David Howarth’s discussion of discourse theory (in chapter six of Marsh and Stoker’s book) allows us a tool by which we can understand, or at least begin to understand, the ways in which the role of the federal government has shifted since the attacks on the World Trade Center and while such changes have both been protested by some and accepted (if not actually welcomed) by many others.
Discourse, as used in this sense, is not the everyday meaning of the term, which is something akin to dialogue. Rather, the meaning of discourse within the context of discourse theory is closer to that of language and within the context of political discussion it refers to the fact that cohesive ways of thinking develop within certain social, political and historical milieux and that these ways of talking about the world tend to reinforce the initial reality that created them.
Thus we have seen a number of changes made in the way (for example) the United States treats those people found to be in the country illegally. While before such people would in all likelihood have been overlooked or deported, now many of them have been imprisoned in conditions that many people feel does dishonor to a constitutional democracy. The “discourse” about such prisoners is based in the days and weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks and reflects ideas about the dangerousness (to some extent realistic, in large measure not) of Arabs living illegally the United States.
That discourse, based in both history and bigotry, is a relatively new one (although of course Arabs have been seen as “other” and as dangerous to the West since before the Crusades, but the current discourse about them is in some important ways and degrees different), but it has become a very strong one, allowing the federal government and in particular John Ashcroft to hack away at civil liberties that Americans were once, and not so very long ago, willing to die for.
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