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.