After his meeting with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, during his visit to Israel following last month’s ceasefire, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained his goals: “As I told the president, I’m here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity.”
Is Israel’s Bite as Strong as Its Bark?
Blinken praised Egypt’s role in brokering the truce. According to Al Jazeera, Blinken believes Egypt can play a “vital” role in making it possible for Palestinians and Israelis to “live in safety and security to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity.” One wonders about Egypt’s own commitment to freedom, opportunity and dignity, but Blinken apparently sees those three words as having some sort of magical effect, masking the blemishes of both of his trusted partners, Israel and Egypt.
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Freedom, opportunity and dignity:
An example of the rhetorical ploy that aligns three incontestably noble ideals to create the belief that the only imaginable outcome of the policies or initiatives a politician is proposing will be resoundingly positive
Adepts of the art of rhetoric have given the trope linking three ideas a technical name: tricolon. The association of three positive notions has the effect of persuading an audience of the gravitas of the speaker’s intentions. Tricolons also make for excellent motivational slogans. Julius Caesar left no doubt about his conquest of Gaul when he wrote “veni, vidi, vici.” The French revolutionaries made clear their noble intentions in the formulation “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” a historically enduring slogan, if ever there was one.
Thomas Jefferson, inspired by John Locke’s celebration of “life, liberty and property,” left an indelible trace in Americans’ historical memory when he summarized the basic rights of a people as “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Curiously, Blinken’s trio of meritorious wishes can be traced back to the title of a book published in 1942 by Samuel Crowther. The full title of the book is “Time to Inquire: How Can We Restore the Freedom, Opportunity, and Dignity of the Average Man?” The only commentary on Crowther’s book visible after a thorough web search appears in the catalog of the Library of Congress. It contains a single sentence: “Questions the general social, political, and economic values as they exist in the United States today, particularly the ‘internationalist complex,’ to which he attributes our being in the war.”
In other words, Crowther appears to be one of the last of the generation of isolationists who dominated US thinking about foreign policy between the two world wars. Did Blinken read his book? Does the secretary of state’s thinking in any way reflect the isolationist ideology that shamefully retreated into the background after the rise of the US empire in the wake of World War II? More likely, his adoption of the three words in Crowther’s title is a coincidence. But that’s what great marketing minds do. When they see an inspiring idea for a slogan, whatever the source, they seize it and turn it into a slogan.
Does that mean we should think of Blinken as the secretary of international marketing rather than his official title of secretary of state? In some very real sense, a secretary of state can be defined as the head of international marketing for the US brand. And no one can doubt that the US has always been focused on selling its brand.
In one version of his sales pitch, Blinken adds a fourth word to introduce — and, in a certain sense, encompass — his trinity of virtues. To President Abbas, Blinken cited the importance of “equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity.” He cites “security” as the condition sine qua non that must be put in place to permit the flowering of “freedom, opportunity and dignity.” Modern states, such as the US and Israel, insist on putting security first. It is, after all, thanks to the existence of a security state — largely regulated, monitored and even enforced by the intelligence community — that the wonders associated with the prosperous American and Israeli way of life emerge. Both countries have produced an enviable military-industrial complex.
Blinken’s trio of words defines the ideal toward which any modern society must aspire. Combining the three terms creates a compelling argument. Freedom, of course, points to the free market, the right of every individual to compete with everyone else in their quest to make it to the top. Opportunity means that there are no legal obstacles to the downtrodden in their quest to become equals of the wealthy and powerful. Everyone has a shot at winning the race. The only real obstacles are other peoples’ wealth and power. But that is precisely what makes the struggle so satisfying for the winners, knowing that they have overcome such formidable obstacles.
And what about dignity? The French tricolon puts liberty and equality first, both of which serve to establish an abstract legal principle denying an official social status to privilege. This leaves fraternity as a random choice of sentiment for a liberated people. Fraternity has no status in the law and may never truly exist in a competitive society.
Blinken’s first two terms — freedom and opportunity — describe the modern capitalist economy. It allows people to aspire to dignity while instituting a social and economic system that empowers the successful few to deny dignity to the many whose lives, thanks to their liberty, remains precarious. Without precarity, the noble ambition to achieve dignity would not exist. In other words, what the secretary of international marketing is selling is quite simply the American ideology.
Winston Churchill was a consummate rhetorician. In a wartime speech he famously intoned, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He added a fourth term to what was already a proverbial tricolon. The gravity of a world war justified adding this extra item. Subsequent generations reduced Churchill’s four-term litany to the more classical tricolon in the idiom, “blood, sweat and tears.” That trio of words became not just a part of standard modern English vocabulary but also the name of a legendary rock group.
It is worth pointing out that just as Antony Blinken may have consciously or unconsciously borrowed his tricolon from Samuel Crowther, Churchill’s inspiration can be traced to the 17th-century poet, John Donne, who in his long poem, “Anatomy of the World,” wrote:
“Thou know’st how dry a cinder this world is.
And learn’st thus much by our anatomy,
That ’tis in vain to dew, or mollify
It with thy tears, or sweat, or blood: nothing
Is worth our travail, grief, or perishing,
But those rich joys, which did possess her heart.”
Luke most literary men and women of his time, Donne understood the power of the tricolon. In two successive lines he offers a pair of tricolons. Donne’s contemporary, William Shakespeare, took it one step further when Ophelia, speaking admiringly of Hamlet, mentions “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword.” Shakespeare aligns two tricolons in a single pentameter line.
It is refreshing to note that a modern politician like Blinken has a feel for classical rhetoric, mobilizing the traditional literary devices to conduct his sophisticated political marketing. It reassuringly contrasts with Donald Trump’s jarring populist rhetoric that relies not on balanced phrases, clever verbal alignments and persuasive touches, but instead on provocative innuendos and insults, hyperboles (“great,” “huge,” “amazing,” “tremendous,” “terrific,” “phenomenal”) and on an insistence that the audience “believe me” or “trust me,” even when what he says is clearly unbelievable and he himself comes across as totally untrustworthy.
Despite their stylistic differences, what Blinken and former President Donald Trump have in common is a commitment to “Make American Ideology Great Again” in the eyes of a world that has begun not only to doubt its legitimacy but to fear the consequences of the policies carried out in its name. Blinken’s (as well as President Joe Biden’s) tone is more soothing, or at least less upsetting, whereas Trump’s has more political impact. But the message they convey is similarly superficial and unrealistic. Both translate as a pretext for domination in a hypercompetitive world.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.