THE POLITICS OF MORAL STAMPEDE: Dionne reports what Sessions said!


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.

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?
Credit where due. Dionne didn't thunder that Sessions "lied" to Franken. He did judge that Sessions "misled the Senate."

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?

SESSIONS: I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians.
For the full text of that exchange, see below. Let's return to Dionne's account of that exchange:

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.


  1. Relax Bob. You are getting worked-up over nothing.
    Let's get to the 8 official investigations (like the 8 official GOP-led investigations into HRC), and if they all exonerate Trump of any wrong-doing (like the 8 official GOP-led investigations of HRC did), we'll just move on.
    I'm not sure I'm understanding what all this hand-wringing is about.

    1. Why has Somerby become a Trump apologist? This goes beyond a simple desire for fairness in reporting.


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  2. Sontag didn't use "interpretation" in the same sense as Somerby, but never mind. Somerby is clearly more comfortable with hermaneutics than erotics.

  3. The Russia-Trump narrative is over and all it accomplished was drawing the spotlight to Obama's abuse of power.

    "That supposed FBI investigation of collusion with the Russians? Never mind . . . They’re in retreat now. You may have missed it amid President Trump’s startling Saturday tweet storm, the recriminations over president-on-candidate spying, and the Jeff Sessions recusal — a whirlwind weekend. But while you weren’t looking, an elaborate narrative died.

    For months, the media-Democrat complex has peddled a storyline that the Putin regime in Russia hacked the U.S. presidential election. There is, of course, no evidence that the election was hacked in the sense that the actual voting process was compromised. Rather, there is evidence that e-mail accounts of prominent Democrats were hacked months before the election, and thousands of those e-mails were published by WikiLeaks in the months leading up to the election.

    Here’s the most interesting part: Now that they’ve been called on it, the media and Democrats are gradually retreating from the investigation they’ve been touting for months as the glue for their conspiracy theory. It’s actually quite amusing to watch: How dare you suggest President Obama would ever order surveillance! Who said anything about FISA orders? What evidence do you lunatic conservatives have — uh, other than what we media professionals been reporting — that there was any investigation of the Trump campaign?

    But have you noticed? While all this head-spinning legal jibber-jabber goes back and forth, the foundation of the false narrative we’ve been hearing since November 8 has vanished. Now that we’re supposed to believe there was no real investigation of Trump and his campaign, what else can we conclude but that there was no real evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia . . . which makes sense, since Russia did not actually hack the election, so the purported objective of the collusion never existed. Trick or tweet?"

    1. Sure. Nothing to see here folks. Wrongdoing by Trump and associates? Conspiracy theory. Wrongdoing by Obama/Hillary? Obviously true a priori. Flynn resigns? Didn't happen. Sessions recuses? He was just kidding. Hacking of DNC/Podesta, released by Wikileaks with Russian involvement? HaHa..Hilarious..all in fun. Double standard, GOP is thy name. Poor little victim Trump.

    2. 1:19,
      When you look in the mirror, does it say "sucker" on your forehead forwards, or backwards?

  4. "I didn’t have communications with the Russians of that obviously extremely serious type."

    This is the obvious meaning to everyone, even those lying about lying. Sessions volunteering the additional information wasn't "jarring" but the words of a person who has no reservations making the additional declaration because he doesn't consider anything he's done to be illegal, suspicious, or wrong.

    This is how human beings operate. Other human beings with intact minds are able to interpret such a statement and what it means and doesn't mean. The volumes of commentary suggesting Sessions was did something wrong here represent deliberate lying, stupidity, or mental illness.

    1. Sure. Let's give all Republicans some slack, OK? We know they always mean to tell the truth. Meanwhile, if Hillary testified that she was wearing a red pantsuit on Benghazi Monday, when it was really maroon, we must, of course, prosecute. Pfft.

    2. oh come on. " I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians." If that's not a lie, then what is? GOP apologists permeate the internet, even at this site, amazing.

  5. And how do "humans with intact minds" interpret the ravings of a pseudo-human with a broken mind like Donald Trump? Guess we must not be sane enough to decipher his nuggets of truth and sanity.

    1. Trump has an unconventional personality, especially for an elected official at his level, but not a broken mind. He breaks political protocols that have existed forever but are not valuable. He's not as dishonest as his detractors who take him literally because it's useful to do so. It's unlikely any of his supporters actually take all or any of his comments or claims literally. When they are understood tactically or in the context of the broad messages that got him elected, they are not seen by his as dishonest even if not literally truthful. "3 million illegals voted" is intended to move the conversation to the conclusion that there is fraud and it helps his opponents. "Obama tapped me" means Obama's government engaged in political targeting. "The best health care you could imagine in your wildest dreams" means better than what they have now.

    2. Trump has an unconventional personality,

      He's a fucking mentally unhinged narcissistic lunatic

      He breaks political protocols that have existed forever but are not valuable.

      He lies like an open fire hydrant spouting sewage under pressure.

    3. Can we agree to disagree?

    4. ‘nobody knew health care could be so complicated’

      Here you go Boris. I have the secret Devious Don decoder ring also.

      What he is saying here is that he knows his adoring fans are so fucking stupid he don't give a fuck what he says, they'll defend him.

      The only true thing I ever heard him speak was

      Back to Videos

      Trump: "I Could Stand In the Middle Of Fifth Avenue And Shoot Somebody And I Wouldn't Lose Any Voters"

      so fuck off, pretzel boy. I think I spotted you at the mall today, hanging from the display at Auntie Anne's Pretzel Kiosk.

    5. This made me laugh, mm, but still working out the hanging at the pretzel kiosk reference. Don't ever change. But in addition to the lyrical viscera it would be nice to see some actual argument with facts and everything.

    6. Anon 12:42, he twisted himself into a pretzel rationalizing the bizarre behavior of our mentally unhinged president. Sorry, I get so mad sometimes I can't help myself.

  6. Sessions' answer did not come in a political vacuum. The Russian questions have been swirling about for some time.

    1. Allegations and questions are not meaningful even when they swirl.

  7. And today Trump is accusing Obama of releasing a bunch of terrorists from Guantanamo to commit new crimes. Unfortunately the 117 who did commit more crimes were mostly released by Bush, not Obama as Trump claimed.

    I don't care whether Trump believed his own falsehood or was cynically lying to the public. He says things that are wrong and cannot be trusted. He is attacking Obama and it doesn't matter whether it is out of malice, or out of cynical political opportunism, or both. These observable actions make Trump a reprehensible person and a bad President.

    1. No politician should be taken at face value. Don't we all figure this out by adulthood?

    2. 2:54 PM,
      I knew Hillary wasn't corrupt.

  8. There's nothing "convenient" for Sessions to fail to mention his meetings with the Russian Ambassador, because there's nothing wrong with such a meeting.

    1. what did they discuss comrade DinC? I want to see the official senate documents recording their official discussion. Also, all of Beauregard's official fucking emails concerning this meeting and his issues with Russia.

    2. DavidinCal,
      Now do you see how fucking stupid you looked calling Hillary Clinton "corrupt"?

    3. See a bit of it at the link. Fantastic theater experiment: A male Hillary and a female Trump.
      Using text and gestures and tone from the 2016 debates, actors play the 2 candidates, with the gender flipped. The audience is surveyed before and after, and pretty much everyone is stunned to discover that gender bias did not work at all as they thought it did. The male Hillary was rather repulsive, and Trump's approach to communication was quite successful coming from a woman.

      David in Cal

    4. Everyone pay attention to how comrade DinC the fucking warped twisted bitter old troll tries to deflect the subject matter under discussion. That would be PissBoy Trump's treason.

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