There've been a variety of reports over the past few days about violence against Democratic members of Congress, particularly those who played a prominent role in the health care debate. It seems indisputable that some believe this new law poses such a threat to the American Way (whatever that may be) that only violence can restore the balance.
Which would not surprise Kenneth Burke--or a good number of other rhetorical theorists for that matter. Begin with order--the American Way, a liberal democracy. The tension between those terms--liberal, democracy--often erupts into open conflict as we try to figure out what it means to value the individual even in a nation where the majority rules. How do we assert individual self in communal life?
So, when we debate issues and make political choices, we inevitably alter, change, violate the values that we previously held dear. Sometimes we're liberal, other times we're communal. In the process of such change, Order, in the view of some, is stained, disrupted, exploded. The King of England is not our benevolent father; he is an oppressive tyrant. Violations of order require expiation; in an adaptation of religious discourses, we confess our sins and renew our (political) covenants. Order. Sin. Redemption.
Yet options exists even here and we've traditionally named them through the two major poetic genres: Comedy and Tragedy.
Comedy assumes mistakes. American public debate and political campaigns have generally assumed a comic frame. Opponents are not evil; they are in error. Mistaken, silly, material for laughter, fodder for Jon Stewart or Will Rogers. Once error is established, the mistaken are brought back into a renewed social order. We redeem ourselves by, in effect, laughing at our errors. Prohibition. Really. We thought that would work?! Raise a glass to prohibition!
Tragedy assumes sin. Opponents are not in error; they are evil. The tragic frame demands an eye for an eye, a death for a sin; Oedipus literally puts out his eyes. If the covenant is to be renewed, if we are again to become a great nation, we must kill, purge, drive the sinners from the social order. We exile Tories, supporters of the King, confiscate their property, drive them from their homes, and kill them. There's a reason it was called a "revolution."
Which is the problem with rhetoric that identifies health care reformers as babykillers, a congressional debate as Armageddon, legislators as targets, a social order based solely on a division between good and evil, and the Obama Administration as a usurpation, a socialist, un-American revolution. When leaders talk and act in this way for long periods of time, their constituents might well lose track of the idea that "Armageddon" is, in fact, a metaphor. Primed by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, they know what to do when the anti-Christ arrives. And it's not a comedy.
This is about public policy, people. It's about hits, runs, and errors, successes and failures. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt may have proclaimed that he stood at Armageddon and battled for the Lord, but the world didn't end with Woodrow Wilson's election. We're still here. We're still going to be here. So. Lighten up, Frances.