Monday, December 11, 2006

A pattern in American culture

by Stanley Fish
New York Times
December 10, 2006, 10:30 pm
The Moving Finger Writes

In a week when Michael Richards’s racist rant continues to be news, Mark McGuire’s election to baseball’s Hall of Fame seems in doubt, and Bill Frist leaves both the Senate and the race for president, it may be time to reflect on a pattern in American culture that as yet has no name, though it has many instances. Someone says something or does something – or does something by saying something – and within a short time it is recognized as a blunder of the first order. Almost immediately the debate is about whether the offender will ever recover.
Examples are not hard to come by. One of the first characterizations of the Richards fiasco described him as pulling a Mel Gibson, already shorthand for out-of-control-celebrity spews racist venom. Just before the midterm election, John Kerry botched the punch line of a joke, and word went out that he had called soldiers serving in Iraq dumb. (He meant to call George Bush dumb, but that might have been only marginally less damaging.) By evening the TV pundits had already written him off as a candidate in 2008, and the next morning Don Imus asked him to do Democrats a favor and stay home until the election was over.
Kerry is an old hand at this kind of thing. “I voted for it before I voted against it” (or was it the other way around?; it doesn’t matter), “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” Indeed, Kerry is so talented in this vein that he doesn’t have to say anything; any photo op will do. Whether it’s windsurfing and looking like an Eastern liberal dilettante, or wearing hunter’s gear and looking like an Eastern liberal dilettante trying to look like a regular blue-collar guy, or donning a spacesuit and looking like a huge Pillsbury Doughboy or the Michelin Man, the guy can’t appear in public without endangering his career.
Of course Kerry is not the only politician to put his foot (and sometimes his whole body) in his mouth. None of his photo ops was quite as disastrous as Michael Dukakis’s turn as a tank driver, complete with helmet. And “I voted for it before I voted against it” has its antecedent in Bill Clinton’s “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”; both were attempts at sophistication and nuance that came out sounding like evasion and double talk. (“I did not have sex with that woman” sounded straightforward at first, but when it turned out that in saying it, Clinton was parsing the sex act in ways one might call Jesuitical, the statement became fodder for parody on late-night TV, where it still resides.) And who can forget – who will allow us to forget – Howard Dean’s scream?
Kerry, then, is continuing a Democratic Party tradition, but it’s not only the Democratic Party. The fact that no one to this day knows quite what “macaca” means, or whether George Allen meant anything at all by it, didn’t stop the uttering of the word from derailing his campaign. “Mission accomplished” (or “George Bush reporting that I’ve done my duty”) had a nice ring to it in 2003, but now it is the bell tolling the demise of the Bush presidency. And although there are many reasons for the failure of the Frist candidacy to catch on – how about no identifiable position, no charisma and no constituency, for starters – surely one was his diagnosis at long distance of Terry Schiavo’s condition, an act of presumption that seemed even more egregious because he is a physician. And then there was Mitt Romney’s father George, whose own presidential ambitions were doomed the moment he explained a change of heart on Vietnam by saying (in 1967) that he had been brainwashed. Presumably, he spelled brainwashed correctly, putting him one up on Dan Quayle, who will always be remembered as the vice president who couldn’t spell potato.
OK, so Republicans do it, Democrats do it, superstar actors do it, one-hit-wonder comedians do it. But what, exactly, is it? Well, it comes in more than one variety. The constant is the phenomenon of the watershed moment, the equivalent of “jumping the shark” in politics and public life: you’re going along just fine, and then you say something or do something and before you know it, you’re toast.
The variety inheres in the kind of thing you say or do and the predictability of the outcry that follows. There are the missteps that you would have drawn back from had you the presence of mind to do so. Surely Michael Richards and Mel Gibson wish they could have their moments back again; no one could think that in the 21st century venting against Jews and blacks would have no consequences. And had Jesse Jackson known that every bit of an interview would reach the light of day, he would have thought twice or more about calling New York “Hymietown.”
But Howard Dean could not have known that his expression of enthusiasm and determination (Alan Greenspan would have called it irrational exuberance) would be heard as the sound of someone out of control. Mark McGuire could not have known that his refusal to talk about the past at a Congressional hearing (in hindsight, he should have ducked it) would be heard as an admission of guilt. George Romney could not have known that by using one metaphor rather than another – he could have said “I was snowed,” and it would have been hard for his opponents to pick up that ball and run with it – he was ending his political career. Al Gore could not have known that his claim to have facilitated the creation of the Internet would have morphed immediately into the (risible) claim to have invented the Internet.
This second category – of disasters seen as such only in retrospect, although “retrospect” may be a matter of seconds – is the more interesting because there is no way to anticipate what happens. The lead singer of the Dixie Chicks might have thought that a few people would take it badly when, as a Texan, she apologized to the world for giving it George Bush. But the concerted campaign against her and the group in the country music world probably came as an unwelcome surprise. Former Harvard president Larry Summers no doubt expected that some people would be put off by his speculation that scientific aptitude might have a gender basis, but he did not imagine months of being roasted over a spit in public and the long, slow march to a resignation.
You can advise people not to make racist or anti-Semitic remarks or even to refrain from saying anything about race, religion or gender at all. But what advice could you give that would protect someone from a turn of phrase that someone else makes into something never intended? Never say anything that could be misappropriated? You might as well recommend saying nothing, though even that won’t always work, for you can always be faulted by the press or your enemies (sometimes a distinction without a difference) for having been silent when there was a moral issue to be faced and pronounced on. I suppose you could get out of public life altogether, but domestic life also holds out the possibility of saying something that forever alters your future for the worse; think of marriage.
I guess the only wisdom – and it is no help at all – was offered long ago in the verse my mother recited to me more times than I can remember:
The moving finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
Come to think of it, tears themselves can be the writing that time cannot erase or take back, as Edmund Muskie learned when he cried – or appeared to cry; again it doesn’t matter – in New Hampshire and left his presidential hopes in the snow.

1 comment:

Richard Ellers said...

My favorite, analagous to the finger having writ, was quoted by a journalism professor 50 years ago is:
"You cannot unring a bell."

Albeit, he couldn't remember to original souce.

Richard Ellers
Warren, Ohio

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