Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“A gaffe a day keeps the substance away”

I have been guilty of making comedic hay out of Mitt Romney’s frequent mismumbles, and doubtless shall continue to be so, so long ever as he has tongue wherewith to misspeak.    These doozers really do seem somehow characteristic of the man, and the contrast with our current President could not be more stark.  During his wing-lofted 2008 campaign, Obama would open his mouth  and out flew a bird;  Romney widens his pie-hole, and out falls a turd.   But indeed, we should be electing a President based on more than his ability to make good use of the bully pulpit (though that too certainly figures largely among qualifications).   And since it is more fun to make merry over gaffes, as opposed to discrepancies between the details of assertions and the historical or numerical record, the latter get scanted, to the detriment of what means the most.  
Therefore do I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes:  urging thee, fair reader, NOT to read the essays posted here, nor here,  nor here, nor (horrors) here, nor (no no don’t click on this!) here, nor (even funnier) here, nor (this’ll killa ya!) here,  let alone here (adults only, please), and lastly not (spit-take!) here.
[Bonus for birdwatchers:  Spotting the Wild Wazzock. -- Don’t click on this.]

So you see that, unlike the Republican Party, Dr Justice is able to publically eat humble pie in admission of his past infractions.  Further heart-rending/heart-warming public apologies here and here.


What prompted this recantation is an excellent op-ed this morning, by Ruth Marcus, which you can read here:

The basic theme here quite transcends the particulars of the current campaign silly-season, but goes to the deeper insight into the Society of the Spectacle (to borrow the Situationist label).

The 2012 presidential campaign has become a festival of gaffe-hopping.

The candidates skitter along on the surface of politics, issuing vague pronouncements or taking predictable shots at each other. But these seem like increasingly brief interludes, mere campaign busywork as each side awaits and — abetted by an attention-deficit-disordered media — pounces on the opponents’ next gaffe.

Or supposed gaffe. The 2012 campaign has witnessed the full flowering of the faux gaffe, in which a candidate is skewered, generally out of context, for saying something that he clearly did not mean but that the other side finds immensely useful to misrepresent.

Mitt Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor” fall into this category. So do Barack Obama’s “the private sector is doing fine” and “you didn’t build that.”

It would be dreamily naive to moan that politics, once about high-minded ideas and detailed policy platforms, has now deteriorated into gaffe-sploitation.

Candidates’ missteps have always mattered; e.g., George Romney on his Vietnam brainwashing or Gerald Ford’s debate flub denying any Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. And some alleged gaffes — Vice President Al Gore supposedly asserting that he invented the Internet or discovered Love Canal, for example — have always had a questionable provenance.

Indeed, it was almost 30 years ago that columnist Michael Kinsley wrote that “the ‘gaffe’ is now the principal dynamic mechanism of American politics.”

Prompted by a now-obscure Gary Hart gaffe (the candidate dissed New Jersey and proceeded to lose its primary), Kinsley wrote that “journalists record each new gaffe, weigh it on their Gaffability Index (‘major gaffe,’ ‘gaffe,’ ‘minor gaffe,’ ‘possible gaffe’ ...), and move the players forward or backward on the game board accordingly.”

But the 2012 campaign, more than any I can recall, feels like all gaffe all the time. The curve for what counts as a gaffe has been dramatically lowered. Meanwhile, attention to the most minor of gaffes has been enhanced to deafening levels, drowning out, or at least taking the place of, other discussion.

There are several interlocking explanations for this development:

The 24/7 news cycle and the constant need for fresh nuggets of supposed news to toss out.

The ubiquity and intrusiveness of technology — cell phones and cameras yielding multiple “Macaca” moments — combined with the hyper-connected capacity for instantaneous dissemination.

Intellectual laziness (how much easier to critique a candidate’s gaffe than to dissect his tax plan) on the part of the press corps.

Policy voids (wait, these candidates don’t actually have tax plans!) on the part of the campaigns.

Should gaffes matter? Do they? Yes, but with reservations. Gaffes can expose candidates’ factual ignorance or intellectual shortcomings (see you later, Rick Perry and Herman Cain). Gaffes can reveal candidates’ characterological failures as well — a tendency to self-important puffery, undisciplined bloviating or politically convenient shape-shifting. Indeed, the more the gaffe, real or imagined, reinforces the preexisting image of the candidate, the greater damage it will inflict. Ask Dan Quayle about spelling “potatoe.”

So there is a legitimate place for gaffe coverage — in perspective. Take Romney’s not-so-excellent European vacation. His mildly derisive comment about preparations for the London Olympics was dumb, even if it fit the classic Kinsleyian definition of gaffe as a politician saying something truthful in public. But unless the United Kingdom has previously unknown electoral votes, this episode seems destined to be much-noted but not long remembered.

Add in Romney’s Israel comments, though — that Israeli “culture” may help explain differences in “economic vitality” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — and you do have to wonder about Romney’s consistent ham-handedness. How many foreign leaders can you annoy on one trip? Imagine what Republicans would have done if Obama had been similarly clumsy in the course of his foreign trip during the 2008 campaign.

So I’m not against gaffe coverage — I’m against covering only gaffes, which is where campaign reporting seems to be trending. I’m not against politicians’ seizing on opponents’ gaffes — I’m against politicians who believe, or act as if they believe, that this tactic can substitute for substantive campaign discussion.

There is a dangerous mismatch between the seriousness of the moment and this too-often-dominant form of political discourse. Americans like to think we choose presidents on the basis of who has the best vision for leading the country. We are at risk of electing the candidate least apt to make a clumsy remark.

So, on that note, a more serious reflection.
Some of the flak Romney caught for attributing the disparity in current Israeli vs Palestinian GDP  to “cultural differences”, was for the wrong reason:  any such ethnic comparisons are taboo, and if he has the courage to go there, hats off.  After all, such factors really do account for such disparities, it’s not all just a matter of luck.  Compare North vs. South Korea (no argument there), or (uh-oh!  PC-alert!) that of the Latin-American indigenes, versus those that came over from the  Europe and the Middle East.
No, what was wrong with Romney’s sally was its extraordinary ignorance of the facts on the ground in this particular case.  What a comparison to illustrate his thesis!  In point of fact, Palestinians (many of them Christian), like Lebanese (ditto) and Jews, have long had an especially acute commercial sense.   It is as though one were to ridicule Jewish industriousness  by pointing to the -- truly! -- extraordinarily low productivity per capita, among Central and Eastern European Jews of the early 1940s -- without noticing that, during this period, they were laboring in concentration camps.
His remarks, then, were worse than a gaffe;  they showed a poverty of geopolitical awareness, and an inability to handle the syntax of facts.

Footnote to the remark about MidEast immigrants to Latin America.
You probably have not heard of Carlos Slim.  That itself is remarkable, given what you are about to learn. 
If you have heard of him, you probably think of him as “the richest man in Mexico”, as he is often referred to.  And he is indeed that;  but from this description, you would not know whether he was richer than the richest man in, say Brazil;  and you would probably figure that he was closer to the poverty-line than the richest man in, say, France or Japan.
You would be mistaken.
He’s the richest man in the world.

His full name is Carlos Slim Helú.   Conoisseurs will recognize the latter two names as Arabic, and the last-named as that of a very prominent family of Lebanon.  And indeed, Sr. Carlos is of Lebanese extraction -- specifically, Maronite -- Lebanese Christian. 
And his success in Mexico, and in the world as a whole, was not just a matter of luck -- though he doubtless had some of it.   Nor does ill fortune account entirely for the indigence of those dozing by the side of the road.

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We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

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[Update 2 Aug 2012]  Lame as it was in the particulars of its illustration, Romney's allusion to the role of culture in prosperity  withstands the even lamer assault by Jared Diamond:
The differing fortunes of North vs. South Korea, or E. vs. W. Germany, or the European immigrants vs. the indigenes in Latin America -- or inmates of the Gaza Strip vs. Israelis --  cannot be explained by Diamond's favorite factors  "access to the sea", "climate" .... puh-lease.

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