Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

To Make a Desert and Call It Peace: Stasis and Judgment in the MX Missile Debate

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

To Make a Desert and Call It Peace: Stasis and Judgment in the MX Missile Debate

Article excerpt

It is difficult for contemporary readers to imagine the earnestness with which seemingly minor military technical disputes were debated during the Cold War. With the ever-present threat of nuclear war-real or imagined-hanging over the heads of policymakers and ordinary citizens alike, every military deployment decision seemed to be infused with great importance as the fate of the human race itself hung in the balance. The fear of a Soviet nuclear first strike was commonly deployed in American defense debates, beginning almost as soon as the USSR tested its first nuclear weapon. More aggressive defense partisans tended to stress the fear of "vulnerability" while weapon systems opponents tended to warn of the risks of "provocation" incurred by too threatening an American defense posture. The debate over the MX ("Peacekeeper") missile is instructive because it involved both concerns and revealed their common roots. The vulnerability and provocation arguments did not stem from mutually exclusive underlying values. Rather, they both evolved from a shared topos--"national security," motivated by fear. The two sides of the MX missile debate were forged through their encounter with one another, defined by stasis rather than defining it.

Apart from our interest in the Reagan administration's justification for the MX program from an argument-level standpoint, the President's report on the topic is significant from a theoretical perspective in that it challenges an understanding of public deliberation that relies on an assumption of the fairly static nature of argumentative clash. Because Congress was both a stakeholder and ultimately the judge of this debate in that it had to authorize the MX program, this study problematizes a tripartite division of public debate constituted of two competitors and a separate judge. The rhetorical construction and presentation of arguments in the tripartite model conceives of a unidirectionality in the rhetorical act, from the stakeholders to the judge, with the former attempting to persuade the latter. Instead, the Congressional decision to approve the program demonstrates a necessary recursivity between the two parties, where the Reagan administration and Congress both acted as stakeholders, but Congress also arranged and invented a decision in its capacity as the agent of judgment. Demonstrating that the rhetoricity inherent in the public debate over the MX program stems from both the stakeholders and the adjudicating body is significant in that it alters what we normally perceive as the preconditions for public debate. Instead of establishing the materially relevant facts of the issue at hand in order to provide a point of stasis for formulating competing positions to facilitate argumentative clash, in this case weighing questions of national security against the goal of nuclear disarmament, the decision rendered by the Congress responds to justifications from both positions to formulate its policy. The strategic maneuver deployed in the MX report thus provides insight into the way stasis points are established in public debates by challenging the understanding that they are determined in advance of, and therefore become the precondition for, public debate. Throughout the course of an argument, a competing mass of issues and values arise. Debates are not organized around preexisting points of stasis but rather such a point is established retroactively by the agent of judgment ratifying a point of contact as if this point of stasis had organized the debate all along.

This article proceeds in five sections: First we outline the parameters of the debate over the MX missile. Second, we explore the justifications given by the Reagan administration for pressuring Congress to fund the program. We focus specifically on the "bargaining chip" argument deployed in the administration's report, highlighting how it troubles Aristotelean conceptions of stasis. The goal of the third section follows in two parts: first, we provide a survey of stasis theory from Hermogenes to Aristotle and highlight its inability to account for the way stasis was constructed in the MX debate. …

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