Monday, October 20, 2008

Performatives redux: Colin Powell

Colin Powell was always one of those Republicans I had some respect for (like McCain used to be, but I digress). Powell seemed to have at least some awareness of the world around him and especially of the importance of diplomacy. Like everyone else, I was disappointed when he went before the UN and, well, lied. When he stepped down in the wake of Bush's re-sort-of-election, I was really angry, because I felt that residual respect and affection for Powell in this country could've swung the election for Kerry if he'd resigned before the election. He wouldn't even have had to make an explicit endorsement--his leaving the ship would've been a sign.

Powell was head of the State Department--the department that relies most on performative language, according to Cook. The Secretary of State and his underlings do their job mainly by making statements. Approval, disapproval, etc. are expressed through the media as well as through direct diplomacy.

Powell, then, knew exactly what he was doing when he took to Meet the Press to make his endorsement of Barack Obama.

He didn't appear on stage with Obama and probably won't (though you know the ad people are working overtime to cut his words into a spot). He sat in a chair, comfortably, and spoke honestly. He didn't invoke race once. He prefaced his statement with both respect for and criticism of John McCain, and especially of the choice of Sarah Palin, and then spoke of Obama as a potentially transformational figure.

And most importantly, he called out the Republican party on scare tactics and fearmongering, on xenophobia and hatred. Powell of all people has tremendous power to make the comments that there's nothing wrong with being Muslim. As a general, as one of the architects of several of our recent wars in the Middle East, he will be accused by no sane person of being a terrorist sympathizer. When he spoke of an American Muslim soldier who died in Iraq, he sounded sincere, unlike McCain's phony invocations of a bracelet from a soldier's mother.

Implicit in those statements was an endorsement of Obama as the better leader on Iraq. He didn't have to say it outright. He invoked Iraq and a fallen soldier in a way that if I didn't know better I'd call a left-wing dogwhistle. I felt for just a second as if Powell had whispered in my ear, "I'm sorry about that, guys. I'm trying to fix it."

Powell's appearance on a news talk show was itself the top headline on the New York Times and the third headline on the Washington Post today. While I'm not going to go into what that says about canned news events and the corporate media here, suffice it to say that once again, we can see that speech is itself a form of action, especially in the executive branch.