Republican Thinking

Karl Burton

Minneapolis, MN, 12/09/00


I think it’s time to argue against an idea that I’ve heard here innumerable times, that the Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy. (They are aiming for, but have not yet achieved, the state described by the wonderful neologism of "hypocracy", a word whose time has probably come).

We tend to use the term "hypocrisy" about them because we see a disconnect between their words and their actions, or between two sets of disparate actions supported by the same words, or because they use two totally different words (in one case positive, in the other negative) to describe actions that are distinguishable only by who is involved.

But hypocrisy is pretty much by definition a conscious thing, and I would argue that our current crop of Republicans are not capable of hypocrisy. They are not capable of it because they don’t use language in a way that supports hypocrisy. Sooner or later, to show hypocrisy, one has to have some sort of context – words today that are discordant with the words of yesterday or last week, different situations that should be subject to the same analysis because they have the same underlying issues (for instance, selective hand recounting in New Mexico and in Florida).

Now to most people, it seems hypocritical to say "we hate it here and must stop it" and turn around and then say "we must have it here and will sue to get it". (This example is merely illuminative, there are dozens just in this intra-election period, and hundreds of others). But for a Republican, it isn’t hypocritical.

Why not? We have to consider the relationship between language and thought. It’s been argued for a long time that language is a prerequisite for at least certain categories of thought, and that one’s language informs one’s thoughts – for instance, the verb tenses in a language are highly connected to how its speakers perceive time. The connection between language and thought also changes over time – it is different in a professor than it is in a teenager, and different in a five year old than it is in a baby.

The garden variety Republican we see nowadays, the Bushes and Bakers and Cheneys, at least when they speak in public, use language in a way that would be about like a two-year-old. Sure, there are longer words and more advanced sentence structure (at least in two of the cases above), but they use language in a fashion that makes it nothing but an immediate instrumentality. They have no connection between what they are saying and any other reality – they say whatever comes to mind that might help them at the immediate instant. They say "we have to have a recount" for the same reason the child says he loves water when there is a hot day and a wading pool, and they say "recounts are bad" in the same way and for the same reason, that that same child three hours later says he hates water when it’s time for a bath.

In the child’s mind, and in the Republican mind, the idea of "loving water" is purely situational, and has no history and no future. And the language they both use matches the thinking. "Water good, I want" is completely consistent with "Water bad, I won’t" and there is no hypocrisy. We wouldn’t call the child a hypocrite, and we shouldn’t call the Republican one either – they simply are both expressing accurately the sort of thinking that they do,.the sort of thinking that if it includes a past at all, includes one that is easily forgotten, and best ignored. And with no connection to the past, there is no need to condition one’s statements towards some future eventuality, because today will then be as forgotten, and able to be ignored as yesterday is today. There is no need to fear future embarrassment about today’s pronouncements, because embarrassment also requires an external context the remains, and neither a two-year-old nor this variety of Republican has one.

The media are horribly complicit in this whole operation – it is the media whose job it is, ultimately, to act as parents to politicians, to point out to them and to us when utter nonsense is said, when howling inconsistencies are all over the place. But the media don’t – they run the sound bite of the night, and if today the politician is in the shopping cart screaming for orange juice, and if in the morning he’s sitting in the high chair screaming that he hates it, well, each piece of freestanding speech, and disconnected thought, is allowed to just sit there. The press never ask "Why are you screaming about hating this now, when last night you couldn’t live without it." And they never say later, when the politician is screaming that he wants peaches, "I’m not buying it, because I know you won’t eat it because you’ve played this game on me 12 times now." The press listens to every whine about "mean Al hurt me" and "mean Al hit me", and never does the diligence that any parent would do, which would be to say "I don’t see any bruise" and "What did you do to him first?"

Having learned what works, having learned that Mommy and Daddy Press won’t say anything, and in the absence of anything or anyone else that can create disincentives for it, the Republicans have descended into complete tantrum-land. I used to think that when they said "Gore is stealing the election" that they were delusional. Then I thought that they were projecting, accusing Gore of what they were doing themselves. Now I see that once again, it is two-year-old language – Gore is said to be stealing the election simply because "Daddy says it’s mine and I want it". "Stealing", after all, at this level of language, is simply a word that describes how someone else ends up with something you want.

Words are defined in the moment, and only by their intended effect. Consider James Baker’s wonderful comment that the Florida Supreme Court decision to count overvotes statewide was "a sad day for democracy". The sorrow in his voice could only be matched by the scrunching up of a three-year-olds face when you told him that his pet rabbit was going to be crushed. Of couse, the thing he was so sad about was counting votes, which many of us think has some necessary relationship with democracy, and it wasn’t two weeks before that he was complaining that counts t hat didn’t cover the whole state were unfair. But there is no past. And "sad day for democracy" doesn’t mean what it sounds like – it is actually constructed as follows: "I want people to think something bad happened. That means I need a phrase where something bad is happening to something good. ‘Sad’ is a bad.word ‘Democracy’ is a good word. So I’ll say ‘sad day for democracy.’"

The underlying thinking is no different than if he had said "Icky supreme court made my binky bear cry" – "Cry" is a bad word, "binky bear" is a good word. Same effect. Same purpose. Same thinking. And if tomorrow he needs a court to start hand counts, and it refuses, than that will be another sad day for democracy that makes his binky bear cry.

Look at the way they use terms like "Playing the race card" or "Class Warfare". Both terms are pretty much meaningless, but they have gotten loaded up with lots of negatives. So they can be used whenever a Bad Word is needed to describe something. Question racial profiling? That’s the race card. Suggest that whites are smarter than blacks? That’s "playing the race card" also, unless they do it.. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, if race gets involved, the phrase is unveiled again. Company X makes a shampoo that causes Repuiblican hair to fall out – sue. Company X makes a shampoo that causes white people’s hair to fall out? We need tort reform. Company X makes a shampoo that causes black people’s hair to fall out? - you’re playing the race card.

"Class Warfare" is exactly the equivalent of "poopy" – a generic pejorative, having about as much connection to "Class" or "Warfare" as "poopy" does. "Class Warfare" is the "poopy" to be applied whenever someone points out that the rich are getting richer and more powerful and expanding the gap in wealth and power all t he time. But any financial issue will do. If money is involved, it’s "class warfare".

Wondering why black people have higher health insurance premiums is, of course "Being a big poopy that’s starting class warfare by playing the race card,."

At perhaps a higher level we see another Republican language trick – an artifact of this sort of language and thinking, added to by what might as well be called "bad-nursery-school socialization". It is the wonderful way in which all of them get together and use the same "insult of the day" – again, no reality need intervene for bunches of them to all start going on about "Lieberman’s a poopy-pants". They simply say it because it strikes them as something fun to do today – tomorrow they may do it again, but not because they remember today. And if an adult were to show up, they would say that they never said it, and they wouldn’t be lying, because lying, also, requires some context outside the self and outside the moment. This week it’s "judicial activism creating chaos". Neither need "judicial activism" be defined, much less shown, nor need "chaos" be shown – it’s the insult of the day, it is persumed to be effective, and language need be analyzed in terms of its likelihood of producing the desired effect.

Moving up a bit more, it is a little strange to see this at the level of a Supreme Court justice, but looking at Scalia’s statement on the stopping of the count, it’s the same sort of stuff. No law is brought in, just some Republican spin, idiotic things about damaging the ballots, the whole lot. To believe that a person of that alleged intelligence actually believes what he writes is silly – but it is not silly to think that he has a goal in mind ("No Bath") and hunts about for some handy piece of language that matches the whim of the moment. Were there a sense of past or future, one might see some mention as to why such a "states rights" justice would suddenly feel the need to inject the US Supreme Court into a state election contest, but the Republicans of this sort learned a long time ago that there is utterly no need to make any connection between any two situations or statements.