LINGUIST List 14.1402

Fri May 16 2003

Review: Pragmatics: Silberstein (2002)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. Xuelin He, War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11

Message 1: War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11

Date: Thu, 15 May 2003 13:38:02 +0000
From: Xuelin He <>
Subject: War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11

Silberstein, Sandra (2002) War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11,

Announced at

Xuelin He, National Research Center for Linguistics and Applied
Linguistics (Guangzhou, P. R. China).


The 21st century has witnessed the fact that a just war breaks off not
beginning with sly military preparation for a deadly blow, but as the
consequence of a series of rhetoric activities for the public
awareness of the justified causes of war. In the name of just war
against terrorism, American president Bush marshals successive
military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. However, before this real
war started, a war of words, as the result of magical interactions
between language and politics, had already begun within the United
States. How an act of terror on the World Trade Center in New York is
rhetorically interpreted as an act of war on the United States, which
finally justifies the American military actions on other countries, is
detailed in the book ''War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11.''
The writer of the book Sandra Silberstein, who was born in New York
and spent her early years there, shows a scholarly mourning for the
losses of her American folk people by her eloquent rhetorical
criticisms on the public and political discourses in the United States
after 9/11.

The book is only 172 pages long, and is divided into 7 chapters with a
writer's introduction attached at the beginning. This short
introduction serves as the guide to the purpose and structure of the
whole writing. The book is intended to reconstruct the linguistic
route from a peaceful nation to a nation at war. On this route,
several important transformations occurred: the president solidified
his military and religious roles; the terrorism attacks became the
symbolic attack on American freedom and democracy; New York gained her
American identity; dissent voices were drowned in the national chorus
for war. The writer claims that insights from her rhetoric exploration
bring about not only the bitterness of criticisms but also hope for
the future. The last section of the introduction is the gist of each
chapter summarized by the writer herself. Each chapter deals with a
different aspect of her rhetorical criticisms on the multiple
discourses in America.

The first chapter ''From Terror to War: The War on Terrorism''
inquires the presidential rhetoric which underscores the most
important transformation following the 9/11 attack: from the
denunciation of terrorism to the bombing on Afghanistan. Nearly all
the statements, remarks or speeches made by the president and
publicized through the media are collected and attached to the end of
this chapter. The phrases or sentences from the presidential discourse
and the processes of language building are highlighted under the
technical analysis. What the quoted words can tell as the clues to the
forthcoming war is not so impressive as what they can build. The
president builds his leadership in the resolution of crisis with the
full use of the first personal pronoun and the active voices in the
first remarks after the terrorist attack. Then with the careful choice
of words, he grammatically ''creates a united nation, under
God.''(p.4). His image as the guardian for this united nation is
constructed from his pedagogical way of speaking, ''one that becomes
increasingly pedagogical in the days to come.''(p.8). Besides this,
realism and certainty fill the presidential speeches, which implies
the presidential power to relieve the audience of their childlike fear
and chaos. When the final rhetoric moment for the declaration of war
comes, it is only the natural result of the presidential language
building. The writer ends her analysis with the war speeches
comparison between President Bush and Roosevelt in the World War II.

In the second chapter ''Becoming President,'' a rhetorical analysis on
the various speeches on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance
(September 14, 2001) discloses George W. Bush's rhetorical journey
ascending to the role of real president, counterbalancing the negative
influence for being the first appointed president and having poor
recordings both in school and career. This chapter comprises 4
sections, each with a subtitle. The first section ''A National
Cathedral'' portrays the tension between church and state, and Bush
family's unusual link with the National Cathedral. The second section
analyzes the broadcast coverage of September 14, focusing on the
commentary of the famous newscaster Jennings, which goes through the
service. Although his words construct Bush's presidential role at the
national religious moment, it also exposes the sharp contrast between
''the rookie Bush presidency'' and ''the Clinton establishment.''
(p.45). The third section ''A Service'' presents the important
rhetoric moment for coalition of military, religion and politics. The
service begins with a military marching by soldiers and music is
played by the U.S. Army Orchestra. Speeches given by different
religious representatives put Bush in the place of hero to help the
nation in crisis. In response to the calls for his presidential tasks,
Bush's speeches at the service serve both as prayers of healing and
signals of coming war. His speeches appear in the appendix to this
chapter. The last section ''Coda'' is quite short, comprising only 3
paragraphs. It ends this chapter with a request for attention of the
war theme in different discourses.

Chapter 3 ''From News to Entertainment: Eyewitness Account'' is the
most linguistic part in the book, as the writer claims in the
Introduction. It ''examines the role of television in creating
September 11 narratives and in constructing social
identities.''(p.61). This chapter is divided into 9 blocks with a
subtitle respectively covering nearly every aspect of televised news
report. The writer borrows two linguistic tools: the methodological
analysis of news discourse by Ron Scollon, to question the norms of TV
news coverage; and the oral narrative structure by William Labov, to
observe the eyewitness narratives as a part of the process of
manufacturing the news into entertainment. A TV news magazine for
high-ranked interviewees and a TV series about rescue workers are
under rhetorical scrutiny to support the writer's argument that news
report of 9/11 attack are highly edited to cover the emotional
reactions of people. The chapter 4 ''New York Becomes America(n)''
deals with the rhetorical reconstructions within American culture
after 9/11. The first two sections in this chapter is about how New
York city mayor Giuliani becomes an America's mayor and also a hero;
the other two sections depict how New York identifies itself with
America. By inspecting the often-used words in speeches and media
report to describe Giuliani and rescue personnel, the writer unveils
the process of building working class hero. In the analysis of New
York's melting into America, two concerts are chosen as the rhetorical
moments. On the benefit concert on October 20, the assurance of their
New York identity and loyalty from film stars or singers symbolizes
the cultural union between New York and the rest of America. The other
concert for uniformed personnel causes debates about race, class and
politics because of some words from the mouth of participants. Despite
this, for the first time, some one can say that American ''have become
a family.''(p.105).

In chapter 5 ''Selling America'', a rhetorical analysis is made on the
advertisements in relation with this terrorist attack. One kind of
advertisement from the Ad Council of America, a nonprofit agency,
sends messages of patriotism and tolerance for rebuilding. The other
kind of advertisement emanates from big companies, pushing forward
consumerism in the name of patriotism. American people shift from
reluctance to shopping as the mourning way for the lost beings to
increasing expenditure to show their patriotism and support for the
government in crisis.

The writer criticizes the emergence of the New McCarthyism through
examining a report from the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni(ACTA) in the sixth chapter. Patriotism is overdone after 9/11,
which is marked by the report from ACTA listing more than 100
citations from the dissent voices of the American campuses. This
report stirs up American intellectual circle, and it is quickly
matched with the McCarthyism or ''witch hunts'' in history. The
chapter is focused on the report with many citations republished to
show their innocuousness in essence. More insights come from the
rhetorical analysis on the report, which exposes the fallacies in its
logical structure. Although the report ends up with the statements of
non-involvement from Ms. Cheney and Joe Lieberman, the founder and
co-founder of ACTA, its influence has come into being.

The 9/11 attack has made many Americans realize they have a blank in
their knowledge about Islamic religion and countries. In chapter 7
''Schooling America: Lessons on Islam and Geography,'' the writer
makes a comparative study on ABC documentary ''Minefield'' by Peter
Jennings and CNN documentary about Islam by Christiane Amanpour. Islam
in the former documentary was portrayed as dangerous and a problem
worldwide. Also from this documentary, in dealing with the
relationship between the Islamic countries and the U.S., America
embraced a sense of management and superiority, and also a belief in
the Islamic people's positive reaction to American cultural
invasion. U.S. strategic interests are everywhere in Jennings'
coverage. Despite holding on to the same strategic interests, CNN
documentary exposes an alternative view on Islam to avoid the
potential clashes between two kinds of civilizations. Two different
documentaries aired within a single week is, the writer believes, an
example to show the public discourse transformation in post-9/11


For any linguists practicing in public rhetoric criticism, they never
forget to find powerful critical weapons from pragmatics (He Zi-ran,
2000), because their criticisms are generally founded on two premises:
one is to regard language as social action (Duranti, 1997), the other
to treat politics as using language (Carmen Rosa, et al., 1996). So it
is usual to examine language through the lens of politics or vice
versa. However, this book introduces another factor to form a triangle
of language, politics and acts. Between the act of terrorist attack
and the act of war on Afghanistan is a politics-involved process of
language building. This method of analysis provides more insightful
understanding both on language and politics. It questions the media
exposure as the public's access to political information. Although
Russell J. Dalton (1988) shows his optimism on increment of public
political sophistication in America after World War Two, the American
president can still shape the public opinions by his privileged access
to media. The writer in this book seems to assume the potential danger
of dictatorship within the advanced industrial democracy.

Each parts of the book is well formed and logically related to each
other. During analyzing America's rhetorical trajectory to war, the
writer always keeps ''skeptical, discerning and imaginative,'' meeting
the quality of good rhetorical criticism (Hart, 1990:40-47). This book
does not require that readers have specialist backgrounds in language
study. I shall say, any linguistic apprentice would benefit from
reading this book as their first step to applied linguistics.


Caldas-Coulthard, C. R. and Coulthard, M. (1996) Texts and Practices:
Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge.

Dalton, R. J. (1996) Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political
Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Chatham, New Jersey:
Chatham House Publishers, Inc..

Duranti, A. (1997) Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Hart, R. P. (1990) Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Glenview, Illinois:
Scott, Foresman and Company.

He Zi-ran (2000) Enlightenment from Pragmatics on Rhetoric Studies (in
Chinese). Journal of Jinan University (Philosophy & Social Sciences
Edition, Bimonthly), Vol.22, No.6, China: Guangzhou.


Xuelin He, a linguistics lecturer in Fujian Normal University, is now
pursuing her doctoral degree of applied linguistics in Guangdong
Foreign Studies University. Her academic interests cover pragmatics,
sociolinguistics and philosophy of language.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue