Monday, November 03, 2008

Commander in Chief

In a democracy, the army is ultimately accountable to the people. In America this principle is embedded not only in the US Constitution, but also in the formation of West Point (the military academy), as Simon Schama explains in his latest book-cum-TV-documentary "The American Future". [Reviews: Spectator, Sunday Times, Telegraph, The Scotsman]

So when American civilians refer to the president as "our commander in chief", what they really mean is THE commander in chief of OUR army, commanding the military might of America on behalf of the American people.

Or do they?

Glen Greenwald calls this The single worst expression in American politics and points to an article by Gary Wills (At Ease Mr President) as well as an earlier item of his own (Public Servant v Military Commander). See also Digby on the Divine Right of Republicans.

There are many clumsy and inaccurate expressions in political life, so what makes this one particularly bad? Wills and Greenwald point to the Orwellian effects of this expression.
"The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. ... The glorification of the president as a war leader is registered in numerous and substantial executive aggrandizements; but it is symbolized in other ways that, while small in themselves, dispose the citizenry to accept those aggrandizements." [Wills]

"President Bush's supporters are fond of referring to him as the "commander in chief" -- typically to insinuate that he should be beyond criticism or that his authority cannot be questioned." [Greenwald]

"The more the President is glorified and elevated (he's not merely a public servant or a political official, but "our Commander in Chief"), the more natural it is to believe that he should have the power to do what he wants without anyone interfering or questioning." [Greenwald]
Thus there is a strong suspicion that people are choosing to use this inaccurate expression because they welcome these effects, making this an interesting and important example of the political effect of language. Now Joe Biden is also embracing what Jonathan Schwartz calls "this creepy tradition". Is this an ominous hint at the authoritarian intentions of a future Democratic administration?

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