Tuesday, October 23, 2012

3rd Debate: Mitt Romney Says Nothing, Repeatedly

I admit that I have a tendency to talk more about language than about substance when analyzing political speech, but then again there isn’t much substance to be had.  And besides, the little things matter.  Failing to take note of tricks of language and Orwellian efforts at branding can mean lowering your guard against political manipulation.  So I don’t feel bad about picking at nits, because I believe those nits have a tendency to grow and consume public dialogue if they aren’t gotten rid of.

There was one talking point in last night’s presidential debate that I found exceptionally aggravating.  It was the point that Mitt Romney made about the perilous situation that the United States faces in the world because Iran is now “four years closer” to having a nuclear weapon.  Considering that that was repeated four times over the course of the ninety minutes, it seemed to me that it relied upon the assumption of an audience that wasn’t really paying close attention.  It grabbed my attention as an utterly empty political slogan the first time it was uttered, and the rest of the audience had three additional opportunities to get that same impression.

There’s really no other impression to be had.  Saying that Iran is four years closer to a nuclear weapon is like saying that I’m four years closer to a Nobel Prize.  Chances are pretty good that I’m not going to get one of those.  I guess you could argue that even if I don’t, as long as I keep working towards a relevant goal – writing literature, for instance – I might be closer to having a Nobel Prize when I die than I am right now.  But speaking more colloquially, if a certain outcome is never going to happen, one doesn’t get closer to it over time.

Now, in the event that I am going to win a Nobel Prize, then the hypothetical statement is true.  I am four years close to that outcome than I was four years ago.  Similarly, if at any point in the future, under any circumstances, Iran develops and builds a nuclear weapon, then they are presently four years closer to that outcome than they were four years ago.  That’s the way time works.  Future events get closer every day.  Would a Mitt Romney presidency unlock some secret of the universe that would allow time to flow backwards within the borders of one country?  Or was this intended as a subtle metaphor for bombing nations back to the Stone Age?

At this point, I imagine a lot of people will narrow their eyes disdainfully at me and hiss, “Oh, you know what he meant.”  And in a vague sense, yes, of course I do.  Obviously he meant to suggest that President Obama’s first term allowed the Iranian regime to become materially closer to having the knowledge and resources required for building a nuclear weapon.  But I don’t know what Romney meant by “four years closer,” presumably because “four years closer” doesn’t mean anything.  It’s the vaguest and least substantive way he could have phrased what he was trying to say, and since it was repeated four times over, that must have been deliberate.

If Romney had had a substantive claim to make about a worsening Iranian threat resulting from an Obama presidency, he had ample opportunity to make it.  He didn’t.  That’s not to say that there’s no such argument to be made, but it does suggest that Romney’s claims relied on bullshit – a disregard for the truth value of what he was saying, in favor of whatever would serve his ends if it happened, incidentally, to be true.

That behavior is quite in keeping with Romney’s entire approach to his campaign.  Typically, he seems to accomplish this exploitation of politically convenient narratives by plainly reversing position, or by outright lying.  Now, with the third debate, he seems to have uncovered the perfect means of utilizing bullshit, which is by making claims that cannot be contradicted because they provide absolutely no information, even as they sound damning for the opposing party.  I suppose that in that way Romney has succeeded in emulating Reagan.

The public cannot allow such casual disregard for truth or rational argumentation to stand as a relevant political tactic.  We cannot allow politicians, corporations, or anyone else to believe that they can sway us by branding and rhetoric alone, without having to appeal to factual data or to be transparent about their own views.  Such dialogue will only improve if we hone our ability to parse it and separate it and call out the bullshit.  We’re failing in that responsibility if Mitt Romney believes he can say four times in the same debate that we’re four years closer to the future, and have that somehow count in his favor.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Everyone Look at the Ignorant People!

I just happened upon a clip from Chris Matthews coverage of the supporter gatherings prior to the Vice Presidential debate.  It is not enormously significant, but it is a delicious bit of video, which I have an irresistible urge to comment upon.  The roughly one-minute clip begins with Matthews interviewing a random Obama supporter.  Just as he asks her about her health care situation, an old woman interjects from off camera by shrieking the word “communist!” in a voice that would have made it notably fitting if she had followed up with, “burn him!”

Everyone in frame reacts to the shout, but the woman being interviewed shakes it off and takes a few seconds to explain that she and her husband had recently lost health insurance for the first time in their lives.  Chris Matthews lets her finish her answer, but the speed with which he departs when she reaches the end of her sentence suggests an almost Pavlovian response to the shrill voice at the edge of the crowd.  He lowers the microphone immediately and says, “Okay let’s go over to this lady,” whereupon he seeks out the person who yelled communist, in order to ask her what she meant by it.

What follows is a stunningly awkward exchange in which Matthews asks the woman exceptionally unchallenging questions, essentially just repetitions of “what do you mean?” and she repeatedly fails to answer them, instead chiding the professional journalist and commentator to “study it out, just study it out,” derisively referring to him as “buddy,” and asserting that she knows what she means.  It would be painful to watch if I had any inkling that the woman had sufficient self-awareness to be embarrassed by it.  It would be hilarious if it wasn’t such a tragic commentary on the state of political discourse.  Watch it if you like:

Obviously, our culture and systems of information need to be reformed enough to precipitate a breaking point whereby nobody can remain so self-satisfied in their own ignorance as this woman showed herself to be.  Her willingness to gather at a political rally and shout her views on national television suggests that she is firmly committed to them, but even in the space of a minute, her complete inability to explain or defend those views paints the image of someone who has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about, but also doesn’t care that she’s not informed and doesn’t think she has to be.

I watch this woman wag her head at Chris Matthews and pause at length before shooting back, “You don’t know?” when asked what she means by “communist,” and I see someone who believes that in the face of any challenge to their worldview, a self-righteous attitude eliminates the need for facts and rationality, every time.  It is indicative of a sociopathic mindset that takes confidence and strength to trump all else, and that mindset seems like it is breeding extensively in the modern population.  That in turn is indicative of a serious cultural failure in America, though unfortunately one that is near impossible to overturn.

Far less difficult to attain is the personal breaking point that this clip seems to point to, though I must admit that I don’t know which side of it I ought to come down on.  I must admit that in watching the clip, the thought almost immediately crossed my mind that maybe this woman was some sort of amateur satirist aiming to portray the Republican opposition as deluded and irrational, and even that maybe she had been planted there by some group on the left.  I entertain those thoughts because, as with most conspiracy theories, it’s simply easier to believe than the frightful reality, which in this case would be that America is long on individuals who form firm, aggressive opinions on the basis of the extracts of ether and bullshit.

I know that my skepticism about public ignorance is unsustainable.  Indeed, I know that it can be harmful, because it’s a sort of ignorance in itself.  Fundamental to my personal philosophy is the idea that you can’t hope to effectively solve a problem if you deliberately avoid recognizing the reality and extent of that problem.  Public ignorance is the problem at the root of all other problems, because it is that which allows people to avoid reality, and thus deny solutions.

The problem here is that I don’t know whether I should be pushing myself towards the breaking point of taking public ignorance for granted, or if instead I should find a way to keep from assuming that conspiracies are afoot while still giving individuals the benefit of the doubt as regards their level of information.  In other words, one might say that witnessing ignorance of the proportions on display in this clip challenges me to avoid two negative breaking points, which threaten to make me either overly cynical about either human stupidity or overly cynical about political manipulations.

I’d venture to guess that not a lot of people have carefully-reasoned assessments of their fellow men, so this is a personal breaking point that others may have to contend with as well, but being personal, it’s of secondary importance.  What this video clip has brought to mind that could be addressed on a large scale right now is a question for the media about how to handle firm opinions voiced by the public.

I honestly can’t decide whether to praise or criticize Chris Matthews’ response to the political heckler.  Part of me wants to criticize just because I used to get a lot of enjoyment out of focusing my ire for the news media against Matthews, who, despite being a bright guy, was terrible at his job back when I considered MSNBC a news organization.  Now that his job is “partisan” rather than “journalist,” he doesn’t seem so bad.  Okay, it also helps that I don’t have a TV.  But in any event, even if Matthews remains professionally an idiot, the woman he had his brief exchange with is an idiot in much larger terms, and to an unquantifiably greater extent.

The relevant question, then, is, “Did Matthews have good enough reason to focus the attentions of the microphone and camera on this woman’s dimwittedly vociferous views?”  On the one hand, by giving her a voice once she’d asked for it, and contributing no commentary of his own, Matthews allowed the woman to provide her own refutation of her talking points.  The exchange conveyed the impression that extremist views are based on no information, which of course they often are.  That’s a good fact to put on display when the opportunity arises.

On the other hand, we have to remember the shamelessness with which the old woman held her ideas in absence of evidence or personal understanding.  Such shamelessness probably isn’t much affected by having a mirror held up to its own ignorance, and that fact threatens to let this incident stand as encouragement for other people like her.  As I said, the greatest breaking point involved here is also all but unattainable: the creation of a culture that prevents the embrace of ignorance.  For the foreseeable future, lack of information and presence of strong opinions will continue to go hand-in-hand among a sizable portion of the American public.  It will take generations of concerted effort to change that fact.  But that doesn’t mean that opinionated idiots will always be activists.

I estimate that much less comprehensive cultural changes could prevent people who hold uninformed opinions from being so vocal and so public with those opinions.  And one thing that probably doesn’t help is giving voice to those opinions, in all their self-righteous vacuity, on national television.  Viewers at home whose perspective on American politics don’t go much farther than “he’s a communist!” won’t be shamed or enlightened by their impromptu spokesperson’s self-defeated, just as she wasn’t shamed or enlightened by it.  To the contrary, the presence on the airwaves of uninformed declarations and accusations provides more fodder for lazy people to find something to parrot as they make the leap from uninformed citizen to armchair activist.

The opinions that are screeched from the sidelines are the ones that most need to be debunked once they’re present, but they’re also the ones that most need to be disallowed from taking the field.  Overall political discourse is cheapened not only by their ignorance but also by their lack of decorum.  As regards ethics, I think I am so committed a deontologist that I have internalized Kant’s categorical imperative.  When I see things like this video clip and start wondering what ought to have been done in the situation I find myself universalizing the act I witnessed and looking for its effect on the moral system.

In this case, what would the effect be if journalists always turned their attention to the loudest and most abrasive commenter on the scene as Matthews seems to have done?  He even turned his attention away from the woman who was contributing relevant anecdotes to the public understanding, in order to give the shrill, ancient cold warrior a chance to explain her unexplainable views.  I fear that the current state of journalism is not far from embracing the loudest participant in any debate, because the hypothetical result is that all of American politics becomes a shouting match, and that is seemingly not far from the situation that we already face.

In light of that threat of a still more corrupted political and journalistic landscape, I’m tempted to say that although the woman’s response was rather satisfying, the better thing to do in that situation and all similar situations is to keep the person who’s shouting epithets off of our television screens.  But I’d be interested to know what readers think of the effects of either encouraging or discouraging uninformed speech.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Poverty Still Invisible on Debate Stage

Wednesday’s debate made it clear to me that American politics remains tragically far from an essential breaking point in how people talk about the economy. One of the nice things about living in the computer age is the access that it gives us to transcripts and the Ctrl+F keystroke. That’s great for people who are interested in analyzing branding strategies and verbal rhetoric. It is perhaps more useful in instances where the trends are chasing, which even a casual listen to the recent debate would have revealed is not presently the case.

In an article at AND Magazine months ago, I criticized the American political system for tendency to entirely eschew reference to poverty except for when such reference is politically, and momentarily, useful. The entire narrative of political economy on both sides relies on the mass delusion that everyone in America is, or at least will be, middle class. Concordantly, in a ninety minute debate that was entirely about the economy, President Obama and Governor Romney spoke solely to that artificially inflated middle class, and almost entirely about them.

I waited with low expectations for any mention whatsoever of the poor, and finally encountered one about half an hour into the debate. It didn’t exactly create a new trend in the dialogue afterwards.

The word “poor” was used exactly four times (excluding Jim Lehrer speculating about the job he did as moderator). Each of those four instances belonged to Mitt Romney, three of them appearing in the discussion of shifting Medicare to states. His use of the term in that context, and that context alone, only furthers the evidence of federal disregard for lower class Americans and for policies that might positively affect them en masse.

Said Governor Romney:
I would like to take the Medicaid dollars that go to states and say to a state, you're going to get what you got last year, plus inflation, plus 1 percent, and then you're going to manage your care for your poor in the way you think best.
In other words, addressing the horrors of poverty is not and ought not be in the purview of the president of the United State, nor even of the rest of the federal government. I would even go so far as to say that the subtext of this – as seems to be in keeping with Romney’s deluded views about universal economic opportunity and social mobility – is that poverty is a transient state, and something that is made more or less likely by policy.

What is especially objectionable in this skeleton of a platform on the subject is the fact that he presents poverty as an affliction that calls only for “care,” which is a word that sounds decidedly passive in comparison with other alternatives, like “intervention.” But why should society intervene to create economic opportunity or to close the gulf between social classes, which is yawning wider with every passing year? Why indeed, when for the likes of Mitt Romney, staying poor is a matter of choice, or the result of a lack of ambition? Given that worldview, it is the job of the individual state to see to it that their poor don’t die for their failings, but it is nobody’s job to provide the afflicted with a hand up in their struggle to escape the circumstances into which they were either born or thrust.

And Obama’s refusal to let the word “poor,” or even the phrase “low-income” pass his lips suggests that there is no ideological opposite of that perspective represented on the national stage. There is no political worldview that dares accept poverty or economic disparity as a reality in this country, much less acknowledge it as the result of policies or flaws in the economic structure of the nation.

The fourth time that Governor Romney used the word “poor,” he immediately corrected himself, referring to Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as affecting “poor kids,” then saying “or lower-income kids, rather.” The slip may have momentarily belied his message, but it also pointed to the skill with which he had trained in properly re-branding his views for the debate audience. It is difficult to think of a reason why Romney would have corrected himself via synonym, if not because he knew that he was not supposed to use the word “poor” in the context of national policy.

In fact, the same training was on display in his discussion of the segment of American society that politicians are allowed to talk about. The word “middle” appeared in the debate, with regard to socio-economic status, a total of thirty-one times. Nineteen of those instances belonged to President Obama, and twelve to Governor Romney. But what’s especially remarkable is the distinct difference in corollary words used by each man. Nine of the thirteen times Romney used the word “middle,” it was to refer to “middle-income” Americans. Obama, by contrast, used the phrase “middle class” in all nineteen cases.

This matters either to what each man believes about the distribution of wealth in America, or to the image that he wants to present of it, or both. With the deliberate application of a less common term, Romney, evidently, is trying to promote the fantasy that there is no social class in America, that there are those that work harder and earn more, and those that work less and earn proportionally, but no natural division between them. That narrative has underlay a great many of his public comments, though nobody but Mitt Romney can say for certain whether he truly believes it or if it simply advances his goals.

Obama, by contrast, sticks to the term “middle class” throughout discussions of economic policy. Speaking about impacts of policy upon only that groups, which almost all Americans believe they are a part of, is politically beneficial, though ideologically weak. But also, speaking about them as a social class must be a conscious decision on some level.

Obama heard Romney refer to middle-income Americans nine times during their exchanges, and he never modified his language to match or to directly challenge the rhetoric. Either he wasn’t paying attention to the vagaries of diction, or he believed it to be politically preferable to advance a narrative that acknowledges class divisions as an American reality. Naturally, if the latter is the case, I’m on his side. But then I wonder where, if class divisions exist, is the lower class, the poor, the perennially underprivileged? And what do the president’s – or the governor’s – policies proposed to do for them.

We never hear an answer to that question. And we never have. Certainly never during this election cycle. Never even throughout my adult life. There is a clear division between the candidates and their parties in terms of how they understand the social structures of America. In the Republican narrative, economic opportunity exists in equal measure for all and income levels differ, but never according to external factors, never in a way that patriotic Americans could construe as unfair. In the Democratic narrative, government actually has a role to play in the economic lives of its citizens, because there are natural divisions and inequities that must be controlled.

One of these, of course, is the groundwork for the lesser of two evils. But judging by the language of debates and national speeches, in neither narrative do poor citizens exist. And that makes each side similarly a party to the same grand delusion. Towards what end does every national candidate embrace that willful ignorance? Is it that they are afraid of acknowledging society’s evils? Is it tacit acceptance of the selfishness of voters, which guides them to turn a blind eye to that which doesn’t personally affect them? It can’t be that they’re simply unwilling to take on a problem that they know they can’t solve, because the entire process of campaigning is built on making impossible and contradictory promises.

Perhaps that’s just it. The political lives of our would-be leaders are constructed around convincing voters to believe in absurd fantasies about the candidate and his capabilities. Perhaps nobody wants to mention poverty because everybody has already been convinced of the fantasy that it’s not a real problem in America. Everybody, that is, except for the poor. They exist.