Disaster is always interesting to scholars, not least because serious mistakes always demand explanation and, if nothing else, research can lay some claims to being able to provide such explanations. Indeed, the troubled history of the American military intervention in Iraq has already generated a vast body of journalistic, scholarly, and popular literature purporting to provide explanations and analysis of how we got into this war, how it has been prosecuted, and whether we ought to remain actively engaged in it or seek an end to our involvement.
This article contributes to the large and growing body of literature on the intervention in Iraq by examining the role the ideograph
By strategically wielding
What is particularly troubling is Bush's definition of what
This argument proceeds in four parts. First, we review the theories of ideographs, with specific attention to the connection between ideographs and our national democratic myths. Second, we make a brief case for
Ideographs and the Myths of American Democracy
Ideographs are culturally bound summary phrases that capture important ideological associations. They are high-order abstractions that function as attempts to unify a diverse audience around a vaguely shared set of meanings. This vagueness allows for meaning to be adapted to fit time, circumstance, and rhetorical exigency, although they are not entirely flexible and do require the creation and maintenance of cultural consensus (McGee 1975, 1978, 1980).
Ideographs are not the only important element of our shared rhetorical culture. Metaphor and narrative, for instance, are also crucial in the creation and transmission of shared meaning,
but it is the ideograph that seems to be the most resistant to change. Whereas other components of the public vocabulary tend to disappear from view once their meaning calcifies, ideographs rarely disappear, even though their meanings and usages change. Accordingly, ideographs provide an element of the public vocabulary that is central to the definition of the life of the community, and which maintains a discursive constant that allows us to observe the social and political movement of the community across time. (Condit and Lucaites 1993, xiv-xv)
That is, ideographs such as
Ideographs, then, are terms that are ordinarily found in common language but tend to resist change--
Because of the ordinariness and variability of ideographs, they are useful windows into the motives of rhetors. Michael McGee, for instance, calls ideographs "figure[s] of thought" (2001, 378), which reveal how rhetors choose to frame any given debate. By examining the context and specific use of an ideograph, it is possible to reason backward to the motive of the speaker. James Jasinki notes that "ideographs constitute a structure of 'public motives'; they are the terms we use to impart values, justify decisions, motivate behavior, and debate policy initiatives" (2001, 309). In this, they act similarly to Richard Weaver's and Kenneth Burke's "god terms." The vocabulary of politics may be limited--there are only so many foundational values to draw upon--but rhetors can use this vocabulary for very different purposes.
Ideographs are thus tools of both consistency ("We have always been dedicated to the cause of freedom") and change ("therefore we must initiate this new action"). They can be used to promote reactionary, conservative, liberal, or progressive causes, depending upon the context and the goals of the speaker. Therefore, ideographs can tell us a great deal about the rhetorical culture at any given moment and about the myths animating that culture. The reasonableness of a given term's usage is an important standard by which the effective use of an ideograph can be measured. For example, that usage can lead to policy change as well as serve as an important means of social control. McGee says, "Because they are rhetorical determinants, ideographs are not revolution friendly. They support political, social, and cultural stability by constituting the lines outside of which politicians rarely color" (2001, 380). Thus, ideographs are constrained by a certain level of narrative rationality (Fisher 1984).
Ideographs must, then, work in concert with other rhetorical terms, gaining their specific power at any one time through the wealth of associations created, which work both in a single moment and over time (Condit and Lucaites 1993). They are thus clearly connected to myth, because myths are the narratives that rely on these associations, and ideographs are the individual elements that can have ideological power because of their ability to call upon and occasionally substitute for those myths. The frontier myth, for instance, which resonates through centuries of American history, implicates specific ideographs, such as
It is important to note that audience reactions to ideographs are not "rigidly determined" (Wright 2001). Instead, ideographs work to "exert social control by shaping political consciousness" (Jasinski 2001, 309). That is, the meanings of ideographs are negotiated, and audiences and speakers must share some sense of the meaning of an ideograph for it to function persuasively. Ideographs work best when they are unnoticed--when their use seems so natural and so inevitable that the response is not so much persuasion as recognition, an identification that is persuasion--audiences do not need to be convinced because they are already interpellated into the narrative itself. The meaning of the ideographic narrative is so "obvious" that it can pass unremarked (Charland 1987). It is important to remember, however, that this meaning is not static. It will change over time and across audiences. American conservatives, for instance, have a complicated relationship with
Consequently, communities of meaning are created through the development of shared agreement on the meaning(s) of ideographs at any given point in time. Ideographs are always therefore culture bound. As Condit and Lucaites note, "To participate in a rhetorical culture one must pay allegiance to its ideographs, employing them in ways that audiences can judge to be reasonable" (1993, xiii). Ideographs do not create automatic reactions in audiences. They must resonate with how those audiences understand the political world and must seem to be deployed in a reasonable way to be recognizable and thus persuasive.
One reason ideographs are effective is that they cannot be empirically verified; …