Universal Translator

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Witch Doctor Understanding of Language

As you probably already know, Eric Cantor appeared on 60 Minutes over the weekend.  Here is the full interview, which clocks in at about 12:30 minutes:

Of course, it is the bit at about 10:50 that has drawn the most attention.  At that point Leslie Stahl asked about Cantor’s assertion that no one should ever compromise their principles in politics, and pointed out that Cantor’s hero – Ronald Reagan – did in fact compromise his own principles by raising taxes numerous times during his two-term presidency.

STAHL:          And at that point, Cantor’s press secretary interrupted, yelling from off camera that what I was saying wasn’t true.

                        [Plays videotape of Ronald Reagan announcing a tax increase.]

STAHL:          There seemed to be some difficulty accepting the fact that even though Ronald Reagan cut taxes, he also pushed through several tax increases, including one in 1982 during a recession.

Over at DKos yesterday, Hunter pointed out that this shouldn’t be a “difficulty” at all.  We have videotape, like the one Stahl ran, showing Ronald Reagan sitting in the Oval Office and announcing a tax increase – which he explicitly described as “a compromise.”  Hunter speculatively explains what happens as follows:

Conservatives vowed they would not raise any tax by any amount of money, ever, because it would make Reagan and the Conservative Baby Jesus cry.  Democrats and others began to rightly point out that this was, historically, simply an untenable position to have, and that even the most conservative conservative who ever conservatived, Ronald Reagan, raised some taxes on some things in order to not have government auger itself into the ground.  This caused a bout of cognitive dissonance within the conservative hive mind, first manifesting itself as profound irritation that anyone would ever bring up such a thing, then transforming into a full-fledged demand that anyone saying such things shut up already, and finally morphing into the rather impressive psychological feat of simply denying that any such thing ever happened.  History itself, apparently, had to be changed to accommodate the grand conservative need to believe unambiguously in the absolute truth of their own ideological pronouncements.

That sounds about right, but I would go even further.  I’ve been watching Movement Conservatism for a while now, and the True Believers exhibit what I’ve come to think of as the “Witch Doctor Understanding of Language.”

We’re all familiar with this kind of thinking, we’ve seen it dozens of times in any of a dozen or so schlock movies featuring Voodoo dolls.  Voodoo doll magic works by crafting an image of the person you wish to curse (usually including something from that person, like a lock of hair, fingernail clippings, or blood), performing the proper ritual to link the image to the Real Thing, and then torturing the image to produce the same effect on the Real Thing (i.e., the person).  Essentially, the belief is that the representation (the doll) becomes the reality (the person).

This is the thinking behind all sympathetic magic.  In some cultures knowing a person’s “true name” give you power over them, again because the representation (the name) is the reality (the person).  Representative magic is one of the fundamental tenets of Hermeticism and, indeed, most magic, occult and religious circles:  “As above, so below.”  The idea is that by understanding the representation (the microcosm, or oneself) you can understand the macrocosm (the universe, or God).

(Which, as an aside, I have always found delightfully narcissistic.  You mean I can know God if I know myself?  I am created in God’s image?  Cool.  Yay me.)

But, of course, what all of this represents is nothing more than humankind’s ever-present willingness to easily confuse the map for the territory, the symbol for the real thing, the word for the World.

Ultimately, it manifests as a belief – sometimes consciously recognized but more often than not merely implicit – that what one says and firmly believes is the ultimate arbiter of Reality.  And especially if enough people say and believe the same thing, then that belief provides the proper definition of Reality.

(As another aside, this has always seemed to me to be the only practical delineation between a cult and a religion.  A cult involves a few people believing in some things that seem nutty to a lot of people; a religion involves a lot of people believing in some things that seem nutty to a few people.)

As a result of the Witch Doctor Understanding of Language, we get conservative policies like the Healthy Forests initiative, which grants gives away logging rights on public land to a few private contractors, we get the Clear Skies initiative, which eases restrictions on air pollution, and we get Paul Ryan’s plan to destroy Medicare . . . and are told that pointing out the fact that the plan destroys Medicare is The Biggest Lie of the Year because, after all, the plan with which Paul Ryan would replace Medicare is still going to be called “Medicare” – and that, ultimately, is the only thing that really matters.  The Label.

That last example points out how pernicious is the effect of our political press not calling Conservatives (and others too, of course, but these days magical language mostly seems to be a tool of the Conservatives) when they invoke magical language to change facts – in lay parlance, when they are “lying.”  When our political press insists on judging everything as if it were a theatrical production, when the first question they ask after the president gives a speech justifying a war on Iraq is “Do you think he persuaded the American people?” and not “Do you think what he said makes sense?” then the political world really can be defined by words and not Reality.

That is what the unnamed Bush administration official [Karl Rove] meant when he told Ron Suskind that the “reality-based community” was behind the times and that America “creates its own reality.”  This is how Mitt Romney truly cannot understand why he should apologize or feel any shame about a political ad last month that took President Obama’s words out of context in order to deliberately mislead the public.  Instead, he responded by effectively "arguing that the basics of a healthy discourse – truths, facts, fairness, honor – are now irrelevant."

And this ultimately is why Conservative are so anti-science, anti-fact, anti-knowledge, anti-history.  All too often, Reality just does not conform to their sincerely held beliefs.  When that happens the truly conservative thinker does not respond by changing their beliefs, but by asserting that Reality must be wrong because their mindset decrees that the World is ultimately defined as nothing more nor less than what they believe it to be. 

P.S.  One more thing I just cannot let pass without commenting on, because it is a pet peeve that absolutely bugs the crap out of me.  About a minute or so before the 60 Minutes interview ends, Stahl asks Cantor whether he respects President Obama.  Cantor sidesteps the question by asserting that Obama is his "Commander in Chief."

No, Goddammit, no he is not.  The President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces -- not of the American people.  While the President can command the military, he cannot command the society . . . at least, he is not supposed to be able to do that.  He is supposed to be first among equals -- that is all.  This, again, is another example of the magical use of language, conferring upon the office through mere repetition a power it just does not have. 

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