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Words in a Time of War: Department of Rhetoric Commencement

Commencement address given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, published by Tomdispatch.com

The Rhetoric-Major President

By Scott Horton

We're at peak commencement season right now, and so far we've paused in this column to note several speeches by administration figures — Cheney's disgraceful speech at West Point, Gates's noble address to the midshipmen in Annapolis. But from all the texts I have seen, one commencement address really stands out for its immediacy and importance. It was delivered a few days ago by a former Harper's writer, Mark Danner, at the University of California in Berkeley, and it's called "Words in a Time of War." Danner labels President Bush as the first "Rhetoric-Major President," and he deconstructs the Bush presidency's use of cheap political rhetoric to obscure reality. Here's a snippet, in which Danner reflects on the same fairly obscure (but very consequential) document on which I will have some words to say in the upcoming July issue of Harper's:

It was the assumption of this so-called preponderance that lay behind the philosophy of power enunciated by Bush's Brain and that led to an attitude toward international law and alliances that is, in my view, quite unprecedented in American history. That radical attitude is brilliantly encapsulated in a single sentence drawn from the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2003: "Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism." Let me repeat that little troika of "weapons of the weak": international fora (meaning the United Nations and like institutions), judicial processes (meaning courts, domestic and international), and…. terrorism. This strange gathering, put forward by the government of the United States, stems from the idea that power is, in fact, everything. In such a world, courts - indeed, law itself - can only limit the power of the most powerful state. Wielding preponderant power, what need has it for law? The latter must be, by definition, a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state, after all, makes reality.

Now, of course, the Bush rhetoric is imploding all about him, pointing to the risk a politician takes when he pursues inflammatory rhetoric dangerously at odds with reality. Bush believed that his words and America's military power had the power to craft a new reality, but in this he was like the sorcerer's apprentice of that famous poem by Goethe, who has now unleashed forces he cannot control ("Die ich rief, die Geister,/Werd ich nun nicht los.")

Danner's remarks appear today in an abbreviated form in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times but it's best to read the whole text—crafted as a commencement address to the Rhetoric Department, but its proper audience is our entire nation.

May 10, 2007

Reporting on Iraq, Living in Terror

Carolin Emcke and Mark Danner in conversation; the PEN World Voices Festival 2007; Bowery Ballroom, New York City

April 28, 2007

Dirty Wars: Readings Against Torture, Arbitrary Detention, Kidnapping, and Rendition

The PEN World Voices Festival, Joe's Pub, New York; readings by Mark Danner, Nadine Gordimer, Breyten Bretenbach, Francine Prose, Rose Styron, and others

Tags: PEN | Torture | Readings

April 26, 2007

The Making of Quagmire: Iraq and the War on Terror

A lecture by Mark Danner at Ostrander Auditorium, Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN

April 25, 2007

Remembering David Halberstam

Mark Danner, Orville Schell, and Sandy Tolan remember a last evening with David Halberstam (April 10, 1934 - April 23, 2007) "Open Source" radio program with Christopher Lydon, PRI.

April 25, 2007

Living with Literature: From Reading The Iliad to Covering Iraq

Mark Danner interviewed by Muriel "Aggie" Murch, "Living with Literature" radio program, KWMR 90.5 FM, Point Reyes, CA.

April 20, 2007

Remembering Susan Sontag

An evening with Wendy Lesser, Robert Hass, Mark Danner, Steve Wasserman, Steven Barclay, and Sydney Goldstein; The Herbst Theater, San Francisco, CA. (remarks by Mark Danner)

February 12, 2007

Into the Light of Day: Torture, Human Rights, and the War on Terror

Lecture by Mark Danner, the Critical Issues in America Lecture Series, the University of California, Santa Barbara

January 18, 2007

Iraq's Third Act

Mark Danner and John Mearsheimer interviewed by Christopher Lydon, "Open Source" radio program, PRI

Tags: Iraq | Interviews

December 06, 2006

Bush in Winter: Democracy, the Elections, and Bush's Iraq War

Public lecture by Mark Danner at the American University in Cairo, AUC Oriental Hall, Cairo, Egypt

December 05, 2006

Iraq: The War of the Imagination

Mark Danner interviewed by Ian Masters, "Background Briefing" radio program, KPFK 90.7 FM, Los Angeles

November 26, 2006

Into the Light of Day: Torture, Human Rights, and the New State of Exception

Lecture by Mark Danner at the Salt Lake City Public Library Auditorium, hosted by the University of Utah College of Humanities

November 16, 2006

The Politics of the Forever War: Terror, Rights, and George Bush's State of Exception

The 2006 Remarque Lecture by Mark Danner, the Remarque Institute, New York University

November 14, 2006

America at War: Iraq, Al Qaeda and the Politics of Terror

Mark Danner and Lawrence Wright in conversation; "Litquake" literary festival, the Swedish American Hall, San Francisco, California

October 11, 2006

Consequences of the War on Terrorism

A discussion with George Soros, Mark Danner, Dana Priest, Lowell Bergman, and Christopher Edley, moderated by Orville Schell. Zellerbach Auditorium, the University of California, Berkeley.

September 19, 2006

The Media and the Iraq War

A discussion with Anna Politkovskaya, Hendrik Hertzberg, Steven Poole, and Mark Danner; moderated by Wendy Bacon; the Sydney Writer's Festival, Sydney Theatre, Sydney, Australia

May 25, 2006

Humanism and Terror (What Are You Going to Do With That?)

A Commencement Address at the University of California-Berkeley Department of English Graduation Ceremony, Hearst Greek Theater

May 15, 2006

Writing About a War Without End

Mark Danner interviewed by the Rev. Alan Jones, "The Forum" at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA

May 07, 2006

The Reality and Legacy of the Iraq War (And Will Iran Be Next?)

Lecture by Mark Danner, with an introduction by Peter Tarnoff, Sibley Hall, the University of California, Berkeley

May 01, 2006

The Secret Way to War

Mark Danner interviewed by Michael Krasny about "The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History", KQED Forum, San Francisco

May 01, 2006

The Iraq War: Where Do We Go From Here?

Panel discussion, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books; Scott Ritter, Mark Danner, John Arquilla, and Robert Scheer, moderated by Marjorie Miller

April 30, 2006

The Age of Frozen Scandal: Power and the Press After 9/11

Lecture by Mark Danner at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon

April 27, 2006

Human Rights in a Dark Time: From Salvador to Iraq and the War on Terror

Lecture by Mark Danner at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon

April 26, 2006

The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History

Book-talk at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, California

April 20, 2006

Czeslaw Milosz: A Tribute

A San Francisco Public Library Event, featuring Robert Hass, Mark Danner, Robert Faggen, Jane Hirshfield, Brenda Hillman, Michael Palmer, Anthony Milosz, Lillian Vallee, et al.

April 02, 2006

The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz

Mark Danner and Lillian Vallee in discussion with Michael Krasny, KQED
Forum, San Francisco, CA

March 30, 2006

You Can Do Anything with a Bayonet Except Sit on It

Iraq, Torture, and Bush's State of Exception: Mark Danner interviewed by Tom Engelhardt for Tomdispatch.com

February 26, 2006

Into the Light of Day: Torture, Rights, and Bush's State of Exception

Mark Danner delivers the 2006 Dewitt Higgs Memorial Lecture, the University of Californa, San Diego.

Tags:

February 15, 2006

Into the Light of Day: Torture, Human Rights, and Bush's State of Exception

Lecture by Mark Danner; Jeremy Waldron and Scott Horton, respondents; "Theology, International Law, and Torture" Conference, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

January 13, 2006

The Future of Iraq

Mark Danner and George Packer at the University of Washington Student Union, Seattle, the New Yorker College Tour

November 16, 2005




© 2017 Mark Danner