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?
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.