Topic: Political Theory
On Taking Things Too Literally, and Too Seriously
The administration says things. The idea is that we're supposed to believe them. Why bother rehashing what turned out to be not so - the reasons we had to go to war, the threat of the WMD, the ties between the regime of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and that the whole thing would pay for itself, we'd be greeted at liberators and be out in a trice and all the rest? We didn't want this war but that man just wouldn't the inspectors in so we had to take over the place? The difference between what is said and what turns out to be so gets discussed enough. It makes people wary. The polling numbers show that. The president's approval ratings are at record lows, in Nixon territory, and the disapproval ratings on just about everything are abysmal. Pew polling shows the one-word descriptors for the president now include "idiot" and "incompetent." Yeah, yeah. Things are spinning downward.
But something is shifting. There may be new consultants at the White House trying a new tactic to stop the self-reinforcing spiral. The stance now seems to be that the problem is with how people interpret what they hear, not with what was said.
On April Fools Day we get this -
The trail run of the strategy seems to have been in January, just after the president delivered the State of the Union Address, with this -
You see what's happening here, the new strategy? The problem is we weren't paying enough attention in high school English class - one must learn the difference between literal statements and those which fall under the rhetorical devices known as metaphor, simile, allegory and the like. We've stupidly taken as literal what was meant as symbol. They were being, if you will, almost poetic, while we were the plodding dullards confused by thinking the poet was actually talking about the rose or the blackbirds.
The new line seems to come down to this - "How could you people be so dumb!" It's an attack on our simple-minded narrowness. We just don't "get" it.
We just don't get the subtleties, and this turns the tables on all those who thought the president was a dull frat-boy who didn't understand much, didn't read much, didn't want to know much and was incapable of coherently articulating what he was thinking, or even incapable of thinking coherently. Those people now are on notice. They are the simple-minded literalists who have little if any appreciation of complex thought and how language works. Back to high school English class for them - reading comprehension would be a place to start.
The man and his subordinates are the grownups, who give us these complex and subtle truths. Is it their fault the critics are the dullards in the back row who, way back when, sullenly wondered why they had to read Shakespeare when none of it makes any sense?
These new consultants, if there are such, are really good. It's a very clever turning the tables on those who keep nailing the administration on this or that - "You thought that statement was literal? What's your problem?"
The idea that the American public should think more clearly and recognize metaphor, and be able to differentiate between sign and symbol, is interesting. There's an enormous block of ordinary people who just hated all that stuff in high school English. There may be a backlash.
Or maybe it'll work. Who knows?
But of all the recent political maneuvering, this has more of a whiff of desperation than most all else.
It seems we're too subtle for you? That may not fly.
But what should you take literally?
Senator Feingold has introduced a motion to censure the president. Friday the 31st there were the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on that idea. There's the 1978 law, amended many a time and again quite recently, that states, without ambiguity, that if for some reason you need to secretly listen in on the telephone calls of American citizens, or read their mail, electric or paper, or any of that sort of thing, in that case you should get a warrant where you show why you need to do that. There's a special secret court just for that purpose. And if you're in a jam you can do the eavesdropping or whatever and get the approval after the fact. The president a few years ago authorized the NSA to do all that with the warrants. And he continues to renew the authorization every forty-five days. And he knows it's against the law, but his team says the law need not be followed, because he may have the choice, as commander-in-chief, to ignore any law that he thinks hobbles his efforts to get that bad guys. And there are all those video clips of him saying, as the NSA program was humming along, that no American need worry about the government spying on them, as if he ordered that he would always, every time, get a warrant from the secret court.
Now this seems straight-forward. He says he broke the law, is continuing to break the law, and will continue to do so - the congress can pass all the laws they want, but he decides which ones he should follow and at what times (which cannot be revealed for security considerations) and for what reasons (which cannot be revealed for security considerations). And he flat out said, publicly, that he would never do such at thing, as he was doing such a thing. So, Feingold suggests, those who passed the law in question should put down a marker, a censure in this case (with no real legal force) to note they passed a law that applied to the executive branch and the president said fine, but such things mean little if anything. Heck. What's the point in passing any law if one guy, the president in this case, says he alone is above any law he feels is getting in his way. And, oh yeah, he lied about all this to everyone. The censure is little more than a you-shouldn't-have-done-that place marker. Will anyone join him in saying those who make the laws have some purpose in what they do?
No. All but two of his fellow Democrats are running for the hills. The Republicans are somewhere between bemused and outraged, but like the hearings so they can expose Feingold as either an overly ambitious fool who want to be president, are a tight-ass who takes things, like the specifics of the law and the constitution, and himself, far too seriously. It's war, or something like it. Russ needs to loosen up.
As the New York Times covered the hearings here, you just cut the president some slack, because he means well, and that should be good enough for anyone. The Watergate guy, John Dean, who said this was worse than Nixon and the break-ins and all the rest, was full of crap -
Of course that's bull, as that's just what they claimed in 1969 (see this), but who reads old Time Magazine articles? For a full discussion of the illogic of the "good faith" see Glenn Greenwald's site here. The item is detailed but contains this - "... even if Bush's motives are as pure as the driven snow, it doesn't justify knowingly violating the law, at least outside of very extreme and short-term emergency scenarios. The viability of our system of constitutional government depends on the willingness of our leaders, particularly the president, to take seriously the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances embodied in our Constitution."
Well, he wasn't willing to take that stuff seriously, or putting it another way, people should loosen up. They take the law constitution far too literally.
And there's this, a discussion of Republican senator Orrin Hatch saying that "censure" itself was unconstitutional, even though he said precisely the opposite thing during the Clinton impeachment hearings. Whatever. Loosen up. It's just that law.
Glenn Greenwald on that -
Well, that is curious. But times change.
And there was the idea that this wasn't about the law at all. It was about the man. Senator Sessions said this - "Our President is an honest man. A candid man, a strong leader. And the people of America know it."
Good enough? People should loosen up?
The best the Democrats not with Feingold could come up with was this from the rising star, young senator Obama from Illinois, in a letter to a constituent -
So the question is whether the president understood the law and knowingly flaunted it, or he really is just a good guy doing his best. Obama thinks the former, but won't touch this with a ten foot pole. Let someone else decide.
Ah well, the free ride continues.
You see the pattern. All this business is coming down to telling the lawmakers and the country they all take things too literally and far too seriously. Got to stay loose, after all.
That actually may work. Americans don't much like details - "Just get it done."
That's not a bad thing to base your political strategy on. You can get away with murder, literally.