Just Words Alone

Man is the only animal with language that’s not just the use of signs – indicators and pointers that even dogs and bees understand – but symbols for stuff in the past and the future and in the hypothetical. We can step outside of time into the abstract and talk about it as if it’s real. And it probably is. We make all sorts of things real with words, symbolic language which we choose to believe. And we certainly talk a lot. That’s how we make sense of the world, not just navigate for survival like the lower animals. We talk to each other. With words we agree on how things are. We agree that this is the way life is.

Of course there was trouble with this from the beginning. It seems that in Genesis 1:25-27 humans were created after the other animals, as God decided things just didn’t seem right, so he topped things off with the creation of man, and then took the day off. And in Genesis 1:27 we are also told the first man and woman were created simultaneously with each other. That’s fine, but in Genesis 2:18-19 we are told that humans were created before the other animals – God added the animals later, for man’s use and amusement – and in Genesis 2:18-22 we are specifically told man was created first, then the animals, then the woman from the man’s rib – in that order. The stories don’t match, but it’s probably best not to point this out to your born-again evangelical friends, who take the Bible literally, as the first and last word on everything. They’ll think you’re being snide and walk away from you, most likely forever. Let it rest.

This was rectified later in the Book of John, which opens with this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

That’s another creation story, but one that any sociolinguistics person would understand. Everything is actually created by language, by the Word as it were. Pay attention to what’s said. That’s where reality is. Then the only question is whether God created language, and is thus the ultimate word on how things are, or whether the rest of us get a say in the matter. All of theology is an argument about that, about who got the Word and got it right – Martin Luther had a spat with the Pope about that – or about whether we can use symbolic language to think things out ourselves. Secularists and atheists argue for the latter. In mundane matters – government and tax policy and all the rest – God may not care very much, if He even exists. Long ago America set up a government with a Constitution that posits that government is not God’s business anyway – it’s ours alone. A government’s legitimacy derives from the consent of the people, the governed – it’s all up to us, as God had other things to attend to, presumably things that are more important. Sometimes it seems that about a third of the country doesn’t believe that for a minute, but the words are there, in the founding documents, in the user manuals. Deal with it.

All this is to say that our reality is in the words we use to talk about it, not in the things themselves – especially in politics. Set aside those who say the nation should be governed by God’s word – they’re still in the minority, for now. Everyone else is arguing, in words, about what’s really going on and what should be done about it – and each side is accusing the other of getting things wrong. It’s an argument over the words we use to describe things, and in this week’s vice presidential debate, where Joe Biden and Paul Ryan faced off, there was a flurry of words where Ryan told Biden that unemployment has been rising, month after month, during Obama’s presidency. That’s one of the things Biden called malarkey – the facts show unemployment just went down, again. Fact-checkers can confirm that, but if Ryan keeps saying that and people finally agree it’s so, it may be so. People do pay attention to what’s said, and that’s where reality ends up being. After all, in the beginning was the Word.

That’s why Noah Millman, writing in the American Conservative, didn’t watch the debate but read the transcript instead:

First, it’s obvious where Paul Ryan felt most confident and most engaged: on entitlement reform. This was the only policy area – including tax reform – where Ryan’s answers seemed both genuine and informed. That doesn’t mean he was right – it means he was doing more than mouthing talking points.

And both Biden and Ryan were more interested in drawing a sharp contrast in this area than were Romney and Obama. Obama generously suggested in his debate that he and Romney basically agreed on Social Security, while Romney was at pains to deny that any of his plans for undoing Obamacare would unwind the things that are popular about that law. Ryan eagerly embraced the possibility of Social Security privatization, and Biden slammed the door very hard on any Democratic cooperation with any voucherization of Medicare.

Biden was more comfortable on foreign policy:

Again, that doesn’t mean he was right, but he clearly understood the policies he was advocating. And what was striking about Ryan’s responses in this area was the contrast between rhetorical lambasting of the Obama Administration’s record coupled with repeated agreement with things the Administration has actually done. A reasonable summary of Ryan’s perspective on foreign policy: a Romney Administration would have done mostly the same things that President Obama did, but if Romney did them they would be more “credible.”

That’s where Millman perked up, and many of us language folks did too. This was interesting. It all came together. Millman sees an odd contrast between these two guys. It’s in the way they understood language itself, as matter of “whether they treated speech as a signifier of action” or as an act in and of itself. Is it what you do – Biden’s position – or what you say – the Ryan argument? Millman sees it this way:

The contrast was especially true in foreign policy, where Ryan raised almost no substantive objectives to the President’s policy but repeatedly asserted that the President “appeared” weak because he “called Assad a reformer” or “announced a deadline for withdrawal” or “didn’t stand up for American values,” but it wasn’t limited to that area. In domestic policy as well, Ryan repeatedly resorted to formulations suggesting that announcing a goal – 4% economic growth, for example – was the same as articulating a policy. By contrast, Biden repeatedly resorted to a formulation along the lines of “we said we’d do,” some policy action or other, “and we did it.”

Ryan seemed to confuse having a goal and an attitude, the proper belligerent attitude, with actually doing anything in particular. Of course Biden challenged Ryan on the Middle East. What would you guys do differently? You agree sanctions on Iran are important, and we’re doing them, but you don’t like our tone or that we got Russia and the rest of the world on board with our sanctions? You agree we should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 but you don’t like the way we’re doing it? You don’t want troops on the ground in Syria but you say we should be doing something else. What? If you want us in a war there, say so. And Biden did the same on Medicare. Ryan said he and Romney want to save it and Biden laughed – “These guys haven’t been big on Medicare from the beginning. Who do you trust on this? You are jeopardizing this program.” Ryan could only say Biden was trying to scare folks.

This was all about confusing words with actions. Biden said those were two different things and Ryan just didn’t get it, and Millman adds this:

I find the contrast interesting, because it inverts the standard trope of right-wing criticism of the Obama Administration, that all Obama does is “give speeches” rather than leading (I believe Ryan said that a couple of times last night as well). President Obama plainly has a very high opinion of himself as a persuader (too high, from the evidence of the record), and I’m not suggesting that a Romney Administration would stand there issuing pronouncements and not acting. But in the campaign, both Romney and Ryan talk as if talk were action – as if saying, “This will be so” will make it so.

I have to believe that they believe this way of speaking is persuasive, but it’s profoundly unpersuasive to me – indeed, I find it exceptionally annoying.

The libertarian-conservative-whatever Conor Friedersdorf was much more than annoyed:

Here’s the difference between Biden and Ryan: whereas Biden has been studying foreign policy for many decades (over which he’s made his share of mistakes), everything Ryan knows about foreign policy, or at least everything he’s shown us he knows, comes from interventionist ideologues with talking points that test well among the base and bear little resemblance to reality. I didn’t quite realize how awful Ryan’s performance was until I read the transcript of the debate. Biden did smile too much. It distracted me from Ryan’s apparent unfitness to be commander-in-chief.

Maybe words alone don’t create reality after all, if the words are nonsense. But this epistemological cage match started long ago, on October 17, 2004, with a New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind quoting an unnamed aide to George Bush:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

We later learned that it was Karl Rove saying this, that reality can be shaped, it can be manufactured out of nothing much at all, and people will believe it actually is reality. It would be what they saw because of the constant pounding of the same words, over and over and over. Rove was laughing at those like Suskind who thought they were reporting on reality, thinking it was some sort of thing out there, in and of itself. It isn’t. Rove didn’t think much of the reality-based community. His heirs and minions still don’t.

That didn’t exactly work out, but Rove may have helped create an interesting parallel world – Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction and George Bush as Churchill and an unregulated economy of endless prosperity. All the words were there. It worked for a time, and then it didn’t. Ryan and Romney seem to be giving it another go. Use the right words, repeatedly, and things will be what we say they are. America will be respected and credible again and all the rest.

This crops up in all sorts of ways, as Brian Beutler notes:

In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio published Thursday, Mitt Romney repeated a claim that already got him in trouble once this cycle and has reflects an enduring belief among Republicans: that people in the U.S. don’t die because they lack health insurance.

“You go to the hospital, you get treated, you get care, and it’s paid for, either by charity, the government or by the hospital,” Romney said. “We don’t have people that become ill, who die in their apartment because they don’t have insurance.”

It’s eerily reminiscent of a statement President George W. Bush made in 2007 that haunted Republicans during the 2008 campaign — “People have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.”

There’s just one problem: It’s not true.

Beutler systematically reviews all the studies over the past ten years that conclude that tens of thousands of Americans die each year because they don’t have insurance, and notes the Romney folks cite the one outlier, a study now discredited that argued maybe that wasn’t quite true. Guess what? Saying something is so doesn’t make any of these people any less dead:

In 2006, then-Massachusetts governor Romney himself agreed – at least to an extent. Though he did not address the mortality issue specifically, in an April 2006 presentation before the Chamber of Commerce he conceded that uninsured people who seek health care at emergency rooms experience worse outcomes.

“There ought to be enough money to help people get insurance because an insured individual has a better chance of having an excellent medical experience than the one who has not. An insured individual is more likely to go to a primary care physician or a clinic to get evaluated for their conditions and to get early treatment, to get pharmaceutical treatment, as opposed to showing up in the emergency room where the treatment is more expensive and less effective than if they got preventive and primary care.”

That was then. This is now. He has new words now, and Talking Point Memo shows that the odd parallel is this:

For the first time on a debate stage Thursday night, voters got to see Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” line put into action against the Republican presidential campaign.

It was a fantasy moment for Democrats and Obama supporters, who thought the line was their ticket back to the White House when it emerged a month ago. Republicans feel good about how it went however – after a barrage of 47 percent zingers from Vice President Joe Biden the Romney campaign told TPM that Paul Ryan pretty much nailed it.

In short, top Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said, Ryan diffused the 47 percent bomb pretty handily.

“I think Paul was very good at pointing out … the kind of man Romney is,” Gillespie told TPM in the post-debate spin room. “Someone who does care about his fellow citizens and someone who not only cares about them in terms of public policies, but also in his personal life and the way he lived his life.”

That was then. This is now. Romney has new words now. The new words define reality. Get with the program.

It’s the same on taxes, as Biden really did pin Paul Ryan down on his tax plan, the idea that everyone from ditch-diggers to billionaires could get an across the board twenty percent tax cut and it would be revenue neutral, as certain loopholes would be closed to make up for the lost revenue. Ryan and Romney just won’t say what those loopholes are and refuse to explain how their math could possibly work. They just say it will, because they say it will, and Josh Marshall comments:

Ryan was faced with a question of how his team could possibly make 2 + 2 = 6. And he continually said, this is something we’ll leave to good faith bipartisan compromise. But this makes no sense. This question isn’t just a matter of idle curiosity. The reason people are pressing for details is that the math simply doesn’t work without big tax hikes for middle income earners. But Romney and Ryan don’t want to admit that.

It’s clear that the whole closing loopholes explanation is just a tack on to get through the campaign without explaining how the numbers work. You don’t need to go further than Romney’s own website. The section on taxes just talks about an across the board 20% cut. There’s no mention of closing loopholes at all.

Marshall has a screen-shot of the relevant page of Romney’s website – nothing there – and Josh Barro goes through all the “studies” Paul Ryan claimed backed up his mathematically-impossible proposal and pokes big holes in all of them – nerd work from the reality-based community. We are now having arguments about reality. It’s not about whether God created the animals first or man. The text isn’t contradictory in this case. It’s just numbers.

And then there’s the matter of abortion, which kind of trapped Paul Ryan. At salon.com Irin Cameron notes that Biden drove a wedge between Romney and Ryan on the issue:

We finally got to hear how Ryan the anti-abortion absolutist reconciles being part of a ticket that, even before Romney disavowed anti-abortion legislation, took a completely different view from him on abortion. “All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life,” he said. “That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.”

It was the most telling line of the night – Ryan preserving his own anti-abortion bona fides no matter what kind of “moderation” Romney tacks to in the coming weeks to avoid scaring female voters. It was also him saying that he has his own principles, and then he has the policies that Romney thinks will win, and those are very different things – ones he’s willing to compromise to win, at least rhetorically. What happens when they get in the door, if they do, is another matter.

Sometimes words fail, you say what you must, and at Religious Dispatches, Sarah Posner has this to say on the candidates’ responses to the question on how their shared Catholic faith informs their policies:

Biden pointed out that he personally agrees with the Church on abortion but doesn’t want to impose his religious beliefs on others – which is of course the heart of the answer to both the abortion and contraception questions. Raddatz gave both men the chance to discuss their faith. Ryan pointed out that faith informs everything he does; Biden took pains to highlight that as important as his faith is to him, he wouldn’t use it to force others to adhere to his beliefs. And as it happens, most Catholic voters don’t really rate abortion and contraception at the top of their list of concerns.

That’s interesting. You can have the Word of God, as the Popes have seen it, and still say that America long ago set up a government with a Constitution that posits that government is not God’s business but ours, that the consent of the governed is what matters here. That means that how we’ve worked out how we as a nation deal with abortion and contraception so far is fine just as it is. Ryan, on the other hand, as Millman noted, is big on the Word as reality. Which of these two would you rather have in charge of things?

All of this is an odd business. We only know the world through the words we use to talk about it – but that doesn’t mean the words can be any old words that are politically useful, not tethered to anything anyone can verify. We eventually have to agree that those particular words are useful. That’s the issue here. That’s always the issue.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Just Words Alone

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Thanks again for the company over coffee again this rainy morning in the Pacific Northwest — it’s the first rain since July 20th — you have another perceptive analysis. Very Zen this morning ;-)

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