In the Right’s Kitchen: Mythorializing At the Wall Street Journal

Written in 1987, this article of mine still helps unpacking Republican “naturalizing” rhetoric for what it is.  Going forward, my task is the daily deconstruction of Wall Street Journal’s editorials.

“Myth on the right is well-fed, sleek. expansive, garrulous. It invents itself ceaselessly. It takes hold of everything.” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies)

Late October, 1986. Dire hubris looming for the Right. Cocky and off-guard in the delirium of the success of the “Standing Tall,” High Noon spin finessed onto the Reykjavik bustup, the Right’s high priest Irving Kristol, in his 10/24 column in the The Wall Street Journal, Kristolizes the story-made rhetorical world of the Reagan presidency. Kristol’s piece, “The Force Is With Reagan,”  (awkwardly titled insofar as the administration was trying to delete all references to “Star Wars”) brings together several streams of rightist rhetoric in a particularly bald and banal conceit: “The force is with Ronald Reagan. It has abandoned the liberal bodies it once inhabited… When the Force is with you, all the breaks come your way…For the Force rewards those political leaders whose instincts and basic perception are ‘in tune with reality’–with human realities, political realities, economic realities, social realities.”

Two and a half weeks later, White House chief of staff Donald Regan: “Some of us are like a shovel brigade that follow a parade down Main Street cleaning up. We took Reykjavik and turned what was really a sour situation into something that turned our pretty well. Who was it that took this disinformation thing and managed to turn it? Who was it who took on this loss in the Senate…and managed to pull that?” Like with the Wizard of Oz, the impersonal “Force” of history that Kristol claims as kin is unmasked as the work of White House illusionists “pulling” this and “turning” that.

Kristol’s lofty “there is a tide in the affairs of men” tone is the quintessence of six years of steady Journal rhetoric about the Reagan revolution as the first major shift in American politics since FDR. The unlikely RR-FDR axis was formed early by Reagan strategists, and is used as a show-stopper whenever any debate of substance occurs, as was going on over Star Wars when Kristol wrote. As a rhetroical creation, it has more substance than shadowy events like Reykjavik or the Iranian arms “deal”. Lately, this inchoate “Reagan Revolution” is all the administration clings to.

Whatever else “history” does with this administration,  the High Reagan era, which now looks like a bygone epoch, will be seen as a golden age of political rhetoric, polemical self-creation: mythologizing on a massive scale. This was an era in which political reality was so “naturalized” by the administration in power that questioning any of its version became kin to treason. Even in the wake of severe setbacks, in its embattled rhetoric, there is no possibility of doubt: reality is rendered perfectly intelligible to all, except hypocrites, idealists, and self-servers.

And, as events at last begin to spin on their own, not so susceptible to “pulling” and “turning,”  administration apologists (in the technical sense of the term, not the pejorative one: explicators and synthesizers, not excuse-makers) increasingly come to resemble those astronomers trying to hold the Ptolemaic system together in the wake of Copernicus: ever-more eccentric orbits, epicycles, and labyrinthine explanations-within-explanations.

The fascinating thing is that this revolution-by-rhetoric has been, and continues to be, worked out in the edit columns of the Journal, hidden right out in the open, often well in advance of public debate. More importantly, as Bob Kuttner argued in The New Republic two years ago, The Journal, with its “scornful sneering, and Manichean” editorial tone, has revivified political polemic and invective to a degree, and has much to teach tamer editorialists. It’s damned fun to read this stuff: a morning shot of bile.

Manichean is the key: they see themselves speaking for god-like principles struggling to control the universe. This holy war attitude gives them fire, and makes for rhetoric-with-a-vengeance, language with blood on its mind. If rhetoric may be called the art of swaying and holding an audience–identification and hypnosis–then its principle task, as French writer Roland Barthes put it in his seminal Mythologies, is to create a myth by making it seem natural, a given, a “structure of reality,” as French rhetorician Chaim Perelman calls it.

A close reading of Journal editorials from October, 1985 to October 1986 spotlights some recurrent past themes worked out over time and retooled for the next two years of brutal rhetorical slugfests. Now that the administration is on the defensive, the rhetorical devices of the Journal’s editorials are more transparent, and thus offer a wonderful opportunity for denaturalizing analysis of political rhetoric.

More importantly, perhaps, using some basic tools of rhetorical analysis helps us read any political rhetoric, left, right, or center. Political rhetoric is in large part the art of sneaking in assumptions that the audience buys into without knowing they have just bought the farm. For example, as Gary Wills pointed out in his classic Inventing America, the Declaration of Independence begins with all sorts of incredibly loaded language about “the course of human events” and “reasonable men” and “inalienable rights,”  justifying the American Revolution not merely as a reasonable outcome, but as a natural one (or, to be precise, natural because so “reasonable”). Just as Irving Kristol privileges a whole series of “realities” and trips all over himself doing so (what are “human realities,” anyway”?), so Jefferson invents a series of realities and calls them natural.

 

A YEAR’S WORTH OF CLASSICS

What a bonanza of classic Journal editorials from October ’85 to October ’86 and how gleeful they are in their invective. From last Fall there are: “What’s Good For America,” a blistering attack on “special interest groups”* (see glossary for all starred items) and how they were blocking tax reform; “Bidding the Banks Goodbye,” blaming the American left for the failure of “constructive engagement”* in South Africa; “A Supply-Side World?,” on how Friedmanite open markets will save the Third World from itself; and “Voice From the Past,” attacking Justice Brennan and all “activist judges”*.

Winter brought “Closing the Antitrust Century,” an epitaph for government regulation; “A Question of Management,” blaming the shuttle disaster on Congressional regulators; “Clouds Over Acid Rain,” calling the very notion of acid rain * into question, and “Contra Aid: The Stakes,” sounding the alarm bell about Communist aggression.

Spring brought such gems as “Shanty Raids,” a putdown of anti-apartheid college students; “Doomsday Baggage,” a savage attack on the idea of a test-ban treaty; “Worst Possible Case,” a dismissal of environmental impact statements * addressing potential disasters; “The Russian Syndrome,” which only talks about Chernobyl* in geo-political Superpower terms, not in terms of the safety of nuclear power * ; “The Long Struggle,” equating terrorism and Congress; and “Getting Past Vietnam,” a withering attack on Congressional paralysis in Nicaragua, and a call for aid for the Contras * .

As spring turned to summer, we read of “Intellectuals In Isolation,” belittling SDI *  opponents; “Putting Qadhaffi to the Test,” somehow managing to link Libya, SDI and free enterprise; “Senitorial Tempriment,” in its deliberate misspelling ridiculing Senate attacks on the intellectual attainments of Daniel Manion; “Your Money or Your Life,” blaming Congress for defense-industry fraud; and, “Where’s the Hardware?,” calling for an instant deployment of SDI.

The heating up of SDI, anti-apartheid, and Contra battles, as well as tax reform and Congressional races, brought some summer classics: “The Defense Roller-Coaster,” another strong argument for Contra aid as a way to take back the anti-communist momentum lost in Vietnam; “The Bonn-Tokyo Deflation,” one of many slightly muffled calls for a return to the gold standard; “Reagan’s Year,” a classic mythologization of the entire Reagan presidency as a permanent political revolution; “Doing The Kremlin’s Work,” an equation of Democratic arms control *  bills with Soviet strategy; “The Lebanon Model” and “Sanctions, The Moral Issue” both arguing against sanctions or any interference in South Africa; and “Winners and Losers,” a tax-reform scorecard arguing for dynamic rather than static economic analysis * .

And, of course, everything culminated this fall, what with Rehnquist and Scalia; South African sanctions; tax reform; new anti-drug laws; Contra aid; Reykjavik and SDI, and Congressional races, and the Journal has been up to the rhetorical challenge. Read: “Surviving the Aliens,” the aliens being members of Congress returning to their districts; “Goodbye, Mr. Tambourine Man,” a really smug and patronizing dismissal of the left as a gang of drug-crazed losers; “The Rehnquist Court,” a further, substantial attack on “judicial activism,” as opposed to “original Constitutional intent”; “Ronald Reagan’s Killer Rabbit,” warning the Pres not to give up SDI to the Russians; “Das Kapital (Revised ed.),” about how the world wants to dream American; “Superfund Cleanup Waste,” arguing that there really is no toxic waste problem; “On Manipulating Democrats,” about how “arms control” is an “illusion”; “Staying Cool In Reykjavik,” about letting Reagan be Reagan; “Reykjavik Saga,” about the childishness of believing in arms control fairy tales; “Arms Control Unchained,” about the new era of American supremacy, built around SDI and forcing the Russians to become “a more open society”; “Bring Back the Veto,” one in a long series of calls for a presidential line-item veto; “The Tax Reform Rollback,” calling tax reform a Democratic “Ponzi scheme” to raise taxes next year; “King Caucus vs. SDI,” about how Congress is anti-American and “arms control” is a joke; and, near the end of October, “The Irrepressible Mr. Meese,” about how liberals and “activist judges” are enemies of the Constitution. This past Fall has been a real windfall for Journal editorial addicts.

A mere list of such go-for-jugular editorials doesn’t give nearly the full effect of a daily immersion. This isn’t just high school civics stuff: these words are for huge stakes, and isn’t “just rhetoric,” cute but harmless. As in any era considering fundamental social, politico-military and economic experiments, rhetoric becomes both the crucible and creator of new attitudes toward history.

 

MYTHS OF THE MOMENT

Among the “givens” going into the 1986 Senate elections, these myths emerged as the “turn” the administration and Journal were trying to give to reality. Many seemed outdated a week later, but to make such lists is to see how remarkably fluid political reality is, how much is up for grabs, and how little objectivity there can be:

1. SDI is the hole card against the Soviets,who have been in ascendancy since Vietnam. SDI should be deployed (Not just developed or tested) NOW. Arms control is a snare and delusion.

2. Voting for the Contras helps roll back Vietnam.

3. Just as SDI and the Contras roll back Vietnam, such shopping items as a presidential line-item veto and the

repeal of the War Powers Act will roll back Watergate.

4.The Journal and the Rehnquist court know what the Constitution is, and anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a “judicial activist.” “Activism” is a pejorative again.

5. Democratic congresspersons  (invariably, in a bit of gay-bashing, called “San Francisco Democrats” but never again after the Senate elections) are as dangerous to America as terrorists or communists.

6. Environmentalism is a total sham and boondoggle, and things like acid rain, toxic waste, dangerous pesticides, or nuclear safety threats simply don’t exist. Ditto for consumerism and social justice.

7. South Africa should be left alone to solve its own problems. Trying to help the blacks is the worst thing we can do to them.

8. All gloomy economic analyses and forecasts are due to “static analysis,” whereas all favorable ones (i.e. those which must be projected beyond 1988) are right because they rely on “dynamic analysis”.

9. “Real Americans,” who are “unsophisticated,” don’t have anything to do with the Beltway or the House, and don’t take drugs, have regained control of their country.

10. Last, as a culmination of all foreign and economic policy, the Golden Rule: leverage unto others as ye would have them leverage unto you. The free market is America’s true manifest destiny. We are moving toward a total global supply-side, market-driven economy, the pure mechanism of the celestial economic spheres, based on the gold standard, which, as the Journal so deliciously puts it, “stabilizes the value of our capital commitments.” “Our”?

 

DIRTY TRICKS

Just as Jefferson and Kristol, Journal editorialists invoke “reality” so often, both explicitly and implicitly in the pitying tone they take toward the “San Francisco Democrats,” that dissenting readers are made to feel either like traitors, perverts or children. Anything that doesn’t square with their mythic world is appearance, naive idealism, or hypocrisy masquearading as idealism. Idealism itself is not possible in this world; a world in which, as Barthes puts it, nature is inserted between the sign and the signified.

Take the phrase “arms control”. Journal editorialists often set it off with fright quotes, which trivialize it or make it into a laughing stock. Yet this form of ridicule (the sign) is even more insidious because its content (the signified) is smuggled in as an assumption, via circular reasoning, which assumes the very thing it needs to justify and explain: Naturally, arms can’t be controlled because, naturally, we can’t trust the Soviets because, naturally, they are Communists naturally bent on world domination. Thus, anyone who favors any form of arms control is abetting Soviet world domination.

Given such a sure grip on the world, in which judgments masquerade as facts or common sense, and intimidation poses as logic, any catalogue of drawbacks or objections is, as Barthes argues, “complacent” because their position is unfavorably compared to nature. This complacency extends to language, in which one group of naturalized words, in Barthes’ term, “admonishes” or “excludes” a set of defective words: “free market” (along with “risk” and “performance”) admonishes “regulation”; “strong defense”/ “arms control”; “the Constitution”/ “activist judges”; “the people”/ “Congress”;” colorblindness/”affirmative action”; “SDI”/ “Vietnam”; and, in the grandest admonition of all perhaps, “the truth”/ “politics”.

Since this mythologizing rhetoric is on the side of those in power, this linguistic (i.e. legal) murder of the opposition notifies as it points out: in naming it imposes, surrounds in an imperceptible and unquestionable way. The Journal’s Ronald Reagan myth is a perfect illustration of why Barthes calls myth “depoliticized speech”: Democrats, Soviets, Naderites/environmentalists and “activist judges” are “too political”, just as pacificists “politicize” arms control. The astonishing rhetorical ploy here is that a Republican President, administration, court system, and, up until Nov. 4, Senate, are considered above politics: they have entered the eternal and pure world of nature. Everyone else is committing unnatural acts.

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