Everyday Devil Talk

"Lady Liberty Cracked" (2001). Oil on canvas by Julio Aguilera.

“Lady Liberty Cracked” (2001). Oil on canvas by Julio Aguilera.

An eye-catching headline about dueling public figures got me thinking about how everyday language reflects and rehearses the attitudes on which the war state thrives.  Our domestic habits of communication, including talk by and about political opponents, carry over into our perception of foreign enemies. The headlined dispute between Charles Koch and Harry Reid illustrates how we engage in devil talk to make antinomies.

Antinomy defined:    “a fundamental and apparently unresolvable conflict or contradiction (antimonies of beauty and evil, freedom and slavery—Steven Holden).”  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10 ed.

This definition alludes to antinomy as a problem of language related to the construction of social and political realities, or what Joshua Gunn calls a “productive mistake” (Modern Occult Rhetoric, p. 49).  The perception of irresolvable conflicts is produced and sustained by rhetorical rituals.

Koch is a billionaire political activist and self-identified libertarian who supports the Tea Party.  Harry Reid is a Senator from Nevada and the elected leader of the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.  Both men are more complex than that, but selective attributes are typically featured in news stories to instill a kernel of conflict.

The conflict between Koch and Reid reduces to the following:

Reid calls Koch “un-American” because he is a “dishonest” and “shadowy billionaire” who spends “millions of dollars to rig our political system” (February 27, 2014; April 3, 2014).

Koch says he is being attacked by “collectivists” who engage in “character assassination” to stifle “free debate” and promote “government control” of the means of production and the lives of people.  He stands instead for returning to a “free society” (April 2, 2014).

The constructed antinomy is between governance and freedom, as if these two principles totally contradict one another, cannot coexist, and don’t intermingle.  One is the devil to the other.  In Koch’s stark contrast, “Collectivists promise heaven . . . but deliver hell . . . Love of liberty is the American ideal.”

The rhetorical procedure for reducing each party’s position to caricature involves three linked processes.  The first, let’s call it idealization, involves selecting an ideal term such as “freedom” or “liberty” as the essence of one’s position.  The second, let’s call it displacement, entails expunging impurities from the principled term by redirecting them into an opposite term.  Everything that is not pure freedom is deemed to be corrupt collectivism.  The third process, let’s call it synthesis of the purities, is to elaborate and organize the whole of one’s stance—including all of its supporting rationale and imagery—around the resulting dichotomy, in this example, between freedom and big government.

In Reid’s case, the rhetorical procedure of idealization, displacement, and synthesis results in the antimony of open governance versus un-American wielding of personal financial power.

We ritually engage in this procedure to construct opposites, which erase the shadings of grey that mark the complexities of life, politics, and international relations.  Antinomies are oversimplifications.  They contort human relations.  Without benefit of trickster’s intervention, they conjure up mythic wars between good and evil.



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