I Am the Mouth of Power

Saudi ban on social mediaThis week I saw that the Foreign Minister of Saudia Arabia had objected to international pressure over the treatment of a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, who had criticized his government. Because free ideas scare the living bejesus out of all dictatorships, the Saudi government naturally was not going to tolerate uncontrolled speech. It’s been a while since I wrote about dictator rhetoric, so let’s use some of the comments made in this case to look at a few rhetorical motifs currently popular among the savages in suits and ties around the world (actually, some of them wear military clothing).

  1. We Protect You—That’s Why You’re in Prison

When brutal, vile governments, such as the one in Saudia Arabia, for example, want to justify keeping their claws on power at all costs, they will generally hide their real motives by citing something that sounds noble or commendable, such as public safety. In the Saudi case, the blogger Badawi was charged with “insulting Islam”. The underlying idea behind this rhetorical motif is that social instability may result from criticizing various aspects of the power structure: (1) king/president/current killer in office, (2) the government in general, (3) the one political party that runs the country (we’re looking at you, China), or (4) whichever religion helps keep the government in office (we’re looking at you, Russia).

  1. We Didn’t Kill One of Yours

Continuing with the case of Raif Badawi, the rights organization Amnesty International has collected over a million signatures around the world asking Saudia Arabia to free him. This leads directly to the second common rhetorical motif we can expect from a dictatorship, one that I’ve talked about before. In speaking of this case, the Saudi Foreign Minister said the international criticism was—let’s all say it together—“interference in internal affairs”. This line of “argument” was perfected by the Soviet Union, to the gratitude of all dictatorships ever since. Restated, it goes “As long as we only brutalize people inside this line, no one outside the line can say anything.” Every dictatorship adores this line of reasoning.

  1. Extra Blind Justice

A new rhetorical motif seems to be under development, also illustrated by the Badawi case. Because Badawi was tried and convicted by Saudi courts, sentenced to ten years in prison along with 1,000 (yes, a thousand) lashes with a whip, to be given as 50 each week, the Saudi Foreign Minister went on to say that courts in Saudi Arabia are “absolutely independent” and allowed to impose fair sentences. Oh. Well. Independent. Just like courts in Russia and China and Zimbabwe. I want to personally thank the Foreign Minister for this information. As a corollary here, let’s note the typical cold-blooded cynicism of power, with an unashamed willingness to lie to the audience, regarding them as either stupid or helpless.

  1. Mommy, There’s an American Under My Bed

Is there an undercurrent of angry resentment in your country over corruption? Is your economy falling apart like a sand castle? Who caused these all problems? It’s obvious—America did! This rhetorical motif is not related to the Badawi case, but I throw it in because it’s quite popular, perhaps somewhat new, though it’s actually just a variation on the old (very, very old) idea that “outsiders” are causing the problems. I’m pretty sure even the ancient Romans used this one, though unlike lucky Russia, they had no America to blame for angry slaves. As another example, the incredible incompetent who currently runs Venezuela loves the fact that he can blame America for the chaos in Venezuela as they run toward the edge of the cliff.

Of course if it came down to it, every one of these governments has shown that it can drop the cover-up rhetoric and resort to the old-fashioned “Shut up or we’ll kill every one of you motherfuckers.” But it’s so much more civilized to speak nicely while wrapping your fingers around someone’s throat. This does raise an interesting question, though. Does the fact that dictators feel a need to try to hide their real actions with words mean that they realize what they are doing is evil? Why do they speak this way?

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2 Comments

Filed under Language

2 responses to “I Am the Mouth of Power

  1. Katherine Young

    Oh, David. Every single day I find some use for all that training in rhetorical analysis. And every single day I find some new way to despair….

  2. Then you are in very good company. And, though this is setting a low bar, a knowledge of rhetoric will always be better to you than it was to Seneca the Younger. Then again, he never had to teach a freshman writing course.

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