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  • E Pluribus Unum, Ex Uno PluraLegislating and Deregulating American Studies Post-9/11
  • Sophia A. McClennen (bio)

it will take you and your leadersforever    and foreverand forever        it will take you foreverto learn the word for peace

—Ariel Dorfman

The administration of George W. Bush presents one of the most extreme examples of linguistic manipulation at the service of acquiring power in U.S. history. To cite merely a few of the most common tactics, the administration blatantly misrepresents, lies, obfuscates, names, renames, refuses to name, censors, and silences (Corn 2003; Berlant 2005). Take, for [End Page 155] example, the Abu Ghraib photo scandal, which demonstrated how the administration has avoided words, resemanticized words, and renamed places in a strategic effort to use language to preserve and expand social control. Responding to the administration’s deployment of linguistic exploitation, Susan Sontag wrote: “Words alter, words add, words subtract. . . . To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib—and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay—by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide” (2004, 25). Sontag highlighted Donald Rumsfeld’s evasion of the word “torture,” but the refusal to link word and deed was not the only linguistic strategy used by the White House. Shortly after the photos of torture were publicly circulating, Rumsfeld took a trip to Abu Ghraib. While there, he told soldiers “I am a survivor” in response to calls for his resignation (Poole and Russell 2004). If Rumsfeld was a survivor, then what were the torture victims? What linguistic conditions made it possible to call Rumsfeld a “survivor” while denying the existence of the tortured prisoners? Consequently, not only did the administration refuse to name the torture as “torture,” they also artfully began to reappropriate words that might have been used to describe the conditions at Abu Ghraib. Then the administration used another of its well-worn linguistic games: they renamed. While Rumsfeld was visiting the prison, a new complex on the Abu Ghraib grounds was christened “Camp Redemption” (Poole and Russell 2004). Was there the hope that the name “Abu Ghraib,” along with all its connotations of violence and abuse, would cease to circulate? Could the name “Camp Redemption” manage to redeem the administration and all of its supporters?

This act of renaming was not the first time that the administration has attempted to alter an unpleasant history in its favor, nor is it the first time that the U.S. government has deployed such a tactic. In fact, linguistic manipulation has been one of the prime weapons of dominant power transhistorically and transregionally. Sacvan Bercovitch, for instance, has traced the way that the Puritans sought a “rhetoric adequate to their sense of mission” employing a “wholesale inversion of traditional hermeneutics” (1975, 109). That said, it seems clear that 9/11 created a convergence of events that facilitated an unprecedented assault on language, meaning, and critical thinking within [End Page 156] the United States, an assault that has been waged with particular force in the realm of higher education. Stanley Kurtz, the conservative critic who has argued for government oversight of area studies programs, connects the war on terror with newfound opportunities for right-wing incursions into higher education policy: “The war has unquestionably brought a new level of scrutiny to our politically correct campuses. Once the initial years of the campus culture war had passed, the public decided that campus leftism was either beyond the reach of anyone who hoped to do something about it, or irrelevant. The war changed that” (2002). Consequently, the war on terror enabled a series of attacks on higher education, many of which focused on the teaching of America. This essay suggests that the current assaults on American studies have created a context through which to reconsider the critical methods that ground the field, methods that I describe as metaphorically linked to legislation/unification and deregulation/expansion and that I argue both replicate and respond to the ideology of the nation itself. After surveying the attacks on higher education particularly as they relate to American studies, this...


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pp. 155-185
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