Are more such vile comments to come?: In this morning's New York Times, a letter writer in Los Angeles discusses Joe Biden's alleged gaffe.
The New York Times published his letter.
The writer is a recent graduate of the law school at the University of the Pacific. We're sure that he's a good, decent person—but his letter helps us contemplate the logic of modern gaffe culture:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (5/28/20): How does The New York Times decide which offensive comments made by presidential candidates are worth writing full articles about? Joe Biden’s comment on “The Breakfast Club” radio show—that voters “ain’t black” if they are torn between him and Donald Trump—was obviously a gaffe and he was right to apologize for it, but it was not the worst thing said by a presidential candidate this past week.The writer agrees that Biden committed a gaffe. Indeed, he says it's "obvious" that he did so.
The day before, President Trump visited a Ford factory and stated that the Nazi sympathizer Henry Ford had “good bloodlines.” The comment was not even mentioned in your article about Mr. Trump’s factory visit, despite being arguably more vile than anything Mr. Biden said during his “Breakfast Club” interview.
Will The New York Times repeat its missteps of 2016, or will Mr. Biden’s gaffes, of which there are sure to be more, be put into their proper context and held up against the words and actions of his opponent?
As he closes, he even says that there are sure to be more to come!
The writer seems to say that a "gaffe" is an "offensive comment." At one point, he even seems to say that Biden's comment was "vile." It's just that something Trump said about Henry Ford was "arguably more vile."
(Warning! The writer says that Trump's remark was arguably more vile than "anything Mr. Biden said" during last week's radio program. This seems to imply the possibility that Biden may have made other vile comments that day!)
That's what the letter writer said. If we might adapt Wittgenstein's first sentence in Philosophical Investigations:
"These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of [modern gaffe culture]."
Those who adhere to modern gaffe culture see the world as a brutal place. They are constantly being assailed by the vile, offensive remarks made by politicians.
It falls to them, in their goodness, to rank these comments in order of their vileness. The writer scolds the New York Times for failing to see that Trump's remark about Henry Ford was arguably more vile than anything Biden said.
The letter writer sketches the essence of modern gaffe culture. That said, the gaffe was a different animal back in 1984, when Michael Kinsley began trying to define its emerging role in pseudo-journalistic culture.
Thanks to Jonathan Chait, we can see one of the original New Republic columns in which Kinsley began his discussion of this blossoming art form. The backstory goes like this:
While seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Candidate Gary Hart had made a snide remark. He'd complained about having to campaign in New Jersey while his wife got to campaign in California.
"Journalists" seized upon this obvious gaffe. Kinsley stood apart from the crowd, as he frequently did at that time.
Michael Kinsley wasn't buying! His second column on gaffe culture started off like this:
KINSLEY (6/18/84): We have reached a political nadir of some sort if the Democratic Party candidate for the leadership of the free world is chosen on the basis of a casual remark about New Jersey. Yet it seems possible history will record that Gary Hart lost his chance to be President when he stood with his wife, Lee, on a Los Angeles terrace and uttered these fateful words: “The deal is that we campaign separately; that’s the bad news. The good news for her is she campaigns in California, and I campaign in New Jersey.” Lee Hart mentioned that in California she’d held a Koala bear, and the Senator added in mock rue that in New Jersey he’d held “samples from a toxic waste dump.”In this morning's New York Times, we seem to learn that the modern gaffe is a statement which is offensive and vile. This follows our emerging brain-dead culture over here on the pseudo-left, in which our lives are built around performative virtue in response to obvious, grotesque moral failures on the part of pretty much everyone else on the face of the earth.
The TV networks played this incident very big, the analysts of the print media went to work on it, and it appears to have blossomed into a gaffe. This could cost Hart the New Jersey primary—and therefore, everyone agrees, any hope of the nomination.
The “gaffe” is now the principal dynamic mechanism of American politics, as interpreted by journalists. Each candidacy is born in a state of prelapsarian innocence, and the candidate then proceeds to commit gaffes. Journalists record each new gaffe, weigh it on their Gaffability Index...and move the players forward or backward on the game board accordingly.
We liberals and progressives! In large part, we have our assistant, associate and adjunct professors to thank for this loud, self-admiring culture, in which we trumpet our own moral greatness while issuing amazingly broad denunciations of large swaths of dveryone else.
(See the astoundingly broad constructions which drive today's column by an Australian author and doctoral candidate. The New York Times chose to publish it. It appears in this morning's Times, opposite the letter.)
To this morning's letter writer, the modern gaffe seems to be a vile, offensive remark. That isn't what a gaffe was said to be back in Kinsley's day.
To Kinsley, there were two defining characteristics of the classic gaffe. According to Kinsley, for a statement to be a gaffe, the statement had to plainly true, and it had to be trivial, pointless.
So Kinsley craftily said as he continued his column:
KINSLEY (continuing directly): Hart’s Jerseyblooper contained both of the key elements of the gaffe in its classically pure form. First, as explained in this space three weeks ago, a “gaffe” occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth. The burden of Hart’s remark was that, all else being equal, he’d rather spend a few springtime weeks in California than in New Jersey. Of course he would. So would I. So would Walter Mondale, no doubt, along with the vast majority of Americans, including, quite possibly, most residents of New Jersey...Kinsley refers to the classic gaffe. This implies that this journalistic monster predated the 1984 campaign, which ended with Reagan winning big after Mondale had been observed in public making several accurate statements.
The second element of the classic gaffe is that the subject matter should be trivial...[T]he ideal “text” for political journalism to chew on is an episode of no real meaning or importance—such as a small joke about New Jersey—which can then be analyzed without distraction exclusively in terms of its likely effect on the campaign.
At any rate, Kinsley said the classic gaffe had to satisfy two criteria. The classic gaffe was plainly true, and it was wholly trivial.
In the Jerseygate matter, the gaffe might also be a joke. That's how some people, including Paul Krugman, saw Biden's vile remark last week—as a quip, a joke, a jest, a jibe or possibly just a sally.
We've come a long way since 1984! Today, the tendency is to see the gaffe as a statement which reveals some vile hidden moral belief. According to the letter writer, Biden made at least one such remark last week, and he will surely make more.
Have we mentioned the fact that the letter writer is surely a good, decent person? For ourselves, we'd have to say that we regard Biden's remark as trivial.
Roughly three million blue-leaning pundits, observers and nutcakes have made similar remarks in the past. As we noted yesterday, we wouldn't make such a remark ourselves. But we don't regard it as a window into a soul more offensive and vile and than our own.
That said, it's all anthropology now—and it's close to becoming all vanity.
Our warlike species is highly tribal. We're wired to denigrate others, and possibly to find such specimens under every rock. Our assistant professors have come a long way and have given us many new tools.
Tomorrow, we'll look behind the journalistic trivia which might be said to lie behind this latest front-page gaffe. We might even visit the high-profile news site Kinsley founded to see what they care about now.
There are still mountains of trivia out there. Much of it comes straight from us.
Tomorrow/still coming: Aperol Spritz and Taylor Swift! Plus, who authored the first modern-era gaffe? Did JFK ever commit one?
For extra credit only: Does Trump know anything about Henry Ford? We can think of no reason to think so.