American Rhetoric

As the fall semester approaches, I’ve been thinking more about political rhetoric. In my writing seminar, we mostly read political philosophy, but we also study rhetoric and analyze popular arguments as well. (My students last semester analyzed popular politics on the class blog, which I think is pretty good.)

Recently I came across the American Freedom Campaign, an effort by several groups to define “American” as including an opposition to torture or the suspension of habeas corpus. It’s hard to believe, but some powerful Americans seem to support these things. Not the American Freedom Campaign, though. Here, for example, is the “Freedom Pledge” they’d like you to sign:

“We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people’s phones and emails without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power.

I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any President.”

And they also say that, “under the pretense of the ‘war on terror,’ the White House is dismantling the Constitution, concentrating power in the President and undermining the rule of law. THIS IS UN-AMERICAN.”

In addition to its appeal on other grounds, it’s interesting for the way it plays with some traditional American political rhetoric. What is American? Is it everything that has happened in America? Or only the best parts of the American tradition? Or perhaps that which is unique to America?

Many people criticize America for its past slavery, for example, but slavery wasn’t unique to America. Creating a written Constitution that more or less enshrined classical liberal goals was unique, as was creating a country based on the ideas of liberty and freedom. (For a great book on the distinction between American “liberty” and “freedom,” read David Hackett Fischer’s outstanding book Liberty and Freedom. He uses liberty more in the sense of “freedom from” or what Isaiah Berlin would call “negative liberty” or Benjamin Constant would call the “freedom of the moderns,” while freedom is more like the civic republican notion of political participation and self-government, what Berlin might call “positive liberty” and Constant the “liberty of the ancients.” Fischer does a remarkable job of showing the power of these concepts in American history.)

So is the deplorable history of slavery and racism “American,” or instead are the ideas of freedom and political equality that inspired the founders and led to the eventual end of slavery more “American”? Can both be “American”? Only, I suppose, if “American” is taken in the least meaningful sense of “things that happened in America.” If “American” means those things unique to America, then the term becomes more meaningful, and not just politically. “American” then would include jazz and blues music, for example, but not racism or sexism, which are hardly confined to the United States.

There’s the old saying, “as American as mom and apple pie.” That’s just silly. I don’t know where apple pie originated, but I’m pretty sure there were mothers before the United States existed. But what could be more American than Robert Johnson, or Thelonious Monk, or Johnny Cash, or Wild Turkey, or the rule of law enshrined in a written constitution?

The American Freedom Campaign is plotting a different rhetorical course, though, one where “American” has a powerful political meaning, in this sense one of “a nation of laws.”

I think the American Freedom Campaign’s tactic is both more true and more useful than either a negative anti-Americanism or an overbroad definition of “American.” Defining “American” as whatever happened in America guts the term of any political usefulness, for the left or the right. Thinking of the history of America as the history of slavery, genocide, and oppression (as a friend of mine does) also reduces the power of the term “American.” American and Un-American could be politically powerful if used in effective ways. Reminding people that freedom, liberty, equality, and the rule of law are American, and their opposites un-American, can be persuasive in a way that hostile political rhetoric never can be.

2 thoughts on “American Rhetoric

  1. Interesting post. No doubt part of the rhetorical force of the, um, AFC comes from its mere existence. After all, on the face of it, the name “American Freedom Campaign” sounds at best redundant or tautological. Its coming into existence, then, amounts to an assertion that we need to marshal forces on behalf of American freedom. Or I suppose that’s what they’re after anyway.
    (And I agree that nothing is more American that Wild Turkey.)

  2. In some ways it reminds me of the Young Americans for Freedom, which is (or was, I don’t know if they still exist) a group of college-age conservatives started in the 1960s, or for that matter many conservative groups that highlight “American” and “Freedom” in their names or descriptions. What I find particularly clever is the abandonment of typically leftist political rhetoric and the rediscovery of the power of traditional American political rhetoric, most of all in America.
    I grew weary years ago of my friends relying on Marx or Foucault or Habermas to make political points, when that continental discourse is meaningless in America. Political rhetoric needs a tradition within which to be understood. In America, that tradition is liberalism. Dewey understood this better than most of the American left, and tried to redefine liberalism. I think the AFC is trying to to the same thing. Rawls, operating in a traditional liberal idiom, did a better job of articulating the goals of the American left than anyone relying on continental authors or French theories.
    And I agree that there is nothing more American than Wild Turkey. I prefer mine with a little Johnny Cash, or perhaps Malcolm Holcombe.

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