Obama as a Rorschach's Test and his use of language
by bruh21, Thu Jul 26, 2007 at 05:09:29 AM EDT
Quick! "Universal healthcare." Define it for me. How about defining what "is" means. Or "diplomacy." Better yet, define the word "secular" for me. How about "people of faith" or "civil union." What does "consensus" mean or "socialist?" What does "poverty" mean in this country?
David Mizner has a great diary up right now about how Obama's use of language is misleading. In his diary, he hits on three important elements of politics: a) language; b) character; and c) strategy. Rather than rehash the arguments here I wish to talk about language.
When I say language, I mean how we define things. When I say define things I mean "to state or set forth the meaning of" and "to explain or identify the nature or essential qualities of." Without commonly understood language that is well defined there can be no real discourse, civil or otherwise. This isn't a theory. This is human existence. If you don't believe me, find one example in which understanding each other in a society isn't crucial. Of all our qualities as a species it is language, which has allowed progress.
For example, when I say "secular" I mean according to the following definition found on dictionary.com: Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body. There is nothing anti-religious about being secular.
Yet, some seem to use the following definition: "of or relating to the doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations." At first blush, this language seems to suggest that secularist indeed can be at odds with people of faith.
This first blush would make sense if not for the following: a) most secularists are people of faith; b) most Democrats are people of faith; c) nearly all, if not all, of the Democratic leadership are members of one of the Abraham traditions. You would have to ignore all of that to conclude the logical syllogism that "All Democrats are against religion" and just as problematic that "most Democrats are against religion" or "important Democrats are against religion."
Why do I apply facts and history to find out which definition is most applicable when most people are talking about secularism? Because of a simple reality- we cannot understand each others definition if we approach each debate like blank slate. Progress requires us to understand reality around us. Brown v Board was able to redefine "equal opportunity" under the law because we gained an understanding of it that relied on facts rather than supposition.
The only thing that happens when you ignore history is that you are doomed to repeat it. We can see this now. We've seen it with Enron. Bush's Iraq policies. Our healthcare situation. There is nothing new under the sun about these things. They've happened before. If we had the discourse of history and meaning and context in 2001 or 2002, I don't know if Iraq would have happened. I am not even sure 9/11 would have happened if we had the right discourse abroad and at home.
Discourse then requires understanding context and history as well as denotations of words to give a connotative sense of meaning. If we do not understand that the second meaning is the one commonly used by Christo-conservatives or that "Most Democrats are both secularists and people of faith," we cannot understand why it would be offensive to tell someone that they are anti-religious for wishing to retain the better parts of the advancements of the Enlightenment.
I suppose if one saw history as weighing one down as it does in the rest of the world this might not be true. Obama's `new politics' seems to be about end of history type of theorizing. The struggle is considered divisive and therefore something to be avoided rather than understood for what it is- how progress happens.
One of my areas of interest is the Black civil rights movement. Did you know that from the time that the NAACP Legal Defense fund took up the strategy to end segregation until it met its goal in Brown it took almost 50 years? Some might see that as a sign for supporting Obama's approach, but they would be missing the deeper history. Each of those 50 years was a struggle.
Many of you may say- well, but I don't believe that. We will have to agree to disagree is the common refrain when hit with the factual assertions such as FDR's approach to politics etc.
This bothers me to know end. Not because I don't think there can be legitimate disagreement, but because in order to reach that point here the approach is often to contort historical facts and revise them to a point where they no longer make sense. We aren't disagreeing over pure opinion. We disagree over facts and definitions. There can be no civil discourse whatsoever if we aren't able to understand common facts and definitions.
I can give a non-Obama example with one commenter who talks of Edwards being the closest to socialism. The dictionary defines socialism as "a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole." That definition is pretty strong, but it's not as strong as the connotative meaning of the word in the U.S. When people hear socialism, they think communism. They think about the Cold War. All this unsaid history and emotions come flooding into our collective consciousness.
Why is all this important you may wonder? Because when listening to politicians and to each other we have to talk in a common language no matter how partisan we are. If we do not- we aren't having a discourse, no matter how politely you say what you are saying. Democracies depend on a common understanding of discourse or else democracies fail. My tax law professor once told me that the most insidious thing about the Nazis was not that they changed the laws. It was that they changed the meaning of the law without changing a word of the statutes written on the books in some cases. He gave me this warning- Beware people keeping the same words, but giving them a meaning that isn't commonly understood. Always know what people really mean by what they are saying.
Bush has been called the MBA president because he understood that after Clinton one could fill the vacuum left by Clinton with whatever one wanted. He understood Madison Avenue even as the Democrats still do no understand PR. It worked for 6 years. I don't doubt but-for Iraq it would still be working.
I was talking to a rather nice Obama supporter about my chief issue over Obama. Namely, his language is like a Rorschach's test in which the listener fills it with whatever meaning the listener wants. Those who want to believe in him will hear good things because they will take from his words the meaning that fits their views of him. Those who don't feel the spirit can fill his words with something else entirely.
The danger is that in a world with history and meaning he allows room for others to define what he is saying. As to why this bothers me, you must remember I see Bush politics as a natural outgrowth of Clinton politics.
Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with compromise. There is something wrong with compromise as your chief strategy. One of the problems with it is definition. It politics it is defined or be defined. Whatever we Democrats don't come in Day 1 ready to define is what the GOP will use as an opening to attack. It's how they do politics. That's not going to change for at least another 5 to 10 years until this generation of younger activists push out members.
I had not wanted to talk about healthcare, but I think an example here would help. Many of Obama's apologists in Mizner's diary were essentially arguing "it's the best we can hope for." I don't know what the eventual compromise would have been or will be for healthcare. I do know that starting off with your opponent's position too much in mind without already having defined your goals is a license for disaster. Negotiation is about not only the other guy, but also yourself. To forget this is to constantly be beaten because you assumed you would be beaten. Or, in other words, if you start off with half a loaf, the other guy is going to ask for half of that loaf so you will get ¼. If you start off with the whole, you get the half of loaf.
This isn't a perfect analogy. Obviously, we can't know what is the other side's breaking point. But, that's rather the point. We don't know. We assume that we know, and proceed from their based on our fears. The problem with this is that we aren't thinking of definitions or facts or context or history. We are just thinking of fear. To me, although people say Obama is the politics of hope, he feels like in practice the politics of fear.
Edwards' position certainly has its limitations. He will have to compromise. The question isn't whether he will have to compromise in fact. The question is whether he should start off from this position. We've tried the compromise theory. Again, an honest assessment of history would demonstrate this. When I look at definitions and common language that's what I am looking for his language to reflect. More importantly, one should understand if some people think you are saying one thing, and you mean another, and another set thing you saying something else--it doesn't matter if his supporters "get him." This confusion doesn't allow for a mandate or for the ability to build consensus. Many of you will spin this- but that remains a truism.