Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Captain MidNite's Political Decoder Ring

When the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign divided the state of Virginia into the “real Virginia” of the rural, agrarian south and an undeclared shadow Virginia in the north, they drew predictable jeers like John Stewart’s, above. Yet while Stewart says nothing incorrect in the above clip, his response reflects exactly the problem with current political discourse. People of good value and noble intent simply talk past each other without realizing it.

Obery Hendricks asserts that the values we treat as absolute are frequently positional. Most Americans agree on work’s ennobling quality, that holding a full-time job is an emblem of a responsible and mature personality. But we disagree on the meaning of the word “work.” Manual laborers—farmers, factory workers, janitors, and such—often regard desk and office jobs as not “real work.” Conversely, educated professionals tend to consider manual labor as menial.

The problem is not that one definition is more “right,” but that these positions have contradictory definitions for the same word. Manual workers consider their labor admirable; professionals regard manual work as something to escape. Neither is more correct, though some people are better disposed by psychology and culture to one or the other. But instead of seeing past that divergence, the parties often turn defensive and treat each other as opponents.

When the McCain campaign called rural southern Virginia “real,” the educated professionals of the urban north, many of whom were born elsewhere, took that as a challenge, a declaration that they should pack their bags and leave. Whether McCain and his deputies believed that is a matter for debate. But I believe that calling the south “real” doesn’t imply that the north is “fake,” so much as that it defines reality as accord with the speaker’s own values.

Let’s pause to see the world from that perspective. Sarah Palin has claimed, following her doomed national campaign, that her humble roots and relative lack of sophistication make her uniquely qualified to represent Americans in Washington. Urban magazines like the New Yorker easily deride that attitude, since it implies any schlub off the farm could be President. Yet I think Palin means nothing of the sort.

Rather, I think she means that career Washington professionals are different from you and I, and she has the skills necessary to translate our goals and aspirations into their language. Leaving aside the question of accuracy (this overeducated progressive disagrees), this claim bears a certain validity. I do not mean it is correct, but that if we accept her major premise and her minor premise, the conclusion makes sense.

People who dispute Palin’s premises must play what critic Peter Elbow calls the “believing game.” Let’s view her position from another perspective: bureaucrats are not Bolsheviks, but skilled professionals who want to earn a living while contributing to society. But their various aims must be corralled by a superior who answers to voters every four years. Thus, a plainspoken, folksy candidate makes less sense than one who grasps Washingtonian lingo.

Linguist George Lakoff, in Whose Freedom?, explains that two people, using the same word, can have two very different meanings. We see this when candidates use words like “patriotism,” “honor,” and “family.” Non-verbal symbols are even worse. Images of the flag, Abraham Lincoln, the Rocky Mountains, and a farmer in a checked shirt stir warm bipartisan feelings, yet have wildly divergent meanings according to the audience’s prior philosophy.

A key scene in Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed illustrates this point. He claims that Intelligent Design, because it supposes an active creator, encourages moral living, while godless Darwinian evolution justifies Nazi atrocities. This is a reversal of assertions by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But history says Hitler was a consummate chameleon, purloining the jargons of Christianity and science while embracing the tenets of neither.

Let’s follow the logic:

  1. I am different from Hitler; and
  2. I am different from those people over there; therefore
  3. Hitler is similar to those people over there

Hitler enters this story as neither a historical figure nor a person with real, if distorted, motivations. He simply illustrates my identity versus theirs.

When Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum argue who is the real conservative, or Barack Obama trades snipes with either of them over who is authentically American, they don’t speak the same language. The lack of shared suppositions prevents them not only resolving their differences, but even debating productively. Until we share the same code, the partisan nastiness of current politics will only become ever more ingrown. Surely nobody wants that.

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