In the Beginning Was the Word

I'm beginning to wonder whether Mitt Romney and all of his supporters weren't linguistics majors in college. After all, the thing you choose to study reflects what you think is important. If you major in physics, it's because the laws and operation of the universe are what you find most important. If you major in economics, it's because you find money to be the prime organizing force of human activity. And linguists, like the Republicans of 2012, believe that language is the key to understanding who we are as humans.

Here's what I mean. Let's say you wanted to indict not Barack Obama's handling of the economy, but his beliefs about the economy, to get at the very essence of who he is. How would you do it? Some of us would say, we can determine who he is by looking at his actions. If he's a committed Marxist undertaking the dismantling of capitalism, surely we could find the evidence in what he has done. Did he nationalize the steel industry? Well, no. He (and George W. Bush) kind of temporarily semi-nationalized the auto industry, but that worked out well for everyone and saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, so let's not talk about that. Did he make it impossible for wealthy "job creators" to prosper? Hard to make that case, since corporate profits and wealth concentration at the top are near all-time highs—there's never been a better time to be a capitalist overlord. How about that tsunami of initiative-crushing regulation? Well, you can throw out some names of laws that involve regulation—Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act—but if you want to make a strong case that Obama hates capitalism, you'd have to talk about what's actually in those laws, and conservatives don't really like doing that, just as they might rail against the tyranny of the EPA but they don't want to talk much about what exactly it is they find so objectionable about making sure our air and water are clean.

So the linguists on the right say: Don't let the actions distract you. The key to understanding Obama is in the words. It's the things he says that tell you who he is. But not everything he says, no no! Because there are a lot of things he says that seem to indicate that he may not in fact be a committed communist, which we know he is, so you have to ignore those words and focus on the ones that matter. We'll tell you which words those are.

The conservatives' latest ideological Rosetta Stone, Obama's "you didn't build that" comment, is one they are more excited about than any other they've found. Sure, it may require taking his words out of context to turn their meaning around. But that's what's required to reveal the more fundamental truth that lies hidden. It's necessary, you see, because Obama is so clever about saying things he doesn't mean, so sometimes we have to twist what he does say to show you what he really means. And that twisted, out-of-context quote is the truth, a truth greater than any piece of legislation or executive order. Just as fiction can reveal a more profound truth than a dry retelling of historical facts, the conservatives' reinterpretation of Obama's words may not be "accurate" or "factual" in some kind of mechanistic sense, but it reveals a far greater truth.

To take an example or two: Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin writes a post about what we might call The Phantom "That" titled "Obama Lets the Cat Out of the Bag," explaining how Obama has revealed himself, though this is hardly the first time the president has slipped up and uncovered his true hatred of capitalism. She quotes a speech including this horrifying passage—"Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world. But there's always been another thread running throughout our history—a belief that we're all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation"—and sums up on Obama's behalf: "You didn't earn anything and government is everything." Sure, that's what he meant. Obviously.

Or here's Congressman Paul Ryan, responding to The Phantom "That": "Every now and then, he pierces the veil. He's usually pretty coy about his ideology, but he lets the veil slip from time to time." Now, if you had actually been listening to the speech, you wouldn't have thought that. But as the conservative linguists will explain, though words are the key to understanding the essence of Obama's character, hearing the words is not enough. Only by shining the right kind of light on them and examining them from the right angle can you find the truth, hidden like a mosquito embedded in the amber of Obama's deception.

Who says conservatives aren't sophisticated thinkers?

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