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The Freedom to Follow

By Robert Parry
January 21, 2005

What some Americans may have found annoying about George W. Bush’s second Inaugural Address was his use of a rhetorical device in which he stated obvious truisms about “freedom” with the suggestion that opponents of his policies – from invading Iraq to privatizing Social Security – must be people who hate freedom.

Bush has used this rhetorical technique before, as in Campaign 2002 when he created the impression that Senate Democrats who objected to Bush’s version of a Homeland Security bill were “not interested in the security of the American people.”

Though employed more subtly in his second Inaugural, the rhetorical device was back as Bush mixed together platitudes about “freedom” with oblique references to both his foreign and domestic policies.

The presidential message seemed to be that Americans who complain about his defiance of international law in Iraq, his assertion of near-unlimited presidential powers in the War on Terror or his plan to revamp the Social Security system by shifting it toward individual retirement accounts are not just Bush opponents but opponents of freedom.

So on foreign policy, Bush told Americans that “rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators,” as if there are legions of people out there who would think otherwise. “In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty,” Bush said. Take that, those who think justice can exist without freedom and that human rights can exist without human liberty.

Bush used the banalities, in effect, to set up a straw man of opposition, as if anyone who didn’t agree with his unilateralist foreign policy was both dishonest and craven. Bush said, for instance, “America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”

Again, Bush is juxtaposing himself as the brave leader who stands up for truth against his imaginary opponents who supposedly want to pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains or that women welcome humiliation or that human beings aspire to be bullied.

When Bush wasn’t creating these lopsided debates, he often slipped into junior-high-school-style rhetoric about freedom: “As hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well as a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”

But Bush wasn’t done with his pedantic lecture. “Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self,” Bush said. “Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before, ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

And on he went: “In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love.”

Idealism?

Though TV pundits and newspaper columnists quickly praised Bush’s address for its lofty tone and supposed idealism, many Americans surely were wondering why Bush was subjecting them to this strange lecture.

At one level, Bush may have simply wanted to wrap his controversial policies – that have included tolerance of torture and denial of due process to American citizens he dubs “enemy combatants” – in the cloak of “freedom.”

But other Americans may have felt that Bush was trying to maneuver them rhetorically into positions where their criticism of him could be demonized. Just as Democratic senators – such as triple-war-amputee Sen. Max Cleland – became politicians who were “not interested in the security of the American people” in 2002, now Americans who refuse to follow Bush can be labeled enemies of “freedom.”

Indeed, the most troubling subtext tucked inside Bush’s paean to “freedom” may have been that the ultimate freedom for Americans today is their freedom to follow him.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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