Tag Archives: wrenching from context

Precise, clear, passionate, and false.

A commenter (John Small Berries) asked if we were going to comment on the Republican National Convention.  The answer is no.  So here's a comment on the RNC. 

Ripped from the headlines this morning (via Eschaton via TPM), here is the following exchange between two kids on the day before their first day in college:

B: So there he is, the republican vice presidential nominee and his beautiful family there. His mom is up there. This is exactly what this crowd of republicans here certainly republicans all across the country were hoping for. He delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as mitt romney’s campaign is concerned, paul ryan on this night delivered.

E: That’s right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He’s a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate.

It's difficult to avoid the fact that the theme of the RNC has been a rather enormous lie: "We did build it."  For those who don't remember, this line is an alleged rebuttal to the President's claim that no one but the government is responsible for anyone's success.  He never said that, or anything close to that.  It's the product of a straw man through context-deprivation: in other words, cut out all of the surrounding context and the President did in fact say that.  No matter, as facts are not really at issue.

The commenters above, two grown ups with jobs in the media, fails in the same way kids fail on the first day of critical thinking: but it's true to me!  It's mystifying, however, that the commenter, Erin Burnett, thinks someone who gets basic facts wrong "want[s] to do a good job."  That person, it would seem to me, has promised to do a very bad job. 

Wrenching from context

Last night's Daily Show had a nice discussion of the "you didn't build that line" that Obama didn't utter (i.e., in the way suggested).  For those unfamiliar with this, the President gave a speech, talked about infrastructure (such as roads) necessary (but not sufficient) for success in business.  I can't have much success with my highway adult video store unless there's a freeway next to which to place it.  An obvious point, of course.  Sadly, many conservative media types cut out key lines in the President's speech to make it look like he was saying that no one built her own business, thus,  "you didn't build that".  That would be a stupid thing to say, unless of course you inherited your business (which many people probably do–so in their case it's true!).

So here's what the President actually said:

OBAMA: [L]ook, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the GI Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together.

Here's how it was reported by Fox et alia (for a brief history of the distortion, see here and here)

OBAMA: If you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen.

[...]

The point is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Jon Stewart pretty much said all there is to say about what's going on: it's a case of straw manning by depriving of context.  The only thing that's true about what the President said is that those words came out of his mouth. 

All that aside, there is a theoretical point here.  In a recent article, Douglas Walton and Fabrizio Macagno ("Wrenching from Context: the Manipulation of Commitments") allege that straw manning of this variety (wrenching from context) are really "manipulations of commitments."  There are limitations to this view, namely that it gives too much credit to the straw manner, as it allows them to claim their representing commitments a person may actually hold (but for which they don't have evidence).  In addition, it doesn't capture the crucial aim of the context-wrencher: to close out an argument with someone by dishonest means.  But their notion of commitment does capture the method of the wrencher: though the wrencher may know his quotation to be inaccurate, he knows it represents the person's real views.  I think we saw something like this at work in Mitt Romney's "I like to fire people line" of a while back. 

What this means is that the wrencher is playing a rather different game from the one his audience is playing.  Even if his audience agrees with him, he's thinking that an argument (with evidence and all of that) is being offered by the wrencher.  But it isn't.  The wrencher is telling a story, a fiction, to a person who thinks he's listening to an argument.  Cross purposes, I think. 

Romney won’t say anything to get elected

Mitt Romney has learned a thing or two about electoral politics.  He's learned, for instance, that if you say anything specific about anything, people will challenge it.  What he takes away from this is that if you make an argument, people will distort it.  He says:

One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney recalled. “So I think it’s important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. So for instance, I anticipate that housing vouchers will be turned over to the states rather than be administered at the federal level, and so at this point I think of the programs to be eliminated or to be returned to the states, and we’ll see what consolidation opportunities exist as a result of those program eliminations. So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.

Sadly, this has been reported this way by the "liberal" media (in this case, Jonathan Chait): "Mitt: I Won’t Detail Plans, Because Then I’d Lose".  This is not really what it says, but it kind of makes his point.  His point is that if he says anything, people will attack a distorted version of it.  And this is exactly what Jonathan Chait has done with this one. 

Ironically, Romney is clueless as to how the "liberal" media works.  You see, when Republican Paul Ryan outlined a plan undoing the single-payer health system called "medicare," replacing it with a voucher-based Obama/Romney model called by the same name, Democrats rightly pointed out that such a move amounted to eliminating medicare.  This correct observation earned the Democrats, not the Republicans, the "lie of the year" award from politifact.

Doubly ironically, Romney's failure to offer any kind of plan at all for fear of having is plan misrepresented forces everyone to do what he fears: make them up.