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Parts of Speech

Condi's comments...and literary lessons from the news, lately

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

Politics is always novelistic, but the last week’s worth of news had me flashing back to high school English class. The latest twists in the swiftly unraveling plot of our government’s past and present security policy, led by the climactic testimony of Condoleezza Rice before the Sept. 11 Commission last week, make the newspaper look like a bank of examples to supplement the review glossary for the AP test. You could tick off the literary terms embodied in the headlines, one by one, as if it had been laid out this way on purpose:

Irony: Right now we’re living through an extraordinary confluence of dramatic, situational and verbal irony rolled into one. A leading campaign story over the weekend was that Americans are unusually divided in their opinions of President Bush and where the country is headed. In Iraq, meanwhile, the unthinkable happened: Sunnis and Shiites, having been at each others’ throats for centuries, appear to be cooperating in a popular uprising against the American presence. In a moment that belongs next to textbook entries on literary irony, the president has partly made good on his promise to be “A uniter, not a divider.” He may have divided America, but he is uniting Iraq.

Juxtaposition: A hallmark of modern art, postmodern literature and the Simpsons, the juxtaposition of unrelated or contradictory elements can be very effective in producing humor or horror. Cable TV is rich with both, thanks to the now-inescapable phenomenon of crowding the screen with as many visual artifacts and moving pieces of text as possible. Resulting juxtapositions have included a split-screen on CNN with a live broadcast of Cheney praising America’s operation in Iraq in a prepared speech while, a thousand miles away and a few inches over on the screen, the aftermath of a massive car bombing in Baghdad flared and billowed in the night. Somewhat less dramatically, a news ticker gave a running account of last week’s sudden anti-American uprising in Iraq, while Dr. Rice testified to the Sept. 11 Commission that our actions in Iraq were removing a source of “violence and fear and instability in the world’s most dangerous region.” Then, on Sunday, Chris Matthews showed on his program footage of President Bush at his ranch on Aug. 7, 2001. Leaning on the steering wheel of his golf cart, the president mused on national security priorities, talking about what a threat Saddam Hussein was but making no mention of bin Laden. The clip was part of a news story about the release of Bush’s security briefing from Aug. 6, entitled “Bin Laden determined to Attack Inside the United States.”

Understatement: A good author knows how the right kind of understatement can actually emphasize the understated point. Dr. Rice unintentionally offered a fine example when, in private testimony to the Sept. 11 Commission, she reportedly asked to revise her previous statement that “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile—a hijacked airplane as a missile.” That pillar of her case that nothing could have been done better by the administration soon crumbled, after critics pointed out that a madman tried to fly a plane into the White House in 1994, that the Pentagon had set up an entire study on the possibility of terrorists using planes as bombs and finally that the Bush administration itself had been told in 2001 that terrorists had considered using planes as missiles. Now, she wants to revise it. It’s a bit like Bill Clinton, after the blue dress came back with his DNA, wanting to “revise” his claim that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The understatement (“reverse,” “disavow” or “apologize for” would all have been more logical verbs for this one) called attention to the fact that she and the president still have yet to admit having failed in any way. This is all the more glaring (by juxtaposition, as it happens) given the recent sight of her former colleague Dick Clarke, apologizing explicitly for the government’s failure to prevent Sept. 11. Clarke’s ignored warnings to the administration about the possible use of airplanes as weapons, incidentally, are a glaring signal of the dishonesty of Rice’s claim.

Those are just a few favorite examples, but the correspondences continue. With a little punctuation and some conjunctions, one high school’s AP review list of allusions and terms turns into a weird poem on current events: “A dramatic monologue: a soliloquy. Subjectivity, objectivity, and euphemism. Conceit: hyperbole. Inversion and irony… the tragic flaw. Protagonist or antihero? Point of view! Epic elements, oxymoronic furies, paradoxical fates. Icarus and Daedalus, or Tantalus and Sisyphus? Or Pandora?”

All this suggests a useful approach for voters trying to see through the fog of war and decide whom to believe: close reading. Once students have internalized the vocabulary of literary analysis, a good teacher has them practicing careful reading of a few lines, in order to find what’s in them and what’s really between them. It’s a life skill as well as a literary one, since everywhere a lot hangs on a word. When the White House says something untrue—for example, the bogus threat to Air Force One on Sept. 11 cited to justify President Bush’s crisscrossing the country that day, or the nonexistent International Atomic Energy Agency report that, Bush claimed, said Iraq was six months away from the Bomb—it’s important to discover the right word to describe it. Did Bush exaggerate something true or did he just make it up? Did the White House purposely deceive us about Air Force One, or get confused? Did Rice assume Clarke would not come forward and feel free to lie about the administration’s awareness of the airliner threat? Or is it true that, as she now claims, she “misspoke?”

This week, the press will be doing a lot of close reading of the president’s Aug. 6 intelligence briefing, which includes a warning about “patterns of suspicious activity consistent with preparations for hijackings.…” The AP English definition of tragedy—something that begins in prosperity and ends in adversity—will come in handy when readers are deciding whether to laugh or to cry.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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