Bush prompts thesis on rhetoric

April 07, 2005, vol. 32, no. 7
By Stuart Colcleugh

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You could say Patrick Belanger has George W. Bush's speechwriters to thank for his chosen career path.

It was Bush's particular use of language to enlist support for the U.S. war on terror that led the SFU English honours student to base his thesis on a rhetorical analysis of the U.S. president's speeches.

It was his increasing fascination with rhetoric itself, and with Bush's use of it, that impelled Belanger to delve more deeply into theory and analysis than is expected of any undergraduate, resulting in an astonishingly sophisticated and original thesis.

And it was the success of that effort that has encouraged him to pursue an academic career in rhetoric, the art and science of persuasion. Following convocation this spring, he plans to do graduate work in rhetoric at either Waterloo or Concordia and eventually teach and do research.

But Belanger credits someone else for directing him down the right road: his thesis advisor, SFU rhetorician Rick Coe. “Professor Coe definitely shaped the direction and set me on the course I've taken,” says the Vancouver native who attended high school in Australia and has a music diploma from Vancouver community college.

For his part, Coe praises Belanger for his insightfulness and his remarkable ability to apply complex theoretical concepts to concrete analysis. “It's easy to dump on Bush from an intellectual point of view,” he adds. “But to explain why his rhetoric succeeds is a much bigger trick, which Patrick accomplishes very impressively.”

Belanger found that Bush, like all effective orators, is a master of rhetoric - or rather his speechwriters are masterful at writing it and he at delivering it.

“He is obviously trying to persuade. What's significant is not his argument but his word choice: his use of metaphor, his choice of what to oppose with what, his appeal to pathos. Through these tactics, he cripples the potential for open and rational debate.”

One of his most unsettling and ironic observations is the parallel between the rhetoric of Bush and that of Osama Bin Laden. Both characterize the conflict between the West and Al Qaeda as a struggle between good and evil, he finds. Both say the wickedness of the other can only be opposed with deadly force. Both invoke God's name to justify the correctness of their struggle.

“One of the Bush quotes I found most chilling was, “freedom and fear have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them,” says Belanger.

“That implies an ancient struggle between Judao-Christianity and Islam. And it implies that this war might be potentially unwinnable, that it's going to be an eternal battle.”

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