describing the transformation, Ann Cvetkovich writes, “the AIDS crisis, like other traumatic encounters with death, has challenged our strategies for remembering the dead, forcing the intervention of new forms of mourning and commemoration.”15 These forms of mourning and commemoration should not be isolated to queer activism during 1980s and ‘90s, for as Sara Ahmed contends, public responses to events such as 9/11 pose similar challenges to queer politics; or as Bush’s post facto justification for the Iraq War demonstrates, violence can be cast as an act of compassion, such as offering war as a gift of hope to the Iraqi people, which allowed Administration officials to “be full of love in the midst of the violence.”16 In addition to the use of compassion to conceal state violence, other conservative forms of mourning tap into the basic structure of paranoid fantasies that, in Elaine Scarry’s words, attempts to connect “disembodied beliefs with the force and power of the material world” through the “massive opening of human bodies.”17 Foreign policy hawks have repeated a phrase that reveals how this “structure of feeling” motivates the conservative desire for war.18 The narrative goes like this: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”19 The consequence of this violent sentiment is clear: war hawks construct fantasies that bring together pleasure and violence to stoke the population. Queer alternatives to the state rhetoric of public loss, whether clothed in compassion or bathed in blood, thus provide helpful historical and theoretical tools for reorienting activism toward less violent ends.
Sara Ahmed theorizes how incoherent discourses, such as those that justified the Iraq War, can be unified through emotion.20 Following Derrida, Ahmed explains that emotion fills the disjunction between signification and context. Through repetition, words detach from the context in which they emerge, leaving emotions as symbolic traces of their lost context. Appearing as personal, ahistorical, or natural fact, these emotions accumulate cultural value through associations with words that generate material histories that remain concealed. In the case of Bush Administration’s defense of the Iraq War, grief and aggression stood in for coherent discourse, demonstrating how state violence can use affective force to make politics with contradictory statements. Continue reading “Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses”
Abstract: In “Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War,” xxxx suggests ‘queering’ direct action in order to overcome the limits of rhetorical politics. xxxx shows how the Bush Administration’s justifications for the Iraq War were incoherent discourses that drew rhetorical opposition into a politics of identification that made them easy to dismiss. An alternative, xxxx claims, are “bodies that mutter” – subjects of desire whose bodily force continues where discourses fail, which he locates in the Code Pink disruption of John McCain’s speech at 2008 Republican National Convention, AIDS crisis-era queer activism, and radical clowning.
The movement against the Iraq War was an exercise in failure. Continue reading “Introduction to Forthcoming Article: Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War”