How I learned to stop worrying and love the f-bomb
posted at 4:08 pm on March 9, 2009 by Jeff Goldstein
Let me begin by noting that this post is not about Rush Limbaugh.
Now, just to be clear, Mr Limbaugh will appear in the post — and as a character he will be prominently featured — but this post is no more about Rush than, say, Moby Dick is “about” cetology, or “The Jeffersons” is “about” a string of dry cleaning stores.
I offer that disclaimer because what seems to have gotten lost in the late unpleasantness between those who have supported Mr Limbaugh for his comments, offered in response to a specifc (and leading) prompt about the trajectory of an Obama presidency (with supporters having been called, alternately, “cultists,” “denialists,” “extremists,” or “idealists,” depending on who is doing the describing) and those who have been more critical of Mr Limbaugh for what they argue was either the provocative nature of his formulation or the lack of precision with which it was delivered, is the reason why any of this is at all important to begin with: namely, because where you stand on the issue provides insight into how you think language works — or should work — something that, protestations by a few prominent right wing pundits to the contrary, is not only not trivial or “fundamentally unserious” but is in fact crucial, I’d argue, to any understanding of how and why the conservative movement finds itself out in the political wilderness.
But before I elaborate, allow me to do what so few commentators have done: provide the full context for Rush Limbaugh’s “I hope he fails” soundbite:
I got a request here from a major American print publication. “Dear Rush: For the Obama [Immaculate] Inauguration we are asking a handful of very prominent politicians, statesmen, scholars, businessmen, commentators, and economists to write 400 words on their hope for the Obama presidency. We would love to include you. If you could send us 400 words on your hope for the Obama presidency, we need it by Monday night, that would be ideal.” Now, we’re caught in this trap again. The premise is, what is your “hope.” My hope, and please understand me when I say this. I disagree fervently with the people on our side of the aisle who have caved and who say, “Well, I hope he succeeds. We’ve got to give him a chance.” Why? They didn’t give Bush a chance in 2000. Before he was inaugurated the search-and-destroy mission had begun. I’m not talking about search-and-destroy, but I’ve been listening to Barack Obama for a year-and-a-half. I know what his politics are. I know what his plans are, as he has stated them. I don’t want them to succeed.
If I wanted Obama to succeed, I’d be happy the Republicans have laid down. And I would be encouraging Republicans to lay down and support him. Look, what he’s talking about is the absorption of as much of the private sector by the US government as possible, from the banking business, to the mortgage industry, the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don’t want this to work. So I’m thinking of replying to the guy, “Okay, I’ll send you a response, but I don’t need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails.” (interruption) What are you laughing at? See, here’s the point. Everybody thinks it’s outrageous to say. Look, even my staff, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Why not? Why is it any different, what’s new, what is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what’s gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here. Why do I want more of it? I don’t care what the Drive-By story is. I would be honored if the Drive-By Media headlined me all day long: “Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails.” Somebody’s gotta say it.
From the context, it is clear what Limbaugh is on about, specifically, Obama’s “plans […] “as he stated them,” and his desire to see those plans fail.
That Rush made the statement on January 16th, in advance of any of these plans going into effect, makes hypothetical questions (and unscientific polls dedicated to interpreting them) about whether or not Mr Limbaugh wants to see the economy tank and America disintegrate into socialist hell if indeed those plans go into effect moot; Limbaugh speaks on air fifteen hours a week and would almost certainly have something specific to say about what he hopes to happen going forward. Which is why the trick by those in the media — and the cause of the failing of those on the right who have been critical of Rush’s supposed ambiguity — is the idea that Limbaugh’s initial statement is somehow frozen in time, like some verbal mosquito caught in amber. But in truth, his statement is not some fixed artifact incapable of clarification or amplification as new realities arise — and in fact Limbaugh has been at pains to reiterate exactly what he meant on a number of occasions now.
So why worry about those four words — and not address the context in which they were uttered and framed?
One answer we’re hearing from many political pragmatists and conservative realists is that those four words are what most people will hear, given that the media has seized on that formulation and built around it a narrative — at various times both implied and explicit — that Rush Limbaugh wants to see the President fail regardless of what Obama does while in office. ABC News, in fact, cut together a video in which they juxtaposed Rush uttering the words — again, removed from their context — with additional video clips that added a racial dimension to Limbaugh’s statement, a dimension since seized upon by “conservatives” like David Frum but which appear nowhere in Limbaugh’s statements.
The argument by these political realists or “pragmatists” goes something like this: people don’t bother to explore the news past soundbites and headlines, so all they are likely to take away from the media’s reporting on Limbaugh’s statement is that, as George Stephanopoulos among others have framed it, Rush “hopes the President fails,” the suggestion being that Limbaugh is hoping the country fails. And such a statement, in addition to being needlessly provocative, the realists tell us, also suffers from being less clear than it may otherwise have been.
Leaving aside for the moment the impossibly high standard that comes with demanding that a man who speaks mostly extemporaneously for fifteen hours a week need be so careful with his phrasings that they cannot be removed from their context and made to mean what they clearly weren’t intended to mean, except by great effort on the part of those whose aim it is to misrepresent intent, the subtext of such an argument is twofold: 1) by being more judicious with our words, we are providing those who are out to misrepresent us with a smaller target; and 2) that something less provocative will not alienate us with those we are hoping to win over to conservatism by appearing to them ugly or hostile — that as a strategy, being more solicitous about how we phrase things will help make conservatism more appealing, or at least, less revolting to those who remain undecided about their political allegiances.
And in fact, this is precisely the argument Patterico makes in his column here yesterday when he writes:
Some say: conservatives can’t worry about how they say things. They know their arguments will be distorted anyway, so they shouldn’t worry about being misinterpreted. I completely disagree with this argument. I say: when you know people will distort your meaning, you have to be extra careful to express yourself clearly.
Naturally, if what you are after is clarity, there is nothing wrong with expressing yourself in terms that make it difficult to take you out of context. And if we think back, we can remember that Bill Bennett tried that exact thing several years ago, only to have his statement shortened in such a way that the disclaimers he took pains to add were simply excised.
At the time — just as with Limbaugh — several conservative realists chided Bennett, not for being racist (the charge most frequently leveled at him), but rather for being impolitic.
Here’s what I wrote at the time, which applies equally to the Limbaugh dustup:
First, [certain conservatives are making the claim] that it is standard business and political doctrine that communicators be aware of how they are likely to be interpreted, which conflates the idea of practice with rectitude. And the fact is, being aware of how your utterances may be interpreted by those who are looking to maliciously misrepresent them in a soundbite culture is a fool’s errand—one that is shown up by the very issue at hand: Bennett was careful to note that the hypothetical in question was morally reprehensible—and in fact used it to argue against utilitarian rationalizations for moral problems (a stand that implicitly rejects statistics-based racialist arguments)—but that important qualification was left out of many media representations of his quote, which allowed those who wished to embarrass Bennett to call him out. In this case, Bennett clearly was aware of how his words might be used, but that awareness could not prevent misuse. For Bennett to have avoided the “major failing” [some conservatives identified] he would have had to avoid the subject altogether. And to do so is to trade intellectualism for the kind of circumspection that has the practical effect of chilling free speech.
Linguistically speaking, we have but two choices: either insist language be ground in the intentions of its utterers, or else conclude that we must each be responsible, in perpetuity, for whatever might be done with our utterance once it leaves our control. [Some conservatives] it seems to me, [are] choosing the latter—an unfortunate choice, in that it will forever codify a use of language that demands of its users the kind of overly-self-conscious self-censorship that is anathema to the free exchange of ideas. And if our goal is to hash out policy or to discuss potentially controversial issues, we simply must be able to do so without worry that parties invested in maintaining the status quo are allowed to silence us by assuming control over the terms of debate.
[The political pragmatists’] thesis here is straightforward—and it matches the theses of many of those (including the White House and the Corner’s Ramesh Ponnuru) who’ve taken Bennett to task for his “impolitic” remarks. Bennett, the argument goes, is a seasoned political operative and a professional communicator, and so he should have known that certain people—from the perpetually aggrieved to those in whose interests it is to try to smear what they take it he represents—would use his remarks against him. Which is certainly true.
But why must an awareness of such dictate a surrender to it?
Descriptions about how communication can be made to function are no substitute for the insistence that it be made to function as it should—in a linguistically coherent way that is dependent on appeals to the utterer’s intent, and so therefore refuses to give equal weight to the whims and motivations of interpreters who wish to use their interpretations as a rhetorical cudgel (in this case, quite disingenously) against the utterer. Each time a conservative makes such excuses for linguistic surrender in the guise of world weary linguistic pragmatism (which it is not; it is a feint toward relativism and certain pernicious post-modern ideas of language that undercut its moorings), they cede a bit more control over future debates to their opponents.
I refuse to do so. And while I can understand why many on the left wish me to be cowed by their linguistic presumptuousness, what I can’t understand is why so many on the right allow them to get away with it.
All of which brings us back to those conservative political realists and pragmatists now criticizing Rush over his impolitic (or unclear) remarks: their desire for Limbaugh to be more careful with his phrasings as a way to avoid being misrepresented in a soundbite culture is, frankly, a fool’s game — and, even more frankly, it is indicative of a political strategy that amounts to conceding loss, with the concomitant hope that perhaps we’ll lose more slowly.
— Which is not to say this is a conscious part of the strategy of the realists, just that it is the inevitable effect of backing such a strategy. Because even were Republicans to begin winning elections based on their newly found ability to negotiate a hostile media bent on misrepresenting them, they’d be compelled to maintain the practice of carefully parsing their words, which means they’d always be at the mercy of those looking to attack and discredit. And such has the effect both of chilling speech and of determining in what way a message must necessarily be delivered.
And when your opponents are making the rules, you are necessarily playing their game.
To put it more forcefully, it is a fact of language that once you surrender the grounds for meaning to those who would presume to determine your meaning for you, you are at their mercy. Nowhere is this more clear than with Britain’s new definition of racism, whereby racism is determined not by the actions of those purported to cause it, but rather by the feelings of the person who claims to be its victim. Frighteningly, such is a formulation Ms. Obama seems to share. And this is not a road we should be heading down, because at the end of that road lies meaning as determined by “interpretive communities,” which in political terms equates to particular interest groups. And that way lies totalitarianism and, to borrow from both G.B. Shaw and Jonah Goldberg, “liberal fascism.”
Patterico, in response to the linguistic aspect of my arguments, has offered his own idea about how interpretation should work, namely, that “words should be interpreted the way a reasonable person would interpret them.” But what Patterico doesn’t seem to understand is that a “reasonable” person might “reasonably” interpret, for instance, Curious George in a “reasonable” way, arriving at the conclusion that what we have is a post-colonial text: the man in the big yellow hat captures the native, brings him home and hopes to civilize him, at which point the reluctant captive’s essential Otherness rubs against the conventions of the culture into which he was forcibly assimilated. And mayhem ensues.
Or perhaps the story is homoerotic, with the cute, furry monkey spending time in the pajamas of the man in the big yellow (conical) hat, who by all appearances is a bachelor and someone who likes to spend a lot of time in a long overcoat.
Reasonable, certainly. And in fact, this is what literary critics do all the time. But what we need to do is ask ourselves, if what we are claiming to do is “interpret,” what is it that we think the author(s) were trying to say? What did they mean?
And it is at that point most of us recognize that what they meant to do was write a children’s story about the exploits of a curious monkey.
To say that “words should be interpreted the way a reasonable person would interpret them” is to open texts up to whatever people can reasonably do with an authors marks, which, while this can prove enjoyable and even useful or enlightening in some way, has the dangerous effect of conflating the intentions of those doing the decoding with the intentions of those who did the original encoding. And if what we are trying to do is communicate — to understand a message as it proceeds along the interpretive chain — it is imperative that we work to uncover the meaning as it was designed to be received.
But back to politics: if, as I’ve argued, political realism as a strategy is doomed — not because we can’t be more careful with our words, but rather because it is not always rhetorically effective to do so, nor does such care prevent us from being misrepresented, no matter how precise we try to be — what is the alternative? As many pundits will patiently explain to you, ideological purity and idealism doesn’t win elections, so if not pragmatism, what?
To which I reply, pragmatism is fine. But why not use our idealism pragmatically — which is to say, why not make it our strategy to use idealism as our cudgel against the media and the left in such a way that their tactic of misrepresentation and outrage no longer pays dividends? Why not make it our strategy to destroy their tactics — and in so doing, reaffirm the very principles at the heart of classical liberalism?
The fact of the matter is, for all of Limbaugh’s provocation, his statement, having been carefully and purposely misrepresented by the media as a way to demonize him and drive a divide between conservatives and more moderates within the party, has had the rather happy effect of getting us talking and arguing about what we as a movement should do next. And it was precisely his choice of language that baited the press and the left (and, more frightening even, the White House) to engage him, and to force the ideas of conservatism center stage.
That we are having this debate about how to proceed as a movement is a step in the right direction, I think — and it is a debate I don’t think we’d be having were it not for Rush’s choice of language. And so arguments that more clarity and less provocation are the proper way for conservatives to communicate in the current media culture must be tempered by the realization that sometimes the best defense is a good offense — and that what Rush has done is perhaps fire us up and get us angry enough finally to push back against a dishonest media. And a vital tool for doing so is language — more specifically, by refusing to spend any more time on the defensive, withering prey to a tactic the left has used so successfully to provide the very parameters for acceptable conservative speech.
Now, if only we can convince our elected officials to follow suit, we might be on to something.
Rush Limbaugh speaks for Rush Limbaugh. Which is why the next reporter who asks a prominent Republican figure whether or not he or she agrees with Limbaugh’s “hope” that “the President fails” should be met with a firm reminder that the reporter has left out an important part of the context, one that effectively alters the suggestiveness of the question, and that aside from such fundamental dishonesty, Rush Limbaugh is not the head of the party, nor is he an elected leader, so why on earth would I presume to answer for something he said?
If we are worried about “undecided voters” who get nothing but soundbite news, we must work to change the culture of how news is delivered. For my part, I don’t want to have to measure every word I say with the thought in mind that somebody is going to take me out of context. Instead, I’d like to be free to say what I mean, and when my meaning is obvious, I would like to know that honest people have my back — and will tell dishonest people to stop being dishonest, and uninformed people that they need to smarten up before they presume to join the conversation.
Oh. And OUTLAW!