Listening to the Right rail about Hillary’s “short circuit” and the Left mirror that behavior in seizing Donald Trump’s veiled implication that Second Amendment advocates could deal with Hillary in their own fashion—wink, wink—reminds me of a hard and painful lesson I learned in college when I wrote a weekly column for the campus newspaper.
Each week I scaled the rocky face of high dudgeon, carrying on about one political or cultural thing or another, and for the most part it was all pretty benign. Occasionally something I wrote would generate a few letters to the editor and the occasional call for my immediate ouster, but nothing serious. Then I tossed off a column I thought would be particularly innocuous, turned in primarily for the purpose of meeting a looming deadline.
You see, the campus fraternities were in the midst of “rush week,” the time when lesser fraternities endeavored to attract freshman whose membership might enhance their reputation, while the more prestigious ones sniffed out candidates of sufficient pedigree and caliber. As part of this process they all engaged in two things: a charity fundraising campaign that consisted of table-sitting in front of various lecture halls, festooned with indicators of both the charity and the fraternity, promoting each pretty much equally, and the second being a concluding “rush party” with kegs, booze, pizza, and dogs—and young women from cooperative sororities. It was all great fun and quite traditional, no problem.
However, due to curiosity and happenstance, I had discovered that the charity fundraising and blow-out parties were connected. The party was considered, mirabile dictu, of a piece with the charitable fundraising effort. So the cost of the party was a fundraising “expense” that ate up 90 percent of the monies raised, ostensibly for, you know, charity.
The point of my column was that, hey, if you want to give money to charity, be my guest, and if you want to subsidize the fraternities’ “Animal House” homage, feel free to do that, too, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re doing the former when you’re really doing the latter.
I had the notion that the fraternities wouldn’t be thrilled by having this pointed out, but it had the advantage of being true, and, besides, Edward R. Murrow.
How Dare You Attack Charity
For the next several weeks the paper was filled with an unending cacophony of full-throated outrage, all slamming me for being against charities. Letter after letter, even other columnists (oddly, the ones who disagreed with me politically) all fulminating about my execrable perfidy in attacking charities. There was a great deal of what we now call virtue signaling, letting the world know they favored helping out needy people, because they were a good, unlike, well, me.
People approached me in class, asking what I had against charities. A fraternity took out a full-page ad to encourage freshmen to join them. The ad was all type, one line in the middle of the page that said, “Henry Scanlon doesn’t like us; maybe you will.”
I wrote a follow-up column in which I pointed out I never said a single word against charities—in fact quite the contrary; that I have nothing against fraternities and they could point to nothing in my column to indicate otherwise. Then I reiterated the original concept, that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be played the fool by being led to believe you are helping needy people when in reality you are paying for a party. I’m trying to do you a favor here, people!
This made no difference, and it is when I learned what nothing in my subsequent experience has contradicted: Anyone who does not like your message will attack you not for what you said, but what they say you said, and that’s almost never what you actually said. Lastly, there’s nothing you can do to talk them out of it.
The Game of Gotcha Is Getting Old
In attempting to defend herself for saying FBI Director James Comey had told Congress her answers about her private email server were truthful (he said the opposite), Hillary claimed it was an honest mistake. She had “short circuited” her answer. Here Hillary Clinton was attempting to construct a kind of syllogism:
Comey said I didn’t lie in my FBI interview.
What I said in the FBI interview was the same as what I said in public.
Therefore, Comey said what I said in public wasn’t a lie.
Forget for a moment that the notion she said the same thing in an (unrecorded, unverifiable, not under oath) FBI interview as she did in public is, in and of itself, a howler. She also left out the middle part that connected the two, and when she was asked about it attempted to re-insert the connective tissue.
She probably meant to say she took a short cut, but instead said short circuit, which has been seized upon as an admission she had some kind of electrified brain fart, the implications of which can only be imagined, but which are, certainly, horrifying and far-reaching—as in, call out the guys in the white coats with the butterfly nets. Now, I take a back seat to no one in my loathing for Hillary Clinton, but really? Can’t we be better than this?
Likewise Trump’s Second Amendment gaffe: Granted, he’s an idiot, and I take a back seat to no one in my loathing for him, but, no, he wasn’t calling for an assassination squad to solve the problem. Yet that won’t impede the process of vilification that relies for its velocity on an obvious mischaracterization of what he meant.
Some Organizations Live to Misquote Their Opponents
It’s what we do, it seems. Propaganda mills like MediaMatters.org, ThinkProgress.org, and MoveOn.org swim daily in a cesspool of exactly this type of gymnastic dishonesty and then, no doubt, go to church on Sunday. (Okay, maybe not.) This is the stuff Keith Olbermann, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Jon Stewart have made careers on.
No, Sarah Palin didn’t say she could see Russia from her house, but she did say you could see Russia from Alaska, which is true. No matter. One little tweak that changes everything—and let the games begin.
Ann Coulter has used the predictability of this type of word-twisting to her advantage. It creates invaluable self-righteous chatter that helps sell her books. No, she did not say 9/11 wives were “enjoying” the deaths of their husbands, but to this day, people interested in discrediting her will haul out that old slander, and it’s hard to believe she didn’t know that was exactly what they’d do.
Mitt Romney had a “binder full of women.” What he meant, of course, was that he was so intent on giving qualified women a fair shot that he proactively made sure no one was overlooked. This is something his political opposites profess to favor, but why acknowledge that when you can steamroll over what he meant in favor of endlessly ridiculing him for his clumsy choice of words. (Maybe he had a “short circuit.”) It is purposeful, calculated, cynical, and venomous dishonesty. It’s also unfair and mean-spirited, but anyone hoping to get mean-spiritedness out of politics is in for a very long haul.
A Way Forward
Early on, Rush Limbaugh said about President Obama, “I hope he fails” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would focus all his efforts on making Obama “a one-term president.” These were both statements about policy. They understood what Obama meant when he said America would be “fundamentally transformed” and believed what he had in mind would increase human misery. So they announced their intention to do everything they could to prevent it from happening.
Their political opposites saw an advantage in mischaracterizing these statements as being not about policy and other things that constitute legitimate, good-faith discussion, but personal. They wouldn’t give this man who was going to cause the waters to stop rising (among other things) a chance to succeed, all out of sheer dislike for the guy and flat-out nastiness.
Thus, such statements required no response, had no standing. They should be discounted and dismissed, but not before their proponents’ wickedness is fully exposed, lest anyone take seriously anything they say in the future.
This is a dirty, pervasive game. At the risk of being accused of being blinkered, I will say I believe people of the Left are far more inclined towards this constant cherry-picking, out-of-context, twisting, mischaracterization, and re-sculpting-of-meaning than is the Right. That’s why when the Right does it, as in the case of Hillary’s “short circuit,” it is somehow even more painful to see. We should all be better than this, including, and perhaps especially the people we tend to side with.
No, it’s not going to change. But maybe there can be a slight improvement if those of us who are watching this ongoing maelstrom make a point of seeing it for what it is and deconstructing the intentional obfuscation when we run across it, even if it’s aimed at our opponents. Maybe then the next step will be imposing some shame on those who engage in it.
Maybe then we can have discussions and even disagreements based upon what we said and what we meant, instead of what the other guy says we said, or says we meant. Who knows, maybe that way we’d even discover some common ground.