Edelman, Politics, Creativity, and Distortion

Here are three paragraphs from Murray Edelman’s instructive, elegant book, Constructing The Political Spectacle (Chicago, 1988):

“The most incisive twentieth-century students of language converge from different premises on the conclusion that language is the key creator of the social worlds people experience, not a tool for describing an objective reality. The ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, social psychology, and literary theory has called attention to language games that construct alternative realities, grammars that transform the perceptible into nonobvious meanings, and language as a form of action that generates radiating chains of connotations while undermining its own assumptions and assertions.

The theorists who have explored the general links among language, action and thought have analyzed the various senses in which language use is an aspect of creativity, but those who focus upon specifically political language are chiefly concerned with its capacity to reflect ideology, mystify, and distort, which is one kind of creativity. The more perspicacious of them deny that an undistorting language is possible in social world marked by inequalities in resources and status, though the notion of an undistorted language may be useful as evocation of an ideal benchmark.

The critical element in political maneuver for advantage is the creation of meaning: the construction of beliefs about events, policies, leaders, problems, and crises that rationalize or challenge existing inequalities. The strategic need is to immobilize opposition and mobilize support. While coercion and intimidation help to check resistance in all political systems, the key tactic must always be the evocation of interpretations that legitimize favored courses of action and threaten or reassure people so as to encourage them to be supportive or to remain quiescent . . . .”

(–quoted from pages 104, and I’ve cut short the third paragraph; also, in the second paragraph in the book itself, Edelman uses footnotes to mention some of the “students of language”: Wittgenstein, Chomsky, Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Lasswell, Orwell, Osgood, Ellul, Enzensberger, Bennett, and Shapiro [Michael]).

I enjoy applying the line of thinking in these paragraphs to the current discussions of and maneuverings concerning health-care reform. Clearly, Sarah Palin and Charles Grassley, among others, have decided deliberately to distort reality by raising the specter (no relation to the senator from Pennsylvania, we hope)  of federal “death panels,” when in fact the draft-legislation being discussed points toward reimbursing doctors when/if  they advise patients and/or families about what treatment to use or to withhold toward the end of a life.  A simple example: If you were to become “brain-dead,” would you want your family to insist that you be kept alive, or would you want your family to allow the medical staff to remove equipment and allow you to perish?  Would you want pertinent instructions to exist already in a living will? Of course, there are a range of other decisions on which one might get advice from a doctor.

Why did Palin decide deliberately to lie about “death panels,” and why did Grassley tell citizens they should be afraid of such (end-of-life) counseling?  According to Edelman’s analysis, they did so to mobilize supporters to defeat health-care reform and to immobilize others by means of distortion.  I should probably add that, in the particular case, the issue isn’t entirely partisan. The Republican woman U.S. senator from Palin’s state said she (the senator) was disgusted by the very term, “death panel(s)” and saw no productivity to be gained by scaring citizens by means of distortion (I am paraphrasing the senator’s remarks, of course, but I believe I have done so fairly).

As Edelman’s paragraphs suggest, almost everyone in politics plays the game of distortion. Arguably, at the moment, some Republicans may be distorting more actively at the moment with regard to health-care reform. However, Democrats subtly distort the end-of-life counseling issue by stressing chiefly how useful such counseling can be when it is timely.  In fact, a “living will,” one result of such counseling, can mean that extraordinary measures to save someone from inevitable death will not be taken, and therefore money will be saved. Even Newt Gingrich has pointed, approvingly, to the cost-saving feature of living wills.  That is, it is to the financial advantage of a health-care system to have more living-wills in place. At the same time (to be fair), those who create living wills and their families may benefit from the clarity such wills create.

In any event, one may observe how temporarily effective such distortion of meaning can be; just look at how irate, almost blinded by rage, many participants in the town-hall meetings have become, especially over the issue of “death panels.”  Such persons have become “mobilized,” using Edelman’s term, by deliberate distortion.

In another part of the forest, someone forwarded to me an email David Axelrod, an advisor to President Obama, sent to those Axelrod perceives to be supporters.  Here is an excerpt from the email:

“As President Obama said at the town hall in New Hampshire, ‘where we do disagree, let’s disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.'”

Obviously, Axelrod is attemtping to mobilize his partisans, but what is of interest to me from this quotation is Obama’s statement, which at least seems to be clear and undistorted.  To extend Obama’s statement a bit, one might add, “Let’s disagree about (and define, please) ‘the public option,’ but let’s not disagree about the macabre phantom, ‘death-panels.'”

But if Edelman and others are correct, the “art and craft” of politics are concerned with insuring that people often disagree about distorted or even illusory issues and often are distracted from cool debate about “real” issues.  Also, in response to Obama’s implicit call for less distortion, I feel as if I should quote from Edelman: “the notion of an undistorted language may be useful as evocation of an ideal benchmark.” Or, to put it more colloquially, “Good luck with that, Mr. President.”


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