Lies, Willful Ignorance, Shortcuts, and the Pseudocracy

The rhetoric surrounding the Affordable Healthcare Act continues to fascinate.

**For instance, it has been labeled Obamacare by the GOP–and then by the media. That tells us something about about the media. Need a shorter headline? Try AHCA or AHA. I grew up reading headlines that included JFK and LBJ. That said, President Obama practiced rhetorical aikido when suggesting that he welcomed the nickname, “Obamacare.” Is there a valid gender-related point to be made about “Hillarycare” and “Obamacare”? Hard to say.

**President Obama famously said that if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it. What he failed to say, or chose not to say, is that you can keep your plan if the insurance company lets you keep it. So he was deemed a liar. He is a politician; therefore, he prevaricates. However, I suspect he was taking a shortcut so as to keep things simple. For we live in a time when sophisticated, complex utterances (as if adding the bit about the insurance companies were complex) won’t fly in politics. The president’s lie, gaff, elision, or shorthand (you choose) was ironic, in part, because the AHCA is in fact not socialistic. You can’t keep your plan if the insurance company won’t let you BECAUSE the insurance company is a private entity, a capitalist corporation, which makes a profit on misery and/or on the prospect of misery. Or perhaps I’m being Dickensian here.

**The AHCA is “big government” and “socialist,” claim some GOPers. When large insurance-corporations became socialist and were taken over by the government, I do not know.

**Then the flap about the health-exchange website. Yes, a classic governmental eff-up, out-dated technology included. A gaff that may have turned President Obama briefly into a Casey Stengel impersonator. When Stengel was managing the hapless Mets, he once (or more than once) yelled, “Can anybody play this game?” However, a reality-check might induce one to mutter instead, “First World problems.” Oh, the Americans are having some software problems with their new health-care initiative. Let us pray! Meanwhile, consider the catastrophic slums in Venezuela and India, for example; or the horrendous problem with the trafficking of girls in Cambodia; or thousands dying of thirst and hunger around the globe.

**The Congressional Budget Office produced a report suggesting that the AHCA might influence workers to work less (fewer hours). The GOP translated that as “the AHCA will cause unemployment.” A CBO spokesperson responded more or less like the unnamed correspondent in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “That is not what we meant at all.” Paul Krugman asked whether Eric Cantor, for example, had spouted off about unemployment before reading the report, or whether he had read the report and decided to lie. Cantorian willful ignorance was operative no matter what, Krugman argued.

**In “News of the Weird,” we learned that the cost of a scanning-procedure in Philadelphia hospitals can range from about $1200 to $200. Welcome to retail! “How much does this treatment cost?” “Give me your debit card, and then I’ll tell you!”

All of it seems like a cry for help. Swedes and Germans, among others, must look at the spectacle, rhetorical and otherwise, and think, “How effing hard can it be?” Meanwhile, politicians and pundits continue to play the came because (pax Stengel) they can play the game, just not the game that matters to people when they become ill and/or infirm.

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Squalid Scalia

An online definition of squalid goes as follows:

(of a place) Extremely dirty and unpleasant, esp. as a result of poverty or neglect.
Showing a contemptible lack of moral standards.

I apply it to Justice (ha!) Antonin Scalia, in general but with regard to today’s arguments concerning same-sex marriage.

Reportedly, Scalia asked Ted Olson, a conservative arguing in favor of supporting the overturning of Prop. 8 in California (thus arguing in favor, more broadly, of same-sex marriage), “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit gay marriage?” (This is a paraphrase.) Then he offered a couple of dates when this might have (not) occurred. Olson’s answer was a question, “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit mixed race marriages?” Scalia’s answer was to tell Olson not to answer questions with a question. Ah, the highest court in the land. High on what, who knows?

Scalia positions himself as an “originalist.” He likes to go back to the original text of the C. itself, and to founders’ intent. Grudgingly, he agrees to look at amendments. By the way, wouldn’t founders’ intent require cloning? Yeah, sure, there are letters and the Federalist Papers, but still, those are incomplete. We’d have to have live cranial video of what the founders were thinking when they signed the C. Even cloning wouldn’t cut it because, for the sake of argument, let’s assume we could bring a Founder back to life. First question: How’s it going? Second question (for Jefferson): “What gives you the right to own slaves?” Third question:”What was your intent when you …?” So, Big Tom gives us an answer: “My intent was to . . .”. Why would we believe his account?

But of course one good rhetorical answer to Scalia’s question is not the question Olson asked but an imperative: “Show me when and where the Constitution explicitly prohibited same sex marriage.” Scalia would then have to talk about, well, obviously, back then, gay people didn’t get married, yadda, yadda. Yeah, fine, but show me where that gets us into the text of the Constitution, Moe. (He reminds of Moe in the Three Stooges.)

This is all a rhetorical (in the negative sense) exercise on my part because, in part, Scalia’s mind is squalid, not to mention made-up. It is dirty and unpleasant as a result of neglecting reason in favor of politics. He’s just a GOP hack. He shows a contemptible lack of moral standards. It is immoral to go on hunting trips with Cheney (also unwise) and then claim there is no conflict of interest when you hear (but not listen to) a case involving Cheney. Etc.

Please know I don’t think much of the rest of the Court, either. With the exception of Ginsburg, they all seem like robed clowns too much taken with themselves. And poor Justice Thomas has become a smoldering boulder of self-loathing. Breyer is a gasbag. So is Kagan. Kennedy sits his ass on the fence, guaranteeing no one respects him.

Still, Scalia is a cut below–especially with his lame “originalist” posturing.

The GOP Adjustment as Rhetorical Problem

Adapt or wither: that seems to be one major piece of advice the GOP is receiving. However, I did hear at least one “progressive” radio-host advise, “Please don’t adapt!”

Adapt to what? Allegedly, changing demographics, contrary attitudes toward some social issues, and the perception that the GOP chiefly represents “wealthy interests.”

If the problem(s) were seen in rhetorical, not strictly political terms, I might advise the following:

1. Define the “immigration problem” as “an immigration problem”–not as a problem of race and not as a threat to “culture.” If you think immigration-processes should be more orderly and consistent, then work with Democrats to make them so. Or don’t adapt and keep making the issue more about race and culture, and keep intimating that Latinos are “taking our jobs.”

2. Don’t swallow this business about “a changing America” whole. African Americans have made up 10-12 % of the population for a very long time. This isn’t a change. They vote largely Democratic because you, GOP, have basically pushed them to do so and because you have treated the first Black president like dirt. You can still play traditional rough politics and treat him with respect.

And if I were you, I’d have somebody confess that the Southern Strategy has always been about race, and I’d have the official confessor apologize.

3. When it comes to politics and governing, stop defining “gay marriage” as a religious issue. Treat it as a religious issue in your respective religions. If your church doesn’t want to host gay marriages, then it need not do so, obviously. But otherwise marriage is a civil matter, even if some couples–gay and straight–behave uncivilly after they get married. The U.S. isn’t a theocracy. I’ve met Tea Party people who agree with me on this, by the way.

4. Stop running the trickle-down con. People are catching on that’s it complete economic bullshit. More than that, there’s concrete evidence from Clinton’s 8 years that modestly raising taxes on the wealthiest helped the economy without hurting (as if!) the wealthy. Romney tried to run the Reagan con again, and enough people didn’t go for it (apparently) for you/him to win. It’s a pathos-move that’s quit working, and it never made logos-sense.

5. Look, we all know all politicians have to be data-deniers sometimes. Politicians lie. They deceive. But when it comes to data about evolution, global warming, dirty water, dirty air, and running out of fossil fuels, you all need to grow up.

6. When both you and the Democrats discuss budgetary issues and government-intrusion issues, you have to stop pretending the military is beyond enormous. It’s a data-thing. Empiricism.

7. If the question of abortion were as simple as you want to make it, a lot more people would agree with you now. If the question weren’t in large measure about women and their right to control what happens to their bodies, a lot more people would agree with you know. If you really want fewer abortions, support education and contraception. Or: don’t adapt.

Or–don’t adapt, as your progressive “friend” suggested.

Short Con, Long Con: More Advice for the GOP

My imaginary friends ask me, “Why are you giving advice to the GOP? You’re not of the GOP.”

Two answers: I’m so old that I remember sane GOPers–like Eisenhower! Second, I like to help people. Why, just this evening, I was behind a guy in line at the grocery store who had beer, a bag of potatoes, a whole chicken, and carrots. He didn’t have enough cash for the spuds. So I covered it. He was wearing a Green Bay Packers hat. The Packers beat my Raiders in Super Bowl II. That was not block to doing the right thing. I gave him a fist-bump, and he went on his way, with a bag of spuds, which, being of Swedish extraction, I worship.

So:

Dear GOPers,

Here is an example of a short con. A man rings your doorbell one morning, and he’s dressed sparklingly as some kind of landscape professional. He has a box of what look like sprinkler-parts. He says he’s stranded and needs 10 dollars, cash, of cab fare, and he’s willing to leave the “parts” as collateral. You’re sleepy, he looks impressive, you don’t really care, whatever. You give him the 10 bucks and take the “parts.” About 20 minutes later, your spouse informs you that you’re an idiot. The guy is running a short con. You think, okay, lesson learned, 10 bucks.

The long con keeps you coming back and coming back–chiefly with this bullshit: Hey, we got unlucky (a hurricane), the enemy is everywhere (Governor Christie!, gays, hippies, people with less than ivory skin!), Obama is still a radical Muslim spy from Mars (be afraid!).

Thus, on Fox, Dick Morris, whom I call Morris Dick, blabs about how he got certain demographics wrong. If a contractor built a house for you, and the whole main floor were out of plumb, and the contractor said, hey, my plumb-bob had a knot in it, would you believe him or her?

In the Wall Street Journal, Rove blames Hurricane Sandy on Obama’s victory. First of all, WTF happened to the WSJ? Make that a mantra, my Republican friends: WTF WTJ? Secondly, if a lot of rain and wind can disrupt several billion of dollars (10 or 20 per cent of which goes to a dough-necked huckster), then what, exactly, were you spending your money on? Ask your spouse, “Honey, was I conned?”

Not literally (emphasis: not literally), take Grover Norquist, Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and so many others out, attach cement slippers, and invite them to take a dip in Lake Erie.

Seriously. YOU’RE PAYING HARD COLD CASH for this shit?

The short con is the fault of the con artist.

The long con is the fault of the conned.

One last piece of advice: Mitch McConnell is part of the long con. What has he helped you to do? What is HIS net worth? If you were in a poker game in Las Vegas, would you trust a short, “mild mannered” Kentuckian with perfect hair and oyster-shell spectacles? Of course not.

My GOPer friends, don’t allow yourself to be pimped one more time. Imagine you are out of cash, and imagine I just paid for your bag of spuds.

Is It Time To Shift the Paradigm?

Cynics like me have often opined that the two-party system is more or less a one-party system. For example, aside from health-care reform, to what extent has President Obama differed from President Bush? You get the picture.

Now, however, it may be time for cynics and others to assert their preference for the the Repub licans’ to (I shall keep it basic) get their shit together. The usual caveat obtains: the Dems are no bargain. Nonetheless, the GOP seems to oppose the following:

1. Ordinary, fair voting. You know it’s true. They seek to suppress the vote, at least. Or: they can’t imagine themselves winning without cheating.
2. Abortion–even for women who are raped.
3. The fact–established fact–of human-influenced global warming.
4. Modest but necessary taxes on the upper-income brackets. I get weary of asking people simply to look at the tax-rates under Reagan, Carter, Nixon, LBJ, Kennedy, and (not a socialist!) Eisenhower. Seriously, look at them. I also get weary of suggesting that incoming revenue might be a valid piece of the deficit-puzzle. Ya think?
5. Advice and consent. Instead of considering and then voting upon President Obama’s nominees for the courts (etc.), Mitch McConnell has decided to filibuster and never to go into recess. To go to Washington to stop the process of government? Is this what the founding dudes had in mind? Five words: Bring it to a vote.
6. Any discussion of arms control. Remember when arms control was kind of a foreign policy issue? Now we have to assume that anybody has the right to bear any arm. A magazine of 50 rounds? You bet! Shoulder-mounted missiles? Jefferson wanted one! An A-Bomb in the basement? What would George Washington do? The alleged defense of the Second Amendment is not the issue. The issue is the maturity involved in allowing a rational discussion of limits. But, oh no, the GOP would rather behave like middle-schoolers newly acquainted with Meth. Dude, let’s party with automatic weapons!
7. Anything not White. The GOP opposes Blacks, browns, Asians, Indians, and so on and so forth. Oh, yes, they will cite distracting examples of the contrary. But seriously: they’re not even up to the task of opposing President Obama on political or policy issues.l Instead they have to go for race, religion, origin, and all the other horse shit.

The Democrats are no bargain; or, at least that used to be the case. But now the world isn’t even safe for cynics. Republicans have made Democrats seems almost okay.

Do political scientists grapple with this new reality? Or do they simply play the metronome game? This side says this, and this side says that.

Romney and Rhetoric

By now we all know about Mr. Romney’s latest gaff (offering a scathing critique of 47% of Americans for being lazy and indulging in victimhood, etc.)

Rhetorically, R was doing what rhetors are invited to do: tailor his remarks to his audience (in this case, very rich people–being served by waiters who may be among the 47%?) Alas, our audiences are always multiple now, and so: oops.

An ethical question for all writers and speakers is . . . at what point does the tailoring violate one’s own sense of right and wrong, true and false? That is, Aristotle did not propose that speakers and writers just lie, baby. I don’t mean the following unkindly, but I find with Romney, it is more difficult to ascertain what he really believes about right, wrong, true, and false. To some degree, the same could be said of almost all politicians, but I think Romney is a special case. Often he seems to me to be like a salesperson who is willing to say anything to get the sale.

I have no idea whether President Obama and former president Clinton are better people than Romney. How could I? I do know that they are much more nuanced and deft in their negotiation of multiple audiences than he is. If he loses the election, much will be said about he causes and correlatives. Perhaps it will be the case that inflexible, awkward rhetoric will be among these.

Main Points, Revisited, of Orwell’s Famous Essay

In a variety of venues, my co-blogger Wild Bill and I have been pointing out the degree to which George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has some problems and is often remembered (we argue) for the wrong reasons—namely, some points about such things as using foreign words and using the passive voice. We think it deserves to be remembered more for its major point, or premise, which is that political language, broadly defined, and other kinds of official language can harm people’s thinking, people’s capacity to analyze, and that this harm, in turn, can further make language more slippery.

We don’t imagine our critique of the weak parts of the essay will or could damage its stature, nor is that our aim. We do imagine that it is possible to line up the stature with what we think is really good and often missed about the essay.
That said, my purpose in this post is to summarize Orwell’s major points and put the minor ones in proper proportion, and I realize “major,” “minor,” and “proper proportion” are arguable.

Anyway, here goes:

Orwell’s main points, with some interpretation:

1. English is “in a bad way” because it’s been abused—sorry about the passive voice, George—by writers and speakers engaged in or affected by politics, which is by nature deceptive. (Orwell concentrates on writers, not speakers.)

2. I think what Orwell means by “the English language” is really public discourse in the form of political speeches, comments by punditry, political ads, and so on. That is, I’m not sure politics or anything but extinction can put “the English language” in its totality in a bad way. English exists and evolves, a protean phenomenon. People use it well or badly or just all right. It’s language in the public arena that’s in trouble—according to Orwell.

3. The misuses of English affect how people analyze writing and speech, how they interpret information, and how they make decision. That is, bad use of the language can lead to bad concrete effects such as terrible decisions and severely misinformed, badly duped citizens. The situation may become a spiral.

About those who use the language badly, often on purpose but sometimes just through bad habits, not malevolence:

1. Insincere people use it to deceive other people, to make bad things sound okay, and to delay doing the right thing. Orwell pins responsibility on insincerity. His version of “make bad things sound okay” is to make murder seem respectable (my paraphrase). A more current example is the description of torture as “enhanced techniques of interrogation.”
2. One main deception is to hide responsibility, according to Orwell. “Mistakes were made” is a classic example, one in which the passive voice does indeed hide “the agent,” the one who made the mistake.
3. Sometimes the misuse springs more from laziness and carelessness than it does from insincerity. You know the degree to which we all, including journalists, pundits, those who work in governmental and corporate communication, politicians, academics, and “public intellectuals” (like academics who go on TV) get careless or lazy.
What does Orwell mean by this alleged misuse/abuse of English?

Specifically, he mentions things like clichés, dead metaphors (metaphors we’ve heard and seen a million times, such as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks), ready-made phrases (like the tired, hyperbolic phrase I just used, “a million times”).

As noted, he doesn’t like the passive voice, although he uses it quite a bit in the essay.

He doesn’t like foreign words/phrases because he thinks people use them to sound important or smart, to puff themselves up by puffing up their rhetoric.

He doesn’t like euphemisms (“enhanced techniques of interrogation”).

He doesn’t like specialized words—jargon.

This last part—specific alleged abuses that Orwell doesn’t like—is where Wild Bill and I think Orwell’s case is weak. For example, writers and speakers can use the passive voice and still be clear and have sincere motives, and they can use it and still pinpoint responsibility. Also, sometimes specialized words are fine, as are foreign words. Sometimes you need a specialized word or term, such as voi dire, to be precise. Same goes for foreign words/terms, like schadenfreude. We get his larger point about puffing up rhetoric, but we think he makes too much of some examples. Sometimes even metaphors that have been around a long time work fine, such as trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

We have two more objections that are related to the point above and that we think amount to a more significant critique. Let’s put the first in the form of a rhetorical question. George, is it really the passive voice and foreign words that have made the language of politics, political advertising, political journalism, and political punditry & partisanship so awful?

A second objection: is lack of clarity or directness always the main problem? For instance, when a candidate says, “I want to create jobs,” he or she is being clear and pithy. The problem is that the statement is empty. Another problem is that when, for instance, Newt Gingrich, echoing Romney’s economic “plan,” says (I paraphrase), “Yeah, some teachers and fire-fighters are going to lose their jobs—tough break”– and roughly 50% of the citizenry metaphorically nods in agreement. Too many teaching and fire-fighting jobs—that really the big economic problem? Cuts there are really the solution?

But let’s not get hung up on the policy-stuff or on GOPers v. Dems.

The point is that Romney, Gingrich, Obama, and politicians from across the spectrum often speak/write directly and clearly and still deceive. Now, it may be that fuzzy, slippery language helped to soften up some of the citizens so that they’re less likely to say, “Hey, wait a minute—that doesn’t make sense.” We grant that Orwell may be right about that. But in the specific instance, an absence of clarity isn’t the problem.

What to do, as a writer, not to get on Orwell’s enemies-list:

Make yourself write clearly, but of course keep the rhetorical situation in mind: the purposes and audience of what you’re writing. For instance, Wild Bill may write something in a political science article that seems unclear to me but only because I’m not part of his intended audience. People in his line of work will read what I read and in no way think it’s unclear.

Work on eliminating bad habits. Be less lazy and careless as you write and especially as you revise. When you revise, be kind of tough on yourself–but not pathologically so. It’s possible to get so compulsive you can’t get your work done.

Keep in check any lurking desires to “sound” smarter or more important than you really are. If you’re using writing or speaking to deceive and you know the deception to be wrong (sometimes deception is not wrong), check yourself. Say, “All right, I’m being a bull-shitter here, it’s not right, and I’d better go back and get rid of the bullshit”

Sure, clichés, jargon, stock phrases, and euphemisms may come up in your writing and make it less clear, precise, and honest. If so, edit them out. But other types of words and phrases may cause more problems than these, so don’t treat Orwell’s examples as gospel, or a s formula. Think for yourself.

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