TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2018
Semantics and paraphrase: Once upon a time, more than twenty years ago, it began to occur to us that our society's guardians had perhaps abandoned their posts.
The great, dark trees of incoherence cast a deep shade all around. As far as a person could see in the course of a day, or even in the course of a week, there was nothing but incomprehension. It was incompetence and inanity pretty much all the way down.
There was no Fox News at this time. There was no MSNBC. Within the big woods of "cable news," there was only CNN—CNN, and the rational animals who made their livings reciting script upon its various programs.
What made us start to think that the guardians had abandoned their posts? We think first of the great Medicare non-discussion of 1995 and 1996.
Every night, pundits would gather on CNN to pretend to debate the Republican Party's Medicare proposal. This proposal was being advanced by the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich.
Night after night, month after month, the discussion which wasn't a discussion would break down along mandated line—on Crossfire, let's say:
On Crossfire, the two disputants "from the left" would say that Gingrich had proposed cutting $270 billion from the Medicare program.
The two disputants "from the right" would say that no one was cutting the Medicare program at all. According to these disputants, the GOP plan had merely proposed "slowing the rate at which the Medicare program would grow."
Eventually, Republicans began to claim it was demagogic to use the term "Medicare cuts" at all. They began insisting that journalistic use of this term was the latest example of "liberal bias."
In response to this extended attack, journalists began employing a string of euphemisms. These alternative terms were used instead of the allegedly demagogic term, "Medicare cuts."
No one ever quite explained what was wrong with this traditional term. Medicare "cuts?" This term had always been used, within both parties, to describe budget proposals of the type the GOP had made.
But so what? This non-discussion pseudo-discussion went on, night after night, for well over a year. As journalists scrambled to find softer terms, no one untangled the conceptual mess at the heart of this pseudo-discussion.
In policy terms, this badly bungled pseudo-discussion formed the heart and soul of the non-debate pseudo-debate which led up to November 1996 election, in which President Clinton won re-election over Candidate Dole.
Clinton won, Dole lost. But this non-discussion pseudo-discussion lay at the heart of that campaign. Night after night, for month after month, our journalists and cable news pundits performed a scripted non-conversation which spread confusion all over the land.
This non-conversation was, pure and simple, a semantic dispute. The two parties to this discussion agreed on all relevant facts.
That said, no one came forward to clarify this stultifying conceptual mess. Later, it occurred to us that this had been a good example of the guardians leaving their posts.
No logician ever stepped forward to straighten out that semantic conceptual mess. It fell to us to unpack this nonsense in a Baltimore Sun op-ed.
It fell to us, and to Al Franken, who was then still a comedian. Franken clarified this pitiful mess in a comical but instructive part of his 1996 best-seller, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.
Two comedians had been able to clarify this braindead semantic dispute! As far as we know, no journalists ever did, except perhaps for Maraniss and Weisskopf—and no professor ever stepped forward to serve in a guardian role.
None of our nation's brilliant logicians stepped in to untangle this mess. No other professor came forward to serve in the guardian role.
A few years later, a similar situation obtained when a twenty-month presidential campaign foundered on the basic logic of paraphrase and quotation.
We refer to Campaign 2000, coverage of which which began in earnest in March 1999. As a few graybeards may still recall, that entire campaign turned on the claim that one of the candidates, Candidate Gore, "had a problem with the truth."
Allegedly, this meant that Candidate Gore was like his boss, President Clinton. Clinton had only recently escaped removal from office in his Senate impeachment trial.
For twenty months, that whole campaign turned on the basic logic of paraphrase and quotation. Starting in March 1999, mainstream journalists, again and again, paraphrased and "quoted" statements by Candidate Gore in ways which were designed to show his "problem with the truth."
Had Al Gore said he invented the Internet? Again and again, for twenty straight months, that's what our journalists said.
Had he said he inspired Love Story? Had he said he discovered Love Canal? Had he said he grew up on a farm, when he really grew up in a fancy hotel—even in the Ritz Carlton?
In September 2000, did the candidate lie when he told a joke about a union lullaby? Did he lie about the cost of his pet dog's arthritis pills?
These claims were widely bruited in September 2000, when new polling had made it seem that Candidate Gore was pulling away from Candidate Bush. Early in October, new claims of new lies appeared in the wake of the first Bush-Gore debate, undermining initial impressions that Gore had outperformed Bush.
Simply put, the acts of bogus paraphrase never stopped. Had the candidate "told Time magazine last year that he enacted the Earned Income Tax Credit, which of course went into law before he was ever in Congress?" Lawrence O'Donnell revived that groaner very late in the campaign, appearing on the high-profile syndicated program, The McLaughlin Group.
AL GORE, LIAR! From March 1999 through November 2000, it was the central "journalistic" narrative of Campaign 2000.
The press corps' crescendo of claims turned on highly tendentious acts of paraphrase and quotation. These presentations raised the most basic questions about the logic of these practices, but no logician rose to serve in the time-honored guardian role.
How silent were the professorial lambs? Back in 1978, Professor Bok had published a widely-praised book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.
As of Campaign 2000, this highly-regarded book was still in print. Indeed, a new paperback edition had appeared in 1989—and another new edition appeared in 1999!
That said, Professor Bok had nothing to say about the claims against Candidate Gore. Needless to say, no other logician or ethicist stepped forward to discuss the endless claims being lodged by our mainstream "press corps." Darlings, it isn't done!
These are just two examples—examples from long ago. That said, people are dead all over the world because these guardians walked off their posts during Campaign 2000. There's no limit on the disgust we should feel for these cosseted, useless figures.
Our logicians and ethicists had nothing to say about these long-running episodes. That said, these professors had long since been reassigned to posts outside the public square—to posts in mahoganied academic lounges, or perhaps to posts in the south of France.
The public was badly in need of their help, but the public's need wouldn't be served.
These guardians' refusal to serve continues to this day. The perpetual silence of these upper-class lambs helped give us our President Trump.
The polis will always need guardians! So Plato declared long ago in his famous though tedious book, The Republic. It represents one of the very few things Plato clearly got right.
The polis needs guardians, Plato declared. Tomorrow, we'll review his statements on this obvious point.
Our logicians and ethicists ought to be serving in a guardian role! But these people walked off their posts long ago. The silence of these useless people will be explored in our posts all week.
Tomorrow: Plato gets it right!
Short, medium and long: Long ago, when this site was still young, we posted three reports, of varying length, concerning the Medicare non-discussion discussion.
"The Speaker's new language" was our Medicare magnum opus. In it, we quoted Franken's book at some length.
Our shortest treatment of the matter bore the attractive title, "A tale of three numbers." For links to our three reports, you can just click here.
In these reports, we unpacked the basics of this semantic gong-show. That said, our nation's famous logicians offered no help at any point in this process.
Our logicians were locked in their aeries, as they have been for some time. Clownishly, they were discussing the set of all sets not members of themselves. Their refusal to serve helps explain how Donald Trump got where he is.
Years later, Paul Krugman linked to one of our Medicare reports to help clarify this matter. We can't remember when he did it, although you could find it on line.