Mourning and Memory: September 11 Rhetoric and American Political Theodicy

Simko, Christina Elaine, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Olick, Jeffrey, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Corse, Sarah, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Hunter, James, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Confino, Alon, Department of History, University of Virginia

Following collective crises, the American public increasingly turns to elected officials to provide moral and symbolic orientation. As they work to fulfill this role, politicians offer what Max Weber called "theodicies." In the philosophical lexicon, theodicy describes efforts to reconcile the Judeo-Christian conception of a just, benevolent, and omnipotent God with the realities of evil and suffering. Sociologists, however, use the term in a more expansive analytic sense, in reference to interpretive vocabularies-religious or secular-that imbue evil and suffering with meaning. This dissertation argues that in the modern age-especially in the contemporary mediasaturated milieu-theodicy has become a central problem of political culture. National narratives provide a sense of transcendence in the face of human finitude, and in times of crisis, public officials work to repair and restore familiar narratives by providing "political theodicies." Accordingly, I examine speeches delivered by presidents and other public officials in response to collective crises as well as addresses commemorating such calamities. I also analyze a broader body of rhetorical material from national rituals such as presidential inaugurals, the State of the Union, and Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day ceremonies. In doing so, I ask: What symbolic and rhetorical terms, tools, and tropes have American political leaders deployed in response to collective crises? What changes and continuities do these American political theodicies exhibit over time? When, how, and why are different rhetorics deployed? The findings are presented in two parts. Part I offers a history of American political theodicy, tracing pivotal moments in the development of this tradition from the American Revolution to the present. It identifies two distinct modes of political iiitheodicy-the dualistic and the tragic. Part II, in turn, presents findings from a case study of the political theodicies deployed in response to the events of September 11, 2001, examining the interplay between past and present and illuminating the heightened significance of political theodicy today. In conclusion, I argue that theodicy is a crucial conceptual tool for cultural sociology, drawing attention to the search for symbolic orientation as an end in itself.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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