Bongs, Truth, and Conservative Mirroring

I’ll preface this by saying that I not only read Patterico, but that I personally know him and like him. That doesn’t stop me from tweaking him on occasion (or being tweaked by him) – a Venn diagram of our political and social beliefs would overlap by about half. But I respect him deeply as someone who has a genuine regard for truth wherever that may take him. So I hope one day to convert him from a right-pragmatist to a left-pragmatist (like me).

He’s been involved in a kind of baroque conflict with Jeff Goldstein, from Protein Wisdom. Jeff’s blog isn’t a regular read, but I drop in from time to time, and I’m usually amused by his weird combination of doting middle-class normality, strange right-wing deskpounding, and the fact that – like me – he occasionally take politics out into orbit by looking at the philosophical underpinnings.

In this case, we’re talking about a debate that somehow became bitter about rhetoric and the nature of truth. And I’ll push my conclusion forward by suggesting that I think that it’s funny as hell to see the right having the mirror image debate that has fractured much of the left over the last few years; between the torch-waving purists and people who look out into the broader audience and go “But…” when the purists start their march to the cliff.
The substance of the argument is simple – when Rush Limbaugh (who I have only heard playing from my late – Hispanic, immigrant – neighbor’s garage) said he wanted “Obama to fail” – was he wrong in choosing his words?

I’m not going to cite or dog too deeply into what has been a lengthy blogwar, but you can read the latest posts on Protein Wisdom, and Patterico, and I’m going to suggest three things:

Goldstein’s position on this and style in this argument would make him perfectly at home in the Netroots; the chestbeating, bullying, take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises, f**k-the-moderates could be any number of lefty bloggers who I’ve slagged in the past and will happily go on slagging in the future – because they deserve it. It hasn’t worked out so well for them so far – Obama wasn’t elected because he was the leftiest candidate, he was elected because he promised to break the logjam between morons of the left and fools on the right and Democrats picked up Congress by electing Blue Dogs to formerly Republican seats. And since I think that’s idiocy on the part of the Democrats, I’m partly happy to see some try and send the GOP head down the same self-destructive path, or I would be if I didn’t worry that the collective pack of self-righteous jackals might simply destroy the country I love while dragging themselves down.

I am philosophically opposed to political purists; in this I stand with Hume who lived in a nation torn by political certainty. I think a healthy respect for the possibility of our own error, and a respect for the modesty that the world eventually imposes on us all is a good place to build one’s philosophical and political foundations.

Rhetorically, that leads me to side with Patterico, who suggested that Limbaugh made a rhetorical mistake which handed his opponents the bricks they later threw at him. To Goldstein, this is a surrender to a moral and practical relativism, in which words mean whatever the audience says they mean – and so the construction of meaning is stripped from the author. To him, this is the step onto the greased slide of Bad Philosophy and needs to be fought over at every opportunity, lest Derrida and Baudrillard somehow become enshrined as state philosophers.

But that’s looney, because it implies a kind of Red Queen world in which authors can say whatever the heck they want and the words mean whatever the heck they say they do. To me that kind of authorial absolutism is just the mirror image of the postmodern claim that meaning is solely constructed by the reader from the text. I think it’s possible to have kind of a constructivist view of language and still believe that intersubjective truth is approachable; to believe that language is like dancing, a process that takes place between an author of words and an understander of them, and to believe that there are good dancers – and bad ones.

It’s not stupid to suggest that meaning can be and often is misconstrued – I was amazed that neither Patterico nor Goldstein told the “Sit, b**ch!” jokes as a part of their examples. And my responsibility as a speaker is to say what I mean is such a way that the audience I intend to reach gets what I say. That’s different if I’m presenting a paper on quark interactions with gluons to a postdoctoral seminar in physics or if I’m a national commentator on politics speaking to a general audience.

If Goldstein believes – as he suggests in his writing – that Obama’s efforts should fail, in order to drive a stake into the heart of liberalism – than he’s an ass. Never, in the history of our Republic have we acted purely. Every action has been undertaken with a mixture of pure belief, base self-interest, fear, hope, lack of knowledge, stupidity, and flat error. And yet – on the scaffolding constructed by the Founders, we’ve constructed something great.

Goldstein needs to decide if he’s a political purist or a patriot. I don’t think you can be both.

And the “bongs” reference in the title was because reading the whole discourse over meaning and language somehow reminded me of those terribly serious conversations we used to have as sophomores in college; it’s just that back then it involved bong hits and New Riders of the Purple Sage.


14 thoughts on “Bongs, Truth, and Conservative Mirroring”

  1. You make it sound as if the main disagreements that exist on the left involve disagreements on strategy and on the wisdom of compromise. But you know this isn’t true. You know that the Michael Moores and their supporters are simply on the other side and oppose everything you stand for. This should be what “fractures” the left, not “a debate that somehow became bitter about rhetoric and the nature of truth”.

  2. … it implies a kind of Red Queen world in which authors can say whatever the heck they want and the words mean whatever the heck they say they do.

    I hate to be the purist in an anti-purist thread, but it was Humpty Dumpty who said “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”, not the Red Queen.

    Politics is mostly for children, but Lewis Carroll is serious business.

  3. Sorry AL, but the context is a little different than you stated, and I think you’re a little off axis on Goldstein’s argument as a result.

    The original dispute was over the characterization of Rush as having said he wanted ‘Obama to fail’. The problem is this a deliberate misquotation by means of selective editing. Namely by leaving off the previous several paragraphs of material. A better short hand of the statement should read that Rush wanted ‘Obama to fail [at moving the country to the left]’.

    Patterico decided that by using the rhetorical style Rush did (slowly defining context up first, then ending with the flashy finish) Rush set himself up for the people who happily took scissors to his statement in order to generate an outrageous remark out of it, and then proceeded to take outrage over their own creation. Thus Rush is at fault for not being more careful to prevent people from taking him out of context.

    On a personal note, I think Patterico is dangerously close to being in blaming the rape victim for wearing a short skirt territory here…

    Goldstein fired back that to allow people to reinterpret the original author’s (clearly stated) intent, and then hold the author responsible for the reinterpretation is a sure fire recipe for the complete destruction of all civilized discourse. It’s the weaponization of language, and we might as well skip straight to the shooting each other part.

    But that’s looney, because it implies a kind of Red Queen world in which authors can say whatever the heck they want and the words mean whatever the heck they say they do.

    The author doesn’t get to reinterpret later either (although they can renounce or attempt to clarify).

    If Goldstein believes – as he suggests in his writing – that Obama’s efforts should fail, in order to drive a stake into the heart of liberalism – than he’s an ass.

    Err, if the opposition political party is not allowed to attempt to stymie political efforts they don’t approve of, what’s the point? Opposition to national health care and the Obamacorp equals means we’re political purists not patriots? Did you mean to use a narrower brush here?

    Actually I don’t think you and Jeff are that far different on your views on speech issues at all…

  4. Not having followed the whole debate, on the theory that it is not worth disputing one sentence from Rush Limbaugh as if it were a fragment of Heraclitus, I would just say that both Patterico and Jeff G. have made the blither-sphere a more interesting place, and this reminds me of Hamlet’s observation about finding quarrel in a straw when honor is at stake.

    At least, I hope that’s what it is. I hope this is just over-heated words and wounded pride, because I’d hate to think we’re getting desperate and turning into hippies and John Birchers or something. I frankly don’t like some of the stuff I’ve been reading lately. My country (love it or GET THE HELL OFF my purple mountain majesty) is bigger than that.

    And just to make it clear how I feel: JOHN GALT WAS A DICK. My America doesn’t need any John Galt, any more than it needs Mr. Obama – a.k.a. Che Guevara for White Middle-Class Squares Who’ve Lost the Will to Live.

  5. In the first place, Why did the Republican Party get itself so entwined with a loose tongued guy like Rush in the first place?

    Why is he taken anymore seriously than Howard Stern?

  6. Agreed, but when your corner man starts hitting you as well, there’s a legitimate question as to which side they are on.

  7. I believe it was the idea that Rush owed an apology over the affair that was the bridge too far for Jeff. And for myself for that matter.

    We can go around in circles like this forever I suppose, but the basic question remains, where exactly do you draw the line in assuaging the hurt feelings of the perpetually outraged?

    The political discourse in this country would be vastly improved all around if everyone would quit pretending to have vapors every time they hear something they don’t like. As long as the purists control the arbitration of what is offensive (and they do) anyone who wants to creep towards center has to spend enormous effort triangulating all the potentially outraged interest groups.

    Where would you like to see the amount of political coverage spent on gaffes versus substance? My preferred ratio would be about 2 to 98 or higher.

  8. TF, I don’t think I misstated things; Limbaugh handed his opponents a neat soundbite – which they didn’t have to Dowdify to hang around his neck. He’s in the communication business, so I don;t think it’s outrageous to suggest that he did something dumb.

    Patterico basically made that argument,and Goldstein suggested that that claim was outrageous and morally unsound and that ceding the rhetorical ground is to abandon the political ground to the enemies of conservatism. To boot, he did it in a tone of faux outrage (at least I hope it was faux, given the level of real issue at stake) that demeaned Patterico and tried to drive him out of the argument.

    And if you’ve followed my thinking at all, you’ll know that to me that’s the Original Sin; absent true fringe players (detcord in 7 WTC), I make a real effort to treat every argument and the people who make them as serious claims even when I deeply disagree.

    And now Goldstein has closed his blog. Sigh. That was pretty lame.


  9. Define Dowdify here, because I always thought taking a phrase with an implied subject defined in the immediately preceding section, and quoting it without reference to the implied subject was pretty much the essence of Dowdification?

    There is simply no way to read Rush’s entire statement and come up with the ‘Rush wants Obama to fail’ meaning without deliberate fell intent. It’s not even close to vague.

    Remember, this was happening at the same time that the Obama administration and the usual gaggle of lefty pundits had just unilaterally declared Rush the leader and chief spokesman of the Republican party. And then near simultaneously invent an outrageous remark with a little judicious editing and demand apologies and obeisance over it? This was a blatant political hit, and a pretty crude one at that.

    It’s not as if Rush uses carefully prepared speeches either, everything he does if off the top of his head, live. For hours every week.

    How is forcing someone to apologize for something they never said, something you invented for them to say, in any way shape or form a polite, civilized, or courteous method of discourse?

    I think however you misunderstand the nature of the division within the conservative base. This isn’t an ideological split so much as a cultural one. Conservatives so a lot of the big name conservative pundits roll over for Obama during the election. And not for reasons of ideology but simply because Obama was the type of urbane, sophisticated, charming…well he’s their type of person, whereas that crusty old fossil McCain and the ridiculous religious chillbilly Palin? Far too crude to be proper Presidential material.

    Well, here we are 60 days into the Obama administration, the ludicrous claims that Obama’s really a moderate have proven, well, ludicrous. And now we have the biggest spokesperson for fly-over country conservatives hauled up over bogus charges and judged guilty by these same elites, who demand that he apologize and tone it down lest they be offended further?

    Of course the fecal matter impacted the rotary impeller. It’s bad enough when the regular media preaches down to the unwashed fat slobbering masses in fly-over land, but when are own supposed champions decide they’d rather play Brahmin to our Shudra (let alone those untouchable evangelicals) then champion their own supposed ideology, well there’s a lot of anger out there.

    Call it the conservative reaction to the formation of sky box conservatism. Republicans have always been the party of the fat cats to one degree or another, but it wasn’t supposed to matter how you came to BE a fat cat, merely that you were one. That’s changed recently and I suppose it’s logical that the right latched onto the memes and methodologies of the lefts ‘class warfare’ system when confronted with a class problem of it’s own.

  10. TF, I certainly don’t read Limbaugh’s quite that way (having read the whole thing) – but I can also shake my head at the careless formulation which had predictable blowback.

    And I’ve always taken Dowdify to mean eliding words in a paragraph or sentence in such a way as to invert it’s plain meaning.

    Hold on though – Obama’s proposals, and the places he’s spending political capital certainly don’t represent that he’s some massive leftward break with policies as they have existed.

    On national security issues, he’s taken a lot of pages – happily to me – from Bush’s playbook. On domestic issues, he’s been a lefty. but he’s absolutely tacked to the center a significant amount.

    So no, we didn’t elect Bill Ayers. It’s possible for that at be true and simultaneously for him to be too far to the left for you, Patterico, Goldstein – or even me.

    But let’s not frame this in a way that makes it ridiculously untrue.


  11. but I can also shake my head at the careless formulation which had predictable blowback

    You can shake your head, but who is at fault here? Rush for being clumsy or the those who attack him based on something he did not say, and refuse to let facts get in the way of taking it to their hated enemy?

    Did Rush show a little too much skin and thus deserve what is coming to him?

    But let’s not frame this in a way that makes it ridiculously untrue.

    The conservative pundits weren’t picking between Ayers and Obama. They were picking between McCain and Obama. They were supposed to be advising on the suitability to conservatives of the two candidates. I’m not claiming Obama is a super lefty (not saying he isn’t either, he’s been more disorganized than anything else so far), but he’s definitely not the conservative friendly bipartisan moderate Reagan democrat dreamed of by some of the conservative intelligentsia.

  12. It’s annoying when you’re boxing and that bad mad keeps hitting you when you drop your right hand.

    Politics ain’t beanbag, and if you drop your guard like that, you should expect to get whacked.

    Rush is a pro, and so gets judged by big-kid rules.


  13. But TF, that’s not what happened; the corner mad said “Look, Rushbo Grande, if you keep dropping your right, you’re going to get pasted.” That’s a net good thing if you’re a fan of his, no? As opposed to “Oh, the mean man keeps hitting you! Bad man! Bad man!”


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