Bush Is a Liar, Obama Is a Savior: The Rhetoric of Propaganda

Lecturing in a poetry class a few years back, I had occasion to mention the rhetorical device called antonomasia. I was astonished afterward to learn that one of my students had assumed I was referring to a royal personage executed by the Bolsheviks. Now Anastasia is a charming name with loads of popular appeal but its proper sphere of application is chronicle or romance. I patiently explained that, despite the reminiscent ring, antonomasia is not the name of a Romanov princess or, for that matter, of a famous international dating service, specializing in mail-order brides (“the fastest way to reach thousands of Russian ladies”). It is a persuasive rhetorical trope which can be manipulated in a number of different ways, most pertinently as the use of a personal name to indicate a common noun or express a general idea. Typical examples are “Solon” for “wise legislator” (or “wisdom”) and “Hitler” for “evil despot” (or “pure evil” itself).

True, Cervantes gave the name “Antonomasia” to a fictional princess in Don Quixote. But in fact he intended the word in its literal acceptation, applying “Antonomasia” antonomastically to stand for the nature of contemporary poetry -- something the confused sophomore might have cited to rescue his dignity. In any event, this rather pixilated episode got me to wondering about the influence of antonomasia in everyday verbal transactions and especially in political discourse, since the latter is where it is used most cogently. Its effect can be so subtle that, if we are not alert to the force of enchantment it exerts, it can prevent us from thinking clearly. It can, when all is said and done, seduce no less compellingly than a blond Russian girl.

A little attention should reveal that when it comes to the discussion of current political issues, there is a kind of robotic reaction at work among many intelligent and well-meaning people, as if it were based in the autonomic nervous system or the solar plexus and not in the centers of thought. It hinges not on reasoning but on desire. To take a resonant example, the name “Bush” was (and is) met by a chain of verbal and emotional equivalents: “liar,” “moron,” “oil baron,” “imperialist,” swathed in a penumbra of knowing contempt. Each term of abuse triggered by the name is then made to stand for the United States itself.

The corollary was that if Bush were only chased from office, the antonomastic link would be broken and the United States would no longer be the country that it was, or was understood to be. The fact that President Clinton’s inactivity and not President Bush’s putative warmongering did much to bring the present conflictual situation upon us is conveniently dismissed from consideration. And the possibility that the United States under Bush was at least to some extent justified in its chosen course of action is, obviously, a complete non-starter.

The reverse operation is equally effective. Utter the name “Obama” and a host of surrogate terms leap to mind -- “savior,” “new man,” “peacemaker,” “The One,” or, in the words of Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, no less than a “sort of god” -- which are immediately reified as undoubted facts. Despite Obama’s recent, self-inflicted troubles and the crisis of confidence in which he is increasingly embroiled, he is still regarded by the MSM, the liberal-left, the Oslo peaceniks, and approximately half the American electorate as sacrosanct, as “good,” “honest,” “reliable,” “noble.” Like spellbound children following the Pied Piper, the epithets cling to the name. They are then associated in swift antonomastic transfer with a newborn, a “different,” America.

There is no awareness among the true believers -- and especially among the myrmidons of the left -- that they have been deluded by nomenclature, by the semiotic condensation of amorphous ideas and obscure but powerful feelings. As in the first case where a process of reevaluation is all but proscribed, so in the second skepticism is ruled out of court by all but the unconverted. In the current jargon, one could say that antonomasia, whether deployed negatively or positively, runs the signifier into the signified, rendering them indistinguishable from one another. Alternatively, the appellative word and the denominated thing have merged in a passion of similitudes.

In the same way, prior to his disengagement policy and his medical collapse, all one had to do was mention the name of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the automated analogies instantly crowded the emotional field on which the debate was pursued: “political dinosaur,” “Likud hawk,” “war criminal.” Each term of abuse stood for Israel itself, supplemented by others like “Zionist entity” or “military occupier” springing from the inboard thesaurus of ideologically motivated synonyms.

The corollary was that if Sharon were only cashiered or even assassinated and his place taken by a Labor dove, Israel might be welcomed or at least tolerated in the family of nations. The very real likelihood that previous Labor governments, by their tactic of appeasement and their naive belief in the credibility and good faith of the Palestinian negotiators, merely exacerbated the current situation in the Middle East is an inadmissible argument.