William Saletan claims that one of the biggest differences between Bush and former President Clinton is Clinton’s ability to see the gray in between black and white. He says:
But sometimes, things aren’t black and white. Sometimes they’re gray. When the governments of France, China, or Mexico don’t see things your way, you have to start the process of persuasion by understanding where they’re coming from. That’s where Clinton was at his best and Bush is at his worst. Four times at his press conference, Bush was asked why other countries weren’t seeing things our way. Four times, he had no idea.
This situation highlights a clash of moral visions. To state it in a simplistic dichotomy, one side would see moral action as including the ability to see a situation as either absolutely right or absolutely wrong and then acting on one’s assessment. The other side would see moral action in the ability to understand a range of rights and wrongs with only a narrow set holding something like the status of absolute truth. In this case, acting on one’s moral assessment requires taking into account a range of rights and wrongs.
Which way is best? That’s been one of the big philosophical debates since at least the 5th century B.C.E. when the Greeks began wrestling with such questions.
As a rhetorician, I am less concerned with settling the philosophical debate than I am considering how the various debaters argue their points (and what those arguments “mean”). I cannot claim to know whether war in this case is right or wrong. I can, however, point to Bush’s use of Biblical language to make his argument and suggest we might want to think hard about what this means. For example, Bush says at one point:
One of the things we love in America is freedom. If I may, I’d like to remind you what I said at the State of the Union: liberty is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to each and every person. And that’s what I believe.
[Note: Bush uses the schemes of antithesis and anaphora to highlight his point. “Gift” is a metaphor that equates the effect of policy with a divine intention.]
The Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The following sentence, however, is key to understanding this assertion: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
On the surface, it appears that Bush’s language springs directly from this cherished document. We need to recall that many of our founding fathers were Deists, who did not believe, as apparently President Bush does, that God has a direct hand in events on our timeframe. Jefferson et. al. assert God-given rights, but it is an act of man that makes them manifest. Without that human act, God’s gift to “every person” is so much happy talk.
So the question becomes: Is America the instrument of God’s gift (which I take to be the underlying assertion of the Bush quote as emphasized by the antithesis, anaphora, and metaphor)?
Have we seen such an argument before?