When the Black Knight gets his left arm chopped off in the battle with King Arthur, he shrugs, “Tis but a scratch.”Â He continues fighting, and he loses his right arm.Â “Just a flesh wound.”Â Eventually, he’s had all his limbs hacked off, and he calls out to Arthur, who has spared his life (such as it is, now), and leaving.Â “Ooooohhh… I see… running way!”
This downplayer strategy for challenges works only when the evidence of the situation isn’t clear.Â And so in sports, one can’t be a big braggart when the L’s outnumber the W’s, for example.Â But it seems that in politics (and perhaps business?) there’s just enough grey for big talk to cover difficulties.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times (which is behind a paywall, so a summary on Politico), Trump responds to questions about his difficulties with passing health care reform (i.e., “repealing and replacing Obamacare”).Â Here’s his reply:
Yeah, I donâ€™t lose. I donâ€™t like to lose. But that wasnâ€™t a definitive day. . .Â There was no reason to take a vote. I said, â€˜Donâ€™t take a vote,â€™ and we will see what happens,. . . . But one way or the other, I promised the people great health care. We are going to have great health care in this country. Now, it will be in one form or another. It will be a repeal and replace of Obamacare which is the deal that is being negotiated now.
Two things.Â #1.Â That you don’t like to lose isn’t a piece of evidence that shows that you don’t lose.Â Moreover, saying that the day wasn’t ‘definitive’ is a strange point — perhaps a way of re-casting a loss as something equivocal.Â Perhaps what the President counts as a loss is a total loss, like having it go to a vote, nobody votes for it, and his pants fall down on TV.Â Seriously, who does this guy think he is, Baghdad Bob?
#2.Â Notice that the goalposts have moved here.Â And with a kind of vague notion of what success will be.Â “… one form or another.”Â Sure, if you’ve got a well-stated goal like that, you’re sure to succeed.Â The only more self-serving program would be to define success after the enterprise.
The important thing about lines of argument like this is that they are not packaged for the reporters who interview Trump or for his opposition, those who have critical views of the man and his policies.Â Rather, they are designed for his preferred audience — they function as a way of re-casting the dialectical situation for those who are his, well… fans.Â We’ve had a few discussions of the role of onlooking audience here at the NS, and I think that it’s at play here.Â For sure refusing to call the miss with health care a ‘loss’ looks like more intransigence to many of us, but we are not the ones DT is talking to.Â Just like when you see a straw man of a view and you see it clearly as a straw man, you find that you were not the target audience for those arguments.Â Who are the folks targeted?Â Folks who are looking for something to undermine the going story that the White House is floundering, that the President is a foopdoodle in charge of a group of people who, when they try to write legislation, find that they can only turn out raggabrash.Â Nothing like standing in front of a flaming pile of tires and diapers and saying, “Nothing to see here… everything’s going according to plan.”
One thought on “‘Tis but a scratch”
I think the point about the onlooking audience is crucial to understanding the practical elements of this move. We philosopher types tend to represent arguments as between interlocutors alone, forgetting that they’re often done in isolation for the benefit of an onlooking (and sympathetic) audience. This significantly alters the basic dialectical features of arguments: opponents, necessary though they may be, are more likely to be imaginary than real.
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