Unreliable Narration in Politics

As Wild Bill and I have been re-interpreting Orwell’s classic essay (“P and the EL”) from a 21st century point of view and investigating what we call “the pseudoracy,” we have, from time to time, looked at metaphors: Orwell’s infamous “dead metaphors,” the metaphors of politics, and the metaphors favored by the media.

Metaphors are, essentially, a province of imaginative writing, even though other provinces of society exploit. For no particular reason besides vividness, I think of the TV commercial Reagan’s folk produced: “the bear in the woods.” The bear = Russia. A metaphor.

Until today, however, I hadn’t fully considered another province of imaginative writing from a political angle: narration. A colleague–she teaches German, as it happens–said to me in the parking lot, “It’s not that I think Romney is a liar; it’s that I have no way of judging whether he’s a liar because there is no stable narrative.”

You will pardon, I hope, the academic phrase “no stable narrative.” Rephrase it this way: Romney never gets his story straight, and, more important, never feels compelled to do so.

In other words, on what issue has Romney NOT changed his “tune,” no matter what, and no matter when? The campaign operates as if no one is keeping track.

I hasten, once again, to add that all politicians lie. Nonetheless, the Romney campaign may be cut above–or below.

I also hasten to add that, in literary criticism, the notion of an “unreliable narrator” in literature has been around for quite sometime. Another version of it is “dramatic irony.” For example, a character on stage may think he is telling one thing when we know he’s telling us quite another. For another example, consider Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” We the readers know he is mad and therefore “unreliable.” We “see through” his story to the “real” story.”

Romney and Poe aside, I find the question of narrative and politics fascinating. Looking back amateurishly, I think of campaigns that created a narrative and stuck to it. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Kennedy’s youthful, gee-whiz, and chic “New Frontier.” LBJ’s “Great Society.” Carter’s almost-pious turn from the Nixonian years of dishonesty. Reagan’s turn–back–to some good old days. Obama’s turn to “change.” And so on. –A “stable narrative” deployed, that is, independently of Party.

But Romney? I think the narrative has indeed shifted every week, if not every day. It’s remarkable. I don’t quite yet know what to make of it, but “it,” I think, is new. It is not a dead or cliche narrative; it is a narrative scribbled on water. It may speak to the extent to which many people would vote for anyone over Obama. It may also speak to the unbounded cynicism of the pseudocracy, in which (for example) John Kerry must defend his war-record (noe that he has one), and George W. Bush does not (his was not just absent but suspect). The tactic was the wreckage of narrative.

It–the unstable narrative– may also speak to an almost instantaneous amnesia on the part of the public.

The Rhetoric of Employees-As-Political-Beings

Wild Bill and I work at a small liberal arts college, which is, according to the tax code, a not-for-profit entity–although, given the cost of tuition, some parents may want to dispute that status.

I just received the following email from the dean here (all my colleagues did, too):

Dear faculty colleagues,

In this election year and especially as political activities heighten as we approach election day, it is important to remember the rules governing political activities on college campuses. We need to remain in compliance with applicable rules and regulations in order to preserve Puget Sound’s tax-exempt status as an educational institution.

Certain political activities are permitted and others are strictly prohibited. Essentially, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations such as the University of Puget Sound may not participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. Two helpful resources for planning are:

• Puget Sound’s long-standing Political Activity Policy, which aligns with applicable laws and regulations and can be found on the university’s web site here.
• Specific situational guidance provided by the American Council on Education (ACE), with helpful examples of permitted and prohibited activities based on judicial and IRS rulings, IRS guidance, the Federal Election Campaign Act, and Federal Election Commission regulations. These ACE guidelines can be found here; item I.B.Y7 on providing opportunities for candidates to speak is particularly worth noting.

If you have any questions, [ ] or her delegate will help sort through the details of your desired political activity on campus and help determine what is and is not possible.

Of course, being a writer and teacher of writing (and not a lawyer), I focused on the last sentence and desired to excise “what is and is not possible” and replace it with “what is and is not appropriate, according to the regulations.” That is, it’s possible for me to campaign for someone on campus. It’s not appropriate, apparently.

Of course (part deux), I thought of Governor Romney’s allegedly having urged certain corporate employers to tell their employees whom to vote for: Romney, I’m assuming.

I do understand the rationale behind treating not-for-profits differently than for-profits. I’m just not sure I agree with it. In fact, I think a plausible (if not convincing) argument could be made that campaigning on campus would be instructive to students, especially those in a political science department. And a plausible argument could be made for inviting bosses not to lean on their employees about elections. What, eight hours of work isn’t enough for you? You have to bug me about your political preferences?

Finally, I’m mildly amused by the idea of a boss telling an employee whom to vote for. I imagine an employee responding with a “sure, boss,” followed by much eye-rolling once the boss is out of sight. I also imagine voting the opposite way, just out of spite. The situation is just a bit like the question of signing loyalty-oaths back in the 1950s. A colleague once opined that the most likely person to be first in line to sign the oath would be . . . a disloyal person–a spy, for example, or just a wag.

We are all political animals, or beings, Aristotle noted. Except when we wee are working for non-profits. Or when we are working for for-profits, in which case we are, apparently, children.

Of the “Re-distribution of Wealth” and the “Welfare State”

Mr. Romney’s tactic (Romney seems unencumbered by a strategy) for extricating himself from the quicksand into which the almost hour-long tape has plunked him seems to be to say, in effect, “President Obama was ‘secretly’ taped, too, and he was caught talking about helping poor people!”

Mr. Romney is getting some help. Rush Limbaugh asserted that President Obama is not the president of all, hates people who make money, and wants to take that money and re-distribute it. Robert Samuelson suggests that Mitt Romney is missing an opportunity to emphasize the degree to which Mr. Obama supports “a welfare state.” Samuelson also suggests that about 90% of the population receives some kind of federal monetary support, not the mere 47% whom Romney insulted.

Let us slip out of this circus’s tent and examine two terms, “re-distribution of wealth” and “welfare state,” for we are about rhetorical focus while they are about noise.

Of course, “re-distribution of wealth” is meant to send Marxist electrical shocks through our flesh, nerves, and bones. I’m feeling nothing because I’m focused on the “re.” Why not just “distribution” of wealth? I feel the same way about “re-doubling” our efforts. How about if we go more slowly and just try doubling them? And if we have to quadruple them, how many efforts were we giving in the first place?

Second, does raising the income-tax rate of the wealthiest from 33% to 39% constitute a distribution of wealth? I’m trying to imagine a (former) very wealthy person chatting with a friend and saying, “Bob, I’m not rich anymore. I just paid my taxes.” It’s more likely that Bob’s friend will continue to get richer regardless of the tax-bill because of the way capital grow, the way it keeps distributing wealth to those with capital. Ladies and lads, let us dispense with the “re” and politely ignore subliminal Marxist alarms–not, I shuffle to add, for political reasons but for linguistic and rhetorical ones. Let us also remember that during the presidency of Dwight David Eisenhower (a noted Marxist), the income-tax on the wealthy was much higher than 39%. Chill out, fellow capitalists! Mr. Lenin, he dead.

Concerning “the welfare state,” I choose to define that as a state concerned with the welfare of its citizens. It is a shocking notion, I admit. The effects of this notion have almost devastated Sweden (a noted “welfare state”) because it gives glum Swedes too little about which to be gloomy. It is a clean, well lighted place. Well, not so well lighted in Winter. “Erik, more vodka, my good man–I can’t see the sun, and it’s noon.”

On a more serious knot, I mean note, has President Obama done anything to alter the essential capitalist character of the United States’ economy? Could he do so even if he wanted to? How?

Even Mr. Samuelson admits that much of the dreaded “federal assistance” comes in the form of Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements, which follow hard upon the heels of imbursements. We who get a paycheck distribute some of that to the Social Security program, and, through a payroll tax, we distribute another part of that paycheck to Medicare. If we live long enough, we get that money back–figuratively. As far as I know, this system has not eradicated private property, eviscerated the rich, or put clamps on the alleged “free-market” system, which often seems as free as a rigged lottery.

Ours is a capitalist economy, so capitalist that, arguably, much of Congress represents corporations more faithfully than it represents constituents “back home.” The federal government, however, does in fact distribute some money collected to the following: military veterans who have earned a pension and/or who need health-care; people who have been out of work but are still looking for work; old people who paid into Social Security for 20, 30, 40, 50 years; old people who need to see a doctor and/or buy medicine. President Obama seems to support the basics of such a system. Many presidents seem to have supported it. It seems like a pretty good system to me, especially given the alternative: large numbers of people in every community who are ill but get no treatment, hungry but get no food, old but have no place to go. One upon a time, the systems were invented to address such problems in our communities. Okay?

Inside that aforementioned tent, much noise is directed at this system of distributing money to those who, apparently, need it and who paid into the system themselves. I wish more noise were directed at another distribution of money: that which goes to our military system, which costs more than all the military systems of the world combined. I think a military system is a good thing to have, but does ours need to be this big? Even if I were inclined to say “Yes” (I am not so inclined), I’d want more “debate” about the topic and less debate about how Social Security, Medicare, and checks for the unemployed are (not) draining the wealth of the wealthy. Mr. Romney wants to distribute even more money to this military system. I think this smacks of Marxism. I kid the Romster.

Rush, take your “welfare state” and “re-distribute” it where the sun doesn’t shine–and no, that’s not Sweden. Mitt, the tape runs for almost an hour, and it captures you giving the rich diners what you know they wanted to hear. Your words were distributed.

Knowbotomy: Coined and Defined

A coinage, a neologism:

Knowbotomy: A self-administered operation in which one removes rational faculties and learning so as to be susceptible to political manipulation; a willing surrender to ignorance. –Hans Ostrom (2012)

The Unintended Literature of Politics

Here is a brief quotation from a story in the San Jose Mercury News about Senator Santorum’s quitting the primary-campaign:

Bridget Nelson, a Tea Party activist who co-hosted a March 29 fundraiser for Santorum in Alamo, spoke with him Tuesday and said she’s “bummed” but will soldier on.

“I felt that for the first time in a long time, here’s a presidential candidate the conservatives can get behind who loves God first, country second,” she said. “He just said he wants to be involved still in politics and hopefully in the future possibly running again in 2016, but right now this is the best decision for him and his family.”

If this conversation were depicted as “overheard” in a novel like WAR AND PEACE, we’d be fascinated by all the ironies and nuances. Consider just the mixture of language itself:

“Tea Party,” “Alamo,” “bummed,” “soldier on,” “loves God first, country second.” The first two samples are often interpreted simplistically, but anyone who looks carefully into the Boston Tea Party and the defeat at the Alamo will ponder the unintended complexities in Ms. Nelson’s statement. Then comes “bummed,” straight out of “bum trip” or “bad acid trip,” from the 1960s. “Soldier on”: voters as PFCs. And finally, “loves God first, country second.” I don’t mean to be difficult, but shouldn’t all voters want a candidate who respects the country and more or less keeps his or her faith to himself? Aren’t a hefty number of Americans perturbed by some Muslims, who indeed love God first and country second, as their faith instructs?

If you haven’t read the first page of WAR AND PEACE in a while, you might give it a go. There’s a party going on–a high-class one–in St. Petersburg. War is about to happen. But the odd entanglements of language, egos, and petty desires–as they often do–intrude.

The Issue of Wedge-Issues

The noted semi-pro source, Wikipedia defines a political “wedge issue” as ” […]a social or political issue, often of a divisive or otherwise controversial nature, which splits apart or creates a ‘wedge’ in the support base of one political group.”

That I can’t immediately think of a wedge-issue Democrats have used to attract GOP voters (or independent voters) or to suppress GOP voting (by cheating fair and square, as opposed to legislating voter-suppression) probably only means I haven’t been paying attention; it could also mean that the GOP is simply better at using wedge-issues. They seem to be better at a lot of things associated with campaigning. In a moment, I will take a stab at identifying a Demo-wedge-issue, however.

It most certainly also means that my definition of a wedge-issue would be limited to those issues that–however they are decided, and they may have already been decided–they will not materially affect the lives of the voters whom are wedged.

My favorite example is “gay marriage,” which the GOP, by putting the issue on state ballots, has used as a wedge issue. There I am, voter X, a man married to a woman. For whatever reason, I oppose gay marriage. So I find myself leaning toward the GOP on this issue and in general because the issue is on the ballot this time. The proposition on the ballot will outlaw gay marriage, but maybe gay marriage isn’t even legal in my state. Moreover, even if it were legal, how would two gay men’s getting married materially affect my life? And what if other things proposed by the GOP were going to affect my life negatively? I might ignore all that because I’m quite emotional about the wedge-issue. So the tactic has not just peeled me away from the Democrats; it has pulled me away from my own self-interest–arguably.

One probably could argue, with some good reason, that what the Dems call “the war on women” is a wedge-issue designed to attract Independent and Moderate-GOP voters–of all genders. However, if for the moment we use my narrower definition of “wedge issue,” a reasonable counter-argument might be that, if I live in a state that has passed the mandatory invasive-imaging law governing women who go to a clinic that offers abortion, I am voting based on something that could, if I am a woman, materially affect my life and other women’s lives. And men’s. Many fathers of women must be appalled by this law.

Such a situation doesn’t make the Democrats less cynical than the GOP, of course, and I mention this example chiefly to highlight the difference between a gratuitous wedge-issue and one that might have more legitimate impact on lives.

In any event, the concept of a wedge-issue and the deft deployment of referendum-voting to drive wedges home may reasonably be viewed as one more element of the pseudocracy–an element deployed by both major parties.

Metaphors Matter: “Safety Net”

Today Mitt Romney is having to answer easy questions about the following quotation, taken from an interview he did with CNN:

“I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”

Facebook and other social (as opposed to anti-social) media are active with the quotation and comments about it.

Quickly, a few points on the matter:

1. It would be easy to ignore the statement before the quotation, but let’s not: “I’m in this race because I care about Americans.” I think journalists should now be authorized to say, in response to such statements, “Knock it off.” Why must we endure such empty statements from politicians? Romney’s is one of those non-statements that’s at once true (one assumes he cares about more than one American) and false (that’s not why he’s running for president, and even if it were, the statement would be as true of any other candidate as it would be of him–that is, Newt Gingrich probably cares about three Americans, at least.).

2. I maintain we should all thank candidates, not punish them, when they tell the truth, partly because it is the truth and thus a rarity and partly because we can be sure about who the person really is. So when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond in an obviously racist way, he was forced to resign his leadership, as if we didn’t already know he was racist? Everyone should have said “thanks for telling the truth” and then gotten to the business of asking why the GOP is, in important ways, still the party of Dixiecrats. That is the problem, not Lott’s truth-telling. Of course Romeny doesn’t care about the poor.

3. The matter of the “safety net.” It’s an absurd metaphor, and yet candidates still get away with saying it. A safety net is used in the circus for acrobats and in construction for workers who toil at heights. It’s there “in case.” Programs like unemployment benefits and food-stamp distribution are in place because of deeper structural reasons; it’s not as if most people stumble accidentally into poverty. Education, ethnicity, gender, the “global” economy, the famous “business cycle,” and other structural issues have enormous bearing. By referring to the in-apt “safety net,” candidates are allowed not to talk about the deeper issues. I recall that “safety net” was a favorite metaphor of Reagan’s, as was “trickle down,” about which this blog has opined. The short version is that getting trickled upon, especially (but not exclusively) in matters of economics cannot be a good thing.

OF COURSE Romney doesn’t care about the poor. How many politicians do? How many presidents got elected by emphasizing how much they care about the poor?

Coda: If he believes the very wealthy are just fine, then why is he opposed to taxing them a bit more so as to remedy the deficit and to be able to inject cash into highway-projects and the like? Oh, journalists, please ask such questions.

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