Part 2—Exactly as we'd predicted: In the street-fighting year of 1966, Susan Sontag published a famous book: Against Interpretation and Other Essays.
It opened with an eponymous essay, Against Interpretation. According to the leading authority, that essay "famously finishes with the words, 'in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.' "
Is that still true? In place of a hermeneutics, do we need an erotics of art today? We'd be inclined to answer your question this way:
In a sense—but not as such!
At any rate, recent attempts to discuss the words of Attorney General Sessions have made us think of Sontag's famous work, or at least of its title. Within the realm of journalism, it's time for us to stop interpreting, as least until we learn to interpret better.
In the modern journalistic context, interpretation frequently starts with shaky paraphrase, fueled by confidence in moral assessments and built upon shards of quotation. So it went in yesterday's Washington Post, when E. J. Dionne reported Sessions' now-famous exchange with Al Franken in precisely the way we described in last Friday's post.
In this passage from Dionne's column, shards of quotation may perhaps have tilted our interpetive scale. At any rate, Dionne reports what was said in exactly the way we predicted:
DIONNE (3/6/17): The Post’s revelation last week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak came after Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, lied about the nature of his own Russian contacts. Flynn stuck to false claims about his conversations with Kislyak until The Post and other media blew them out of the water. Flynn had to resign.Credit where due. Dionne didn't thunder that Sessions "lied" to Franken. He did judge that Sessions "misled the Senate."
Sessions’s convenient memory lapse (“I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians”) was especially jarring because it came after an inquiry from Sen. Al Franken in which the Minnesota Democrat did not even ask Sessions whether he met with Russians.
Franken’s query ended this way: “. . . if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Why did Sessions think he had to respond to a question that wasn’t even posed?
Personally, we'd skip that interpretation. We'd also skip the snark about Sessions' "convenient memory lapse." (We see no obvious evidence that Sessions suffered a "memory lapse" at all.)
Let's put these issues to this side in favor of something more grand! As you can see in the mark-up we show you below, Dionne reported that February 10 exchange in precisely the way we described last week.
Shards of quotation were found in Dionne's account. A reader of Dionne's column was told that this exchange occurred:
FRANKEN: . . . if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?For the full text of that exchange, see below. Let's return to Dionne's account of that exchange:
SESSIONS: I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians.
In Dionne's column, three little dots told the reader that some of Franken's remarks had been omitted. There was no sign that Sessions' reply had been edited at all.
Our view? For our money, Dionne's editing may have tilted the interpretive scale a tad. He omitted the part of Franken's (somewhat rambling) question in which he referred to new allegations 1) that "Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump" and 2) that "there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."
(Franken was quoting CNN. If these new claims are true, he said, "it's obviously extremely serious.")
Dionne also omitted the part of Sessions' brief reply in which he said, "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities." As Sessions started his answer, he thereby signaled that he was discussing the "obviously extremely serious" activities to which Franken had referred.
Might these omissions keep us from seeing what Sessions meant in the part of his answer we were allowed to see? Did Sessions possibly mean something like this:
"I didn’t have communications with the Russians of that obviously extremely serious type."
Plainly, that isn't what Sessions said. Could that be what he meant? We don't have the slightest idea. Nor do we massively care.
In our view, the moral stampede surrounding that answer is more significant, by far, than Sessions' intention in giving his rather brief answer. We say that because you can always ask Sessions what he meant by his answer. But once a moral stampede occurs, it's hard to recall the political forces it may have unloosed.
What did Sessions mean by his answer? Franken didn't ask a follow-up question that day, nor did he follow up with later written questions.
When Senator Patrick Leahy did pose a written follow-up question about any possible meetings between Sessions and Russian officials, he framed his question extremely narrowly. He didn't seem to care about any such meetings, except to the extent that the 2016 election might have been discussed at such meetings.
Leahy asked if the election has been discussed in any such meetings. He didn't ask if any such meetings had occurred.
In all candor, Franken, Leahy and other Democrats didn't seem hugely interested in meetings with Russian officials as a general matter. In his follow-up written question, Leahy inquired about any such meetings, but only in a narrow context.
(As soon as the moral stampede began, Leahy ran to CNN and flatly misstated what he had asked. No one in our tribe's moral stampede seemed offended by that.)
Are we after information concerning Trump and the Russians? Or is it really moral outrage we seek?
(As Moses asks in the Paul Reiser joke: Are we here to play golf? Or are we just gonna f*ck around?)
Have we liberals simply been seeking the latest chance to voice our high-minded moral outrage? We'll postpone our search for an erotics of art until we examine that question in more detail.
For ourselves, we aren't real concerned by Sessions' answer to Franken. The moral stampede, which feels quite familiar, seems like a larger concern.
We're also concerned by the lack of interpretive skill put on display in this episode. Again and again in the past thirty years, our politics has been been defined by interpretive episodes of this highly charged type.
What did Politician A actually mean by Statement Y? Alas! When we try to answer such questions, our level of interpretive skill often seems strikingly low.
In the next few days, we'll look at a few such interpretive episodes. Again and again, we'll see a large amount of moral heat producing an absence of light.
First example: Did Donald J. Trump blame the generals for what happened in Yemen last month? When Hewitt and Maddow clashed by night concerning this somewhat minor point, we almost thought we saw the role of unyielding true belief in our moral stampedes.
Tomorrow: Did Donald J. Trump blame the generals for what happened in Yemen? Coming Thursday: The most consequential interpretive episode of the past twenty-five years.
The full text of the exchange: Here's the full text of the exchange from which Dionne drew his shards:
FRANKEN (1/10/17): OK. CNN has just published a story—and I'm telling you this about a news story that's just been published. I'm not expecting you to know whether or not it's true or not.
But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that, quote, "Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump." These documents also allegedly say, quote, "There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."
Now again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so—you know. But if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious, and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have, did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it.