IMITATIONS OF DISCOURSE: Did Joe Biden commit a gaffe?

THURSDAY, MAY 28, 2020

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 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?
The writer agrees that Biden committed a gaffe. Indeed, he says it's "obvious" that he did so.

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.”

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.
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.

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...

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.
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.

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.


  1. Trump said: "To all of the families & friends of those who have passed, I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy & love for everything that these great people stood for & represent."

    My husband died at the end of March. He didn't stand for or represent anything. He was a person and he died and he is missed, and that is enough. He doesn't have to "represent" anything in order to be important, worth mourning.

    1. Way to be empathetic. No wonder Trump appeals to you.

    2. 100,000+ people have died. Who are you to say this commenter wasn't married to one of them? Someone was.

    3. This is what a president sounds like:

      "There are moments in our history so grim, so heart-rending, that they're forever fixed in each of our hearts as shared grief. Today is one of those moments. 100,000 lives have now been lost to this virus.

      To those hurting, I'm so sorry for your loss. The nation grieves with you."

      Joe Biden

    4. I don’t know how to be more empathetic than to identify and agree entirely with this man’s spouse.

    5. What did you mean by this: "No, he didn’t."

    6. You have a choice:

      No, he [Trump] didn’t say anything sympathetic. This is likely true, as the statement appeared on social media and was probably written by a staffer.

      No, her [the commenter’s] husband didn’t die at the end of March. And like almost all comments on matters personal, it’s impossible to say.

      No, he [the commenter’s husband] didn’t have to “represent” anything to be important.

      My choice is the last, but YMMV.

  2. Dear Bob,
    may I suggest that a "gaffe" (also a "lie") is any remark that hasn't been both vetted by a team of $1,500/hour lawyers and political consultants, and focus-group tested?

    When you're accused of gaffe-ing, you must immediately produce an official certificate, stating that the remark in question was vetted and group-tested, and found, legally, inoffensive.

    End of story.

    Are we in 'agreeance' (as your soros-dembots would say)?

    1. "soros-dembots"

      that's white supremacist jerkoff terminology

  3. What Biden said was condescending but it was also revealing. Consider that he argued he has the support of 96% of the Black vote. Was he counting non-voters? Was he counting reluctant voters? He wasn't just off-the-cuff saying something. He was expressing a defense of the the status quo.

    Look at the neoliberal turn, away from labor politics and toward Church, toward business, the kind the Democratic Party relies on to get turnout. Look at the inequality in society. Is Biden's strategy delivering what he promised, just because he personally benefits from it?

    1. Is there a school of political trolling that says that you don't have to express a coherent argument, just string together a bunch of phrases that all have negative semantic connotations (status quo, inequality)?

      What was condescending about saying that a group is solidly behind a candidate, as African Americans are behind Biden (but not necessarily other Democrats, Buttigieg for example). If Trump said this about his base, would it be condescending? Or is it OK when Trump does it?

      What does neoliberal even mean? Is @10:27 calling African Americans neoliberal? Does he think a turn toward church is something new among African Americans? If anything, church is diminishing not strengthening. Did Biden cause inequality in society? How has Biden benefitted personally? That is a Republican slur, to paint Dems as profiteers when it is Republicans who have looted the country with impunity. Biden certainly doesn't represent the status quo (what does that mean in the middle of a pandemic). He represents competence and leadership.

      A bot could have created this comment @10:27, and probably did. Will flooding the internet with this stuff, in order to make people feel a distaste toward Biden without actually knowing why, result in the same antipathy voters felts toward Hillary? I doubt it, since the negativity toward Hillary evoked misogyny that was latent in many voters, evoked social attitudes already held by people. That isn't true with Biden, who is well liked and will probably be harder to dent with such a campaign.

    2. What does neoliberal even mean?

      Source: "Money Against Democracy"
      " an internally consistent body of thought reproduced itself through the 20th century, eventually providing the intellectual inspiration for institutions like the World Trade Organization...The neoliberals imagined an international order that safeguarded the rights of capital to travel across boundaries, what Slobodian dubs “xenos rights,” namely, the rights of foreign capital to supersede state sovereignty."

      Is @10:27 calling African Americans neoliberal? Does he think a turn toward church is something new among African Americans?

      Source: A Neoliberal's Manifesto
      "But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business...Instead of scorning people who value family, country, and religion, neo-liberals believe in reaching out to them to make clear that our programs are rooted in the same values."

      Did Biden cause inequality in society?

      Source: The Intercept. "When the Democrats regained the White House [in 1992] you could see the difference in appointments to regulatory agencies, the difficulty in getting them to upgrade health and safety regulations...The second millstone is that they didn’t know how to deal with Reagan. And the Republicans took note. That means a soft tone, smiling … You can say terrible things and do terrible things as long as you have [that] type of presentation."

      How has Biden benefited personally?

      "Biden Boasts Strong Support From Unions, Union Busters"
      But before Biden calls on the workers of western Pennsylvania to unite, he plans to show solidarity with the forgotten men and women of the union-busting and telecom-lobbying industries.

      On Thursday night in Philadelphia, Comcast’s chief lobbyist David Cohen will host a high-dollar fundraiser for Biden’s campaign. Former Governor Ed Rendell and the “top lobbyists and lawyers in Pennsylvania” will be in attendance; among those lawyers will be a “longtime Biden ally” named Stephen Cozen.

      Source: Joe Biden Should Retire the Phrase ‘Dignity of Work’
      Ten years after he delivered that speech to rapt Democratic delegates, Biden seemingly believes that its message will still resonate with voters. And he may be right. Unemployment is low, but in other respects, the average American worker lives in challenging times. Though the labor market is tightening, wage growth is slow, and it isn’t evenly distributed to all workers.

  4. "At one point, he even seems to say that Biden's comment was "vile.""

    Saying that one thing is more vile than another, doesn't make the less vile thing vile at all, although Somerby wants to suggest this Los Angeles letter writer was calling Biden's statement vile.

    If I say "a snake is more vile than a bunny" am I saying that the bunny has any amount of vileness at all?

    If I say lying is more vile than truth telling, have I said that telling the truth is vile to any extent?

    Saying that Ford (a Nazi sympathizer) had "good blood" is clearly vile, especially in the context of Trump's own belief in genetic advantage and his prior retweeting of white supremacist memes (which continues). Saying that African Americans have a special experience that would lead them to support Biden and not Trump, is not any kind of vile.

    Somerby asks whether Trump knows anything about Henry Ford. Ivana said (before Trump was planning to run for office) that Trump had a book of Hitler's speeches as bedside reading. We know that Trump reads nothing, but we also know that he has used Hitler as his model for gaining power. Ford was one of Hitler's heroes. Why wouldn't Trump then know about Ford, especially since he is not squeamish about imitating Hitler or retweeting white supremacist memes or praising them as "fine people"?

    There are lots of reasons to think that Trump knows something about Henry Ford. Why doesn't Somerby know this? Is he being coy or playing dumb? Or is he again excusing Trump for being what he plainly is, vile?

  5. "White House officials have decided not to release updated economic projections this summer, opting against publishing forecasts that would almost certainly codify an administration assessment that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a severe economic downturn, according to three people with knowledge of the decision.

    The White House is supposed to unveil a federal budget proposal every February and then typically provides a “mid-session review” in July or August with updated projections on economic trends such as unemployment, inflation and economic growth.

    Budget experts said they were not aware of any previous White House opting against providing forecasts in this “mid-session review” document in any other year since at least the 1970s.

    Two White House officials confirmed the decision had been made not to include the economic projections as part of the mid-session release."

    Status quo?

  6. "Did JFK ever commit one?"

    Does the Bay of Pigs count?

  7. " That's how some people, including Paul Krugman, saw Biden's vile remark last week"

    Somerby say that the letter writer called Biden's gaffe "vile" when it isn't clear he intended that at all, then Somerby repeats the association of "vile" with Biden's gaffe, to establish that it was indeed vile, even though possibly a joke and possibly true.

    This is how propaganda works. Take an ugly word such as vile and pair it with the candidate's name repeatedly until the ugliness rubs off on the candidate -- even though in this case, there is no evidence that anyone considered the remark vile -- just that Trump's worse gaffes were considered "more vile" than what Biden said.

    Somerby does not support Biden. He is working overtime to slime Biden today over something defined as trivial. Who does that? Conservatives do it to Democratic candidates. But Somerby keeps insisting he is a liberal! Sorry, Somerby, liberals don't write essays trying to tarnish their own candidates. Whatever you are, you aren't liberal.

  8. Part of the modern liberal standard is that a single improper statement can prove that someone is unworthy, a bad person. As an old Jew, I am well aware of Henry Ford's antisemitism. He distributed many copies of the notorious anti-semitic text, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Most people don't know this. Ford was a great, ground-breaking industrialist and a great philanthropist. That's all that most people know about Henry Ford.

    So, Donald Trump praised someone who turns out to have been an anti-semite. Does that prove that Trump is anti-semitic? Of course not. He's the most pro-Jew President ever, with a mixed Jewish family and extraordinary support for Israel.

    P.S. Liberals may not apply the same standard to their own. They praise Margaret Sanger (and properly so) and defend or deny her racism.

    1. When someone says that Ford had "good blood" they certainly know about Ford's anti-semitism, because it is a feature not a bug.

      Hitler was part Jewish himself. Being part-Jewish doesn't make you exempt from anti-semitism. Israel is a country and Judaism is a religion. Supporting Israel says nothing about whether someone is anti-semitic or not, especially when the reasons for supporting it arise from Christian fundamentalist beliefs about the second coming.

      Trump was raised by an anti-Semitic father, himself believes in eugenics, by his ex-wife's account is an admirer of Hitler, continually retweets and praises white supremacists in the US, and includes dog-whistles to them in his speeches. When an anti-semitic atrocity happens, he makes no public statements of outrage. That is what makes him anti-semitic.

      No one praises Margaret Sanger for her eugenic beliefs. They praise her for her work extending birth control to American women. Just like people praise Henry Ford for his philanthropy.

    2. David stepping-up for a bigot.
      What's the word for the opposite of "Shocking!"

    3. "Hitler was part Jewish himself."
      He wasn't! Stop spreading such goddamn nonsense, you ignorant fuck. Go read something.

    4. He's the most pro-Jew President ever
      Really, you so thusly decree? You say that, as if it were a fact. I've noticed that about you, David: you present vaguely, imprecisely stated opinions as if they were gospel truth. You place Trump's most asinine and bizarre actions in some semi-meaningful framework that you, yourself, create and then claim how effective he is. That is just plain weird and incredible intellectual dissonance.

      That must be why Trump declared that no true Jew would vote for a Democrat, which is an order of magnitude more offensive than what Biden said. Of course, 70% percent of Jews will be voting against Trump, perhaps more.

    5. Ilya, some links for you:

    6. Good grief! Quit finding your "information" on the internet. It's the old antisemitic trope to suggest that every questionable historical figure has Jewish roots. Read William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He exhaustively dives into Hitler's roots. Read! Then spread your nonesense.

      PS: Did you know that Columbus was a Jew?
      PPS: The above is a lie as well!

    7. Trump worked with Israel after the 2016 election to get other countries to change their vote on a UN Resolution condemning Israel's
      settlements as a "flagrant violation" of international law and the killing of innocent civilians. The resolution passed 14-0 with the US abstaining. Kushner directed Flynn to call other countries and ask them to not vote or postpone but none of them obliged.

    8. "Read William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."

      I've read it. It was written right after the war and before the practice of analyzing DNA. There is new info now.

      My links were not to internet sources. Google produced them, but that doesn't mean they are webpages and not articles in publications. Look at the sources cited too.

      I hate to ruin your idealized view of Hitler, but he was part Jewish. Science says so.

    9. So, there was analysis of Hitler's DNA that showed that he was a Jew?

      My "idealized view of Hitler"? Your stupidity is oozing out of you and trailing you like a brown stain.

  9. “Kinsley refers to the classic gaffe.”

    The word “gaffe” dates back to around 1905. It’s original meaning was simply “social blunder or faux-pas.”

    There is no reason that your average letter writer to the New York Times would be operating from or even be aware of Kinsley’s idiosyncratic definition.

    Kinsley’s definition is too narrow anyway. For example, a gaffe doesn’t have to be a true statement; it can be a misstatement or mistake. It doesn’t even have to be a statement; it can be an action or a behavior. And there is also no reason that a gaffe can’t be an offensive remark.

    Most people think of a gaffe as an unintentional statement or action that causes embarrassment or disapproval. Intentional breaches of codes of etiquette are often attributed to an antisocial tendency.

    The letter writer found Biden’s comment offensive, but apparently believes that Biden didn’t intend to be offensive. That’s why he labeled it a gaffe, presumably. And the writer, notably, does not label Trump’s remarks as gaffes; they are merely vile or offensive. He is asking the Times why they made so much of Biden’s remarks when they bury or disappear Trump’s.

  10. Somerby, as usual, turns a simple complaint lodged against the Times by a letter writer (“Will The New York Times repeat its missteps of 2016”) into an arcane and misleading debate about what the word “gaffe” means.

  11. “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.”

    The letter writer is criticizing the Times for their adherence to “gaffe culture.” Somerby twists that into the charge that it is the letter writer who adheres to gaffe culture, a total misreading of the letter.

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