Part 4—Our liberal thumbs on the scales: Back in 1969, Harvard professor Stanley Cavell published a set of essays under this title:
"Must We Mean What We Say?"
In a world where we're told to say what we mean, the title was somewhat eye-catching. It was also the title of the volume's first essay.
Forty-eight years later, Cavell's book is still in print. At the time it appeared, we were writing our senior thesis under Cavell's award-winning supervision. A study of Wittgenstein's "private language argument," it could perhaps be summarized thusly:
"Say what?" Or words to that effect.
Whatever! In recent weeks, we've thought of the title of Cavell's book as a certain moral stampede has been taking shape. As a key part of that stampede, we liberals have pleasured ourselves by interpreting what The Others have meant by a variety of extemporaneous emissions and comments.
We've performed this task with great aplomb, and with repetitive dumbness. Moral stampedes are bad for the head. They're also quite bad for the soul.
Might we make a general point? Quite routinely, it's hard to know what someone else has meant by some comment.
Routinely, this will be the case even when you're speaking with your closest friends. The problem of interpretation may grow when you try to interpret fleeting, extemporaneous remarks by public figures you've never met, folk you don't happen to know.
If we're willing to try to be honest for once, the interpretation of fleeting remarks may be especially difficult in the case of a person like Donald J. Trump, who is remarkably inarticulate in almost all instances; rarely has the slightest idea what the heck he's talking about; and contradicts himself with remarkable frequency, often within single statements.
You can actually ask your friends what they meant by some comment. You can't do that with Donald J. Trump. That said, another fact is clear:
Over and over, again and again, our tribal leaders pleasure us with their accounts of what The Others plainly meant by the various things they have said. These leaders—they're often corporate hacks—will tend to adopt the least flattering interpretation of whatever The Others have said.
Thus pleasured, we continue to watch our leaders' TV shows. We also get meaner and dumber. We end up being even dumber than we were at the start.
It's hard to believe that we need to massage Trump's remarks to build a case against him. The fact that we're strongly inclined to do so only shows—if we remember our Shakespeare correctly—"what tribals we mortals be."
Alas! As it turns out, the bard was right in that widely-cited assessment.
Alas! Our tribal leaders will rarely admit that it's frequently hard to say what someone else "meant" by whatever it is they said. Instead, we're handed the most pleasing account of what somebody meant, as has been done in the case of the statement transcribed shown below.
Yesterday, we discussed these remarks. Today, we'll mark a few highlights:
DONALD J. TRUMP (2/28/17): Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just—they wanted to do. They came to see me, they explained what they wanted to do, the generals—who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we've had in many decades, I would—I believe. And they lost Ryan. And I was at the airport when the casket came in, the body came in, and it was a very sad—with the family,and it's a great family incredible wife and the children. I met most of the family. And I can understand people saying that. I'd feel, you know, I'd feel— What's worse? There's nothing worse.In that statement, was Donald J. Trump "blaming the generals" for what happened in Yemen?
But again, this was something they were looking at for a long time doing. And according to General Mattis, it was a very successful mission. They got tremendous amounts of information.
In fairness, that's a highly unflattering account of what Trump meant. For that reason, it's tribally pleasing.
It's the least flattering account of what he said, but to what extent is it accurate? If we might borrow from our Wittgenstein: "No such thing was in question here, only how the opportunity to pleasure us rubes was used."
Was Donald J. Trump "blaming the generals" for what happened in Yemen? We'll note that, in the statement in question, he praised the generals for their greatness, and declared the mission a howling success.
Surely there was something more salient and overarching for which we could have blasted Trump that day. But tribal loathing must always be fed, and our leaders are massively paid for their skill at providing comfort food.
We're offering a basic thought here—the tribal soul loves to loathe. We'll also suggest a more sweeping point—we humans love to complete the circle!
We humans! We hate to say that it isn't clear what Person A meant by Statement Y. We humans love to finish the story. All too often, we finish the story in a low-IQ way which fluffs the views of our tribe.
Rachel does this; Lawrence does too. To state what is blindingly obvious, they're paid huge sums to perform this task. You are left with a decision:
Are you willing to get swept away?
Donald J. Trump is the craziest, most dangerous person who ever got anywhere near the Oval Office. We badly need to seek out ways to explain this fact to the wider public.
Instead, on cable TV each night, we play our reindeer games.
We did the same thing, not long ago, with Rudy Giuliani. At this point in his career, he too is an inarticulate, blustering blunderbuss. In fairness, though, we'll show you the gentleman's full remarks on the occasion in question.
He was asked, by Jeanne Pirro, about the so-called travel or Muslim ban. To watch the exchange, click here:
PIRRO (1/28/17): I want to ask you about this ban and the protests. Does the ban have anything to so with religion? How did the president decide the seven countries? I understand the permanent ban on the refugees. OK—talk to me about it.As you know, our tribe has selected shards from that statement to prove a pleasing point. We've claimed that Giuliani acknowledged that the current plan really is a "Muslim ban."
GIULIANI: I’ll tell you the whole history of it. When he first announced it, he said "Muslim ban." He called me up, he said, "Put a commission together, show me the right way to do it legally."
I put a commission together with Judge Mukasey, with Congressman McCaul, Pete King, a whole group of other very expert lawyers on this. And what we did was we focused on, instead of religion, danger. The areas of the world that create danger for us, which is a factual basis, not a religious basis.
Perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, and that's what the ban is based on. It's not based on religion. It's based on places where there are substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country.
To make that claim, we engaged in picking-and-choosing at its very best. We built our case around the meaning of the word "it" in the reported statement, "Show me the right way to do it legally." (Yesterday, we saw Hewitt and Maddow battling over the meaning of the word "they" in the statement by Trump which we've posted above.)
With respect to Rudy's remarks, we built our case a second way—by disappearing the repeated statements in which he said that the new directive wasn't based on religion. Our leaders felt we'd be better off if we weren't asked to consider those remarks.
Back in the day, Olivia Newton-John was hopelessly devoted to you. Today, as part of our tribal stampede, we're hopelessly devoted to this.
We aren't very bright and we aren't super honest. We still can't see that we aren't very bright, even after we managed to lose an election to the craziest, dumbest person who ever sought the office.
We still can't see how hapless We are. We're still blaming Them.
We also aren't especially moral, even as we stampede. But let's set our moral squalor aside for now. Tomorrow, we'll show you this:
We'll show you how preternaturally dumb we liberals actually are. How preternaturally dumb, and how preternaturally lazy.
Tomorrow: What did they mean by what they said? Our useless leaders nap in the woods on two consequential occasions.