Sunday, July 10, 2005

Gotcha Politics

Is it just me? Because sometimes it seems like even people who should know better are way to quick to embrace "gotcha politics" - most notably the character assassination of public figures based upon a single comment or statement, often taken out of context, usually blown way out of proportion. The problem seems to be getting worse, perhaps because that is the nature of our times, although this is an area where bloggers seem inclined to fan the flames.

As by now everybody knows, when asked to comment on the effect the London terrorist attack had on the markets, Fox anchor Brit Hume said,
Well, maybe. The other thing is, of course, people have -- you know, the market was down. It was down yesterday, and you know, you may have had some bargain-hunting going on. I mean, my first thought when I heard -- just on a personal basis, when I heard there had been this attack and I saw the futures this morning, which were really in the tank, I thought, "Hmmm, time to buy." Others may have thought that as well. But you never know about the markets. But obviously, if the markets had behaved badly, that would obviously add to people's sense of alarm about it. But there has been a lot of reassurance coming, particularly in the way that -- partly in the way the Brits handled all this, but also in the way that officials here handled it. There seems to be no great fear that something like that is going to happen here, although there's no indication that we here had any advance warning.
Or perhaps you didn't know that. Perhaps your understanding is that he flipped on the television, saw that terrorists had attacked London, and declared, "This will give me a great opportunity to buy stocks!" Because, more or less, that's how certain people (most of whom should know better) are trying to reshape that comment.

I'm not going to defend Brit's words, which obviously could have been more artful and sensitive. I'm just tired of this effort to sabotage people's entire careers and legacies (or even those of institutions - e.g., "Amnesty International said 'gulag' so they have no credibility and we can ignore them forever and ever") on the basis of a poorly chosen word or poorly phrased comment, when we know what the person really meant.

Now I will grant, there are times when a poorly chosen word or comment reflects so badly on the speaker that they deserve to be dragged to the (figurative) public pillory, or at least that their future conduct and statements be regarded with a somewhat jaundiced eye. A civil rights leader, for example, who uses an ethnic slur to refer to the Jewish residents of New York. Or a judge who uses the same type of "[slur]-town" epithet in relation to its largely black population. If you can scrape back from that type of conduct, well, I'll never look at you the same way. And if you can't, you deserve your fate.

There's also a context where somebody uses hyperbole, exaggeration, speaks in the heat of the moment, or speaks without thinking, and makes a statement that should result in immediate clarification and apology. And your reaction to being confronted can cast fair light on how strongly your comments should be held against you. If you contend that you are not a bigot but think you should be able to survive describing your staff in terms such as "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple" you had better act quickly to explain yourself - because otherwise, I won't be crying for you when you have to resign 18 days later. If you say warm things about Strom Thurmond's presidential campaign, but can't bring yourself to quickly explain how you could forget its racist and pro-segregation emphasis, and apologize for saying something that stupid without thinking, you don't deserve to be the Senate majority leader.

As we move into gotcha, we have fair political comment, sometimes involving hyperbole, exaggeration, the heat of the moment, or momentary thoughtlessness, which is distorted, exaggerated, or beaten to death in the name of gotcha politics. It may not be wise for a singer to express in a concert, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." But it's a statement made at a concert for goodness sake, and how often do those live past the moment they are said? It's also fair political commentary, even in a "time of war", to disagree or even be ashamed by your nation's leader - just as it is fair to vehemently disagree with that sentiment.

And then we have comments that we know are true. That a horrific description of prisoner treatment, even if we assume it to be truly exceptional, is the type of account we would expect to read in relation to a state we hold in contempt. Or, moving back to Hume's comment, imagine that part of your job is to comment on such things as market movements, and imagine that following a terrorist attack you view as far less consequential than other major geopolitical events there is a sharp downturn in the market. Would you not have a thought similar to Hume's? I didn't follow the markets on the dates at issue, but had I done so I would have been skeptical of the sell-off.

It is inevitable that people who are in the public eye, and who are constantly making on-record or public statements, will at times make mistakes. Hume falls into that category - he makes enough statements that it is inevitable that he will have some, many, which could be worded better. That's no excuse to try to distort his inartful statement into "When I heard about the terrorist attacks, I immediately thought of buying futures." If you have any doubt, demand clarification. "Are you comparing our troops to Nazis?" "Are you really stating that when you heard of the terrorist attack, your first thought was how to profit in the stock market?" The sad part is, when you know the answer will be "Of course not", and you run with it anyway to score a cheap political point.


  1. Aaron,

    Good Post - we might differ a bit on the significance of some of the examples you give, but I think your overall point is well taken.

    (I've been so out of the loop that I missed the whole kerfuffle over Brit Hume. And on a completely tangential note, I wonder how many others relate to Fox News the way I do - both repelled by its shameless flag-waiving, but attracted by some of the debating panels they assemble).

    There's another phenomenon that occurs to me, related a bit to what you say. Sometimes, despite - so we think - choosing our words with the utmost care, it seems as if our meaning has been missed by an interlocutor. It's often difficult to know how to respond to that, once we recover from the initial annoyance; were our words really as clear as we had imagined, or is the disputant obtuse in some way, or perhaps is there an element of both ambiguity and obstinance? Maybe the most constructive response is to use the misunderstanding as an occasion to reexamine our prose, in light of the question - "how could I have said such-and-such even more clearly?"

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