Friday, March 11, 2011

How Many Forms of BS Can You Spot in This Utterance?

Newt Gingrich on his dark past: “There’s no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard, and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently gave an interview to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. The first of the three clips posted by Brody at (March 8, 2011) begins with him asking Gingrich the following rather elliptical question (the transcriptions that follow are my own):
You know the question, and I’m not going to ask it the way everybody else will ask it, but as it relates to the past, and some of those personal issues that you’ve had. You’ve talked about how God is a forgiving God, and I’d like you to expand upon that: as you went through some of those difficulties, how you saw God’s forgiving nature in all of that.
Such is Brody’s delicacy that he never actually says what “the question” is. Perhaps he is presuming that his viewers will know that Gingrich is now on his third marriage; that his relationship with the woman who became wife no. 2 started while he was married to wife no. 1; that he initiated a divorce from wife no. 1 when she was recovering from surgery for uterine cancer; that his relationship with the woman who became wife no. 3 started while he was married to wife no. 2; that he initiated a divorce from wife no. 2 on the day when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; and that he has a history of further marital infidelities. (For Gingrich’s marital history, see the pages at on Gingrich’s first and second marriages; for his other infidelities, see this article at Frontline.) These matters are presumably the “personal issues” to which Brody vaguely refers. Gingrich replies:
Well, I mean, first of all, there’s no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard, and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate. And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet—I was doing them. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness—not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness—and that I do believe in a forgiving God. And I think most people, deep down in their hearts, hope there’s a forgiving God.
Now, to be fair, Brody did not ask Gingrich to confess his misdeeds, but only to tell how he understood God’s forgiveness in relation to those misdeeds, whatever they were. Nonetheless, to speak intelligibly of being forgiven, one must at lest acknowledge misconduct. And Gingrich does indeed get around to saying that he “was doing things that were wrong.” It is interesting, though, to see how much evasion and obfuscation he commits before he gets there. Consider his first sentence: At times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, I worked far too hard, and things happened in my life that were not appropriate. There are so many forms of dishonesty and cowardice packed into this fairly short utterance that it is instructive to try to identify them individually.

(1) Let us start with the most obvious one: “partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country.” One is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s remark upon the resort to patriotism by scoundrels. Here Gingrich suggests that the ultimate motive of his marital misconduct was love of country—or, as the headline of an article by Jack Stuef at Wonkette more satirically puts the claim, that “Newt Gingrich committed adultery because America made him horny.” By trying to attribute his bad conduct to a good motive, Gingrich follows the most commonly practiced strategy of reply to the bullshit interview question “What do you consider your greatest weakness?”, namely to admit to a weakness that is really a strength. In fact, he virtually repeats the best-known bullshit answer: “I sometimes care about my work too much!”

(2) To be sure, Gingrich includes the qualifier “partially,” as if sensing that, without it, his assertion might be a more blatant absurdity than even people who consider him a credible political figure would be able to accept. But that merely compounds the disingenuousness of his statement. The absurdity is not the idea that love of country can be the sole motive to betraying one’s marriage partner, but that it can be such a motive at all. The addition of the word “partially” is a sop thrown to those credulous or dull-minded enough to miss this point.

(3) Perhaps what Gingrich means to attribute to his love of his country is not his marital infidelities but only his working “far too hard,” with the implication that this in turn created the conditions leading to such misconduct. But how so? We have only the bare conjunction of the phrases “I worked far too hard” and “things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” There is no indication of how those two facts are supposed to be related. The attempt to draw blame from his conduct off into the forgivable or even laudable habit of “working too hard” is lost in vagueness.

(4) Compare the following two phrases:
(a) I worked hard.
(b) Things happened.
Notice that the speaker of (a) identifies himself as an agent, while the speaker of (b) does not identify any agent at all, but only uses the vague grammatical subject “things.” When Gingrich is speaking of conduct that may be reckoned to his credit, he identifies himself as an agent: “I worked far too hard.” When he is speaking of his misconduct—perhaps to describe him as “speaking of it” gives him too much credit; “obliquely alluding to it” seems nearer the mark—he disappears in a puff of evasion: “things happened in my life.” This is, of course, a variant of that watchword of the inveterately irresponsible, “Mistakes were made.”

(5) “Not appropriate.” I have saved the worst for last. I know of no phrase whose use so concisely manifests the collapse of moral intelligence as does this one. But that collapse is not at all peculiar to Gingrich; it can be observed wherever English is spoken. An epidemic of stultification seems to have robbed people of the command of intelligent moral vocabulary. Having apparently lost command of terms like “outrageous” (now more commonly used, idiotically, as a term of praise), “unconscionable,” “irresponsible,” “cruel,” “selfish,” “base,” “dishonest,” and so forth, to say nothing of simple and obvious ones like “bad” and “wrong,” people wishing to speak of misconduct find nothing at their disposal but a puffed-up term of etiquette.

Surely we all know what “appropriate” means. A fur hat is not appropriate to wear with a linen suit; “fuck” is an inappropriate word to use in polite company; a Phillips-head screwdriver is not appropriate for driving slotted-head screws. The word “appropriate” is what logicians call a two-place predicate, one that indicates a relation between two things: paradigmatically, a is appropriate to b. What is not appropriate to one thing is typically appropriate to some other. To describe acts of marital infidelity as “things that were not appropriate” implies that their only fault is that they were done at the wrong time, on the wrong occasion, or with the wrong person, in some sense of “wrong” not yet specified—as, for instance, a plaid tie is wrong (inappropriate) to wear with astriped shirt.

Of course, it is safe to presume that Gingrich, like all other people who use this cretinous and obfuscating jargon, does not intend any of these implications. He surely does not mean that he chose the wrong women with whom to betray his wives, or the wrong occasions for doing so. But what does he mean? An associate with whom I was discussing Gingrich’s interview on Facebook made the comment: “The real mistake here is thinking that Mr. Gingrich attaches any meaning other than dog-whistle meaning to his words.” Setting aside the question whether Gingrich has pitched his whistle correctly for the evangelical Christian audience that he hopes to influence, this seems to me correct. When Gingrich describes his former conduct as “not appropriate,” there is not much to be said about what, if anything, he means by his words, in the sense of intending something capable of being true or false. Yet he surely means to do something by uttering those words. I would say that he means to indicate repentance without actually acknowledging misconduct. He does not admit to having acted selfishly, exploitatively, deceptively, cruelly, or irresponsibly; he does not admit to having acted at all; he simply describes “things that happened” in his life as “not appropriate.”

Well, that’s my attempt to analyze the utterance of this paragon of dishonesty and moral cowardice. Does anyone see anything that I have missed?

No comments:

Post a Comment