I’m a sucker for good rhetoric and hot damn is it chock full of it. So full of it that I’m going to pull it apart just to point at the pretty bits and nit-pick some. If you don’t care – and if you’re interested writing, or politics, or rhetoric then I think you might – go ahead and skip this. There will be pretty pictures of food tomorrow.
I’m going to quote the whole speech here, in chunks, with commentary interspersed. I’m lifting the transcript from here.
Well, for the last several days, President Obama and his entire national security team have been reviewing the situation in Syria. And today, I want to provide an update on our efforts as we consider our response to the use of chemical weapons.
I like the Well…And construction going on here. It’s a little casual without being dismissive. We’re throwing down a bit of context, then diving right into the point. It’s not a particularly graceful opening. It certainly isn’t dramatic. But it’s approachable and it’s direct. Given what follows, it serves.
What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality.
And here we launch the first of our dramatic punches for the speech. We’ve dropped “conscience” and “morality” into the field. Watch these words; they’re thematic. It also takes an extreme, uncompromising stance while staking that ground as the ground of the just and the good. These two sentences are the foundation of the speech.
Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.
This was the line that caught my ear originally and had me wanting to respond to the speech. I’m really, really tired of the victimization of women in particular being a marked thing. Women are not equivalent to children. Violence against women is not the moral equivalent of violence against children. Not in the world I’ve decided I live in. Women have the same agency, responsibility, and consequent risk in day to day life as men. This speech would have been much better if instead it were “the killing of children and innocent bystanders.” Dropping women in there is a cheap rhetorical punch resting on the foundations of cultural baggage which is easily invoked, but not significantly more powerful than the alternative of saying what you actually mean, i.e. people who do not deserve to be victims are being victimized.
By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable.
The meaning of this attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself, and that conflict has already brought so much terrible suffering. This is about the large-scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all, a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else.
There’s some fantastic us vs them and othering going on here. ”Civilized world” indeed. This is a thematic throwback to the earlier invocation of morality, and draws a fantastically clear line in the sand. Now it’s not just a vague good people vs bad people, but there’s imagery attached. We’re playing off the fact that all most Americans know about Syria is that it’s in the Middle East, and therefore functionally third world (except for the very rich people who jack up our oil prices). He doesn’t have to say it, it’s lurking lusciously in the subtext – there are barbarians at the gates. Even the Russians have to agree with the sentiment, the last line there says.
There is a clear reason that the world has banned entirely the use of chemical weapons. There is a reason the international community has set a clear standard and why many countries have taken major steps to eradicate these weapons. There is a reason why President Obama has made it such a priority to stop the proliferation of these weapons and lock them down where they do exist. There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.
And there is a reason why, no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.
I’m partial to constructions that use repetition to built to a point, and this is a well executed example of that technique. A lot of ground gets developed here. We invoke “international community” to underline and support the us vs them “civilized world” imagery carved out earlier. We use that foundation to point at “us” as having a strong leader in a morally unassailable position. And we end on a fabulously disingenuous ”we all agree the perpetrators must be punished.” Disingenuous because after building up the just now explicitly stated chemical weapons as unquestionably reprehensible, it handwaves past the “there are allegedly rational parties who disagree with us about the facts of the situation,” to assert an unassailable truth, that the people who did the very bad thing must be punished.
There are two audiences for this speech: the American people who couldn’t really care less about some people in a country they know nothing about having some fatal breathing problems, and the international community, significant chunks of whom are looking at American’s pointing at the Middle East and shrieking, “Bad weapons, must war!” and feeling deja vu. This is the first part of the speech that seems to explicitly acknowledge the second audience. The disagreements are gently referenced earlier, but this is a rhetorical somersault done to say, basically, that even if you don’t agree with us you have to be on our side because the facts of crime and criminal are indisputable. We’ll figure out where the apply to labels of those facts later.
Last night, after speaking with foreign ministers from around the world
“I’m coalition building.”
about the gravity of this situation, I went back and I watched the videos, the videos that anybody can watch in the social media, and I watched them one more gut-wrenching time.
This is transparent and if you want to see the evidence that I’m right, go check out your friendly youtube. Unlike the last time we were asking the world for a war in the Middle East when we just claimed, “Intelligence,” and told you to trust us. Also, I am a moral and upright figure because I have deep emotional responses to the horrible things I’m responding to. There’s a lot to unpack in the fact that Kerry can use that rhetorical technique – not everybody can without damaging their own credibility instead.
It is really hard to express in words the human suffering that they lay out before us.
As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing, while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget.
I don’t see a woman in his position using this technique at all. For one, since women are supposed to be protective of children, a woman’s response to this doesn’t carry the same weight as that of a presumably more objective man. And on the second hand, she’d be inviting accusations that she’s letting her woman-ness lead her to an emotional response and invite the question of whether she’s overreacting or jumping to conclusions. Yet, this is an extremely powerful bit of rhetoric. It might be a net advantage even with the baggage of a female speaker, but that baggage is definitely something to think about. You might have to completely reconstruct the speech to make it work without resting on this bit of imagery.
Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass. What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.
This was where I completely lost it decided that I definitely had to dissect the speech. Because this is such empty, crass, manipulative rhetoric that even though I’m inclined to agree with Kerry on the facts of the situation, it made me question whether I should. (I’m a contrarian. The best way to get me to change my mind is have somebody I don’t like agree with me) But seriously. He just said that this is so bad that any explanation of the facts not his is morally reprehensible. No facts. No evidence. Just a, “How can you question my interpretation now that I’ve pointed out that there are barbarians and bad things? Barbarians and bad things go together, duh.” It’s an assertion that he’s right because the stakes are too high for him to be wrong. It’s a demand for faith. It’s icky, and it diminishes his entire case.
So I also want to underscore that while investigators are gathering additional evidence on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience, and guided by common sense.
And here I start breaking out in hives a bit. We breeze right past an admission that there are still facts to be gathered, and then cite conscience and common sense as the source of our certainty. It’s rhetorically gorgeous, and substantively equivalent to Bush’s “gut” feelings.
The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Moreover, we know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place. And with our own eyes, we have all of us become witnesses.
And this is where he starts making me feel better. We cite actual sources of evidence. We cite means and motive for the people we’re accusing. And we wrap it up with a reaffirmation of the “us” built earlier, and an assertion of responsibility. We’re not just “us” but involved, because we’ve seen what “them” did.
We have additional information about this attack, and that information is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead. Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up.
I always treat “more facts coming later,” from anything too large for me to offend it with a spitball as something I’ll believe when I see because, as rhetoric, it’s tact fantastic for getting your buy-in before it’s been earned. The second sentence is just more affirmation of the rhetorical imagery we’ve already established. Though as a cynic, I’d argue that the attempt to cover it up was more optimistic than cynical – it was such a futile effort that much cleverer misdirection or a serious hope about the incompetence of the third parties nearby has to be driving it.
At every turn, the Syrian regime has failed to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, using it only to stall and to stymie the important effort to bring to light what happened in Damascus in the dead of night. And as Ban Ki-moon said last week, the U.N. investigation will not determine who used these chemical weapons, only whether such weapons were used, a judgment that is already clear to the world.
Maybe it’s the fledgling dictator buried not so deep inside me, but I’d probably refuse to cooperate with a U.N. investigation, too. That makes it hard for me to look at refusals to cooperate as signs of bad behavior. This paragraph winds up boiling down to a nice dig at the U.N. and not much else. It’s a preliminary thrust toward justifying action without U.N. approval.
I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem, and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate, immediate transparency, immediate access, not shelling. Their response needed to be unrestricted and immediate access. Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.
Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systemically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide. That is not the action of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons.
In fact, the regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible. Today’s reports of an attack on the U.N. investigators — together with the continued shelling of these very neighborhoods — only further weakens the regime’s credibility.
Again, we get into dropping reassuring facts after staking out rhetorical ground that leaves me skeptical. We’re also establishing the “Hey, we tried to work with them, but they just wouldn’t,” defense while undermining Syria’s potential attempts to do the same.
At President Obama’s direction, I’ve spent many hours over the last few days on the phone with foreign ministers and other leaders. The administration is actively consulting with members of Congress, and we will continue to have these conversations in the days ahead. President Obama has also been in close touch with leaders of our key allies, and the president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.
Look out, we’re coalition building.
But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.
We don’t know what we’re doing yet, but we’re definitely doing something, and it’s definitely not going to be weak, so watch out. Also, we’re shining knights against unquestionably bad people.
No, thank you. I don’t often stop in my tracks while cooking dinner to make a note that rhetoric was worth commentating upon. I need more good rhetoric in my life.