Autocratic Rhetoric

I continue to be fascinated– fascinated in the way I am fascinated by a train wreck– at the ways that the political rhetoric of the now-revolutionary Arab North Africa echos or overlaps the political rhetoric of the political crisis in the American Midwest. Colonel Gaddafi says he will never step down or negotiate with protesters; Governor Walker says there can be no compromise over collective bargaining rights. The situations are vastly different, of course, which make the similarities all the more interesting.

Here in the U.S., and I suspect in North Africa, this is at least in part due to our use of what I call a sports or game rhetoric that makes no truth claims. The goal isn’t veracity, it’s the demoralization of your opponent. On the other hand, this rhetoric does reflect reality, however mediated, in that it seems to help shape actual policy. Gaddafi says this and then resorts to a massive violent repression; Walker has shown no signs of a willingness to negotiate with either the unions or his democratic opponents.

A sports rhetoric is always tinged with autocratic implications. If you want to win the World Series, you don’t offer to negotiate. A sports rhetoric is a rhetoric about vanquishing your foe, utterly and once and for all. Again, it makes no claims to veracity. You devastate your opponent completely and then you go home and have a beer. Next season the cycle starts anew. It’s easy to see the loigc of this sort of rhetoric for Gaddafi. He’s maintained power by violent means and he’s not changing. The sports rhetoric is a Trojan horse.

It’s more difficult to understand Governor Walker. Even more perplexing, many conservatives seem to believe that his game rhetoric, despite all indications to the contrary, actually does make truth claims. He claims, for example, that he– and his allies in the municipal and county governments– need to end collective bargaining in order to maximize flexibility. In effect, he is making the autocratic claim that the democratic process is too cumbersome. Government officials, in other words, when faced with budget problems, cannot negotiate a solution.

We need to respond to whatever problem that arises so quickly that we cannot waste time by seeking the input and advice of the people directly affected. Democracy, in other words, is a deliberative process, one requiring time and reflection and careful thought; we don’t have time for all that and if we indulge in it disaster looms. It’s a wildly unlikely claim. In fact, what he is saying is that if he– or local officials– participate in the democratic process, they cannot ensure that their own ideas will prevail. I think Gaddafi would agree.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Post Navigation