Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Today's Political Thoughts: On Electability, The Use of Synecdoches in Politics And Harmless Fun

1.  Isn't it funny that Warren's DNA debacle left a giant scar on her* while Trump saying that his ancestors came from Sweden (when they did not) mattered not at all?

Trump's history is so full of all sorts of misdeeds that the smaller ones get ignored, while the one clear problem people have been able to unearth in Warren's history is repeatedly mentioned.  As repetition is the mother of learning, well, this works very well for Trump and his party.

2.  We need a proper name** for the political uses of a synecdoche:

a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (such as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (such as society for high society), the species for the genus (such as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (such as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (such as boards for stage)
Politics uses it mostly in its less common form, i.e., not by having a part represent the whole, but by having the whole represent a part. 

A recent example I read used "Washington," as in Washington, D.C. to refer to the political powers which dwell in that city.  It's shorthand which we all understand, of course.  Still, most people living in that city have nothing to do with politics, have no political power, yet get implicitly included in any attacks at the powers-that-be which applies that synecdoche.

More important examples abound. Parts of racist and sexist thought are based on the very idea of generalizing from the behavior of some small subgroup to the wider demographic groups, and reverse examples can be found in anti-sexist and anti-racists responses, too.  Likewise, the US right often blames all Muslims for Islamic terrorism.

3.  Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court Justice,  is back in the news, due to an excerpt from a forthcoming book that was published in the NYT.  The excerpt suggests that Deborah Ramirez, who accused Kavanaugh of improper sexual acts, did not get a fair hearing at the time of the Kavanaugh hearings:

Ms. Ramirez’s legal team gave the F.B.I. a list of at least 25 individuals who may have had corroborating evidence. But the bureau — in its supplemental background investigation — interviewed none of them, though we learned many of these potential witnesses tried in vain to reach the F.B.I. on their own.
Two F.B.I. agents interviewed Ms. Ramirez, telling her that they found her “credible.” But the Republican-controlled Senate had imposed strict limits on the investigation. “‘We have to wait to get authorization to do anything else,’” Bill Pittard, one of Ms. Ramirez’s lawyers, recalled the agents saying. “It was almost a little apologetic.”
The improper sexual acts I so delicately referred to above are described in the following quote:
During the winter of her freshman year, a drunken dormitory party unsettled her deeply. She and some classmates had been drinking heavily when, she says, a freshman named Brett Kavanaugh pulled down his pants and thrust his penis at her, prompting her to swat it away and inadvertently touch it. Some of the onlookers, who had been passing around a fake penis earlier in the evening, laughed.
After that long preamble***, let's get to the juicy bits.  They have to do with the way the Times chose to advertise this article on Twitter:

In a bizarre series of tweets and retractions on @nytopinion on Saturday, The New York Times cringingly opined on its latest Brett Kavanaugh story, then retracted the tweet, then retracted the retraction, then posted an apology.
The missteps began at 5:13 p.m., when a reckless tweet posted to @nytopinion opined, “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun…”
"Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun".  Perhaps to a few owners of  said drunken penises (penii?).

I have never had this particular experience, but I would think that many women would be scared in that situation, thinking "if he thrusts his penis in my face like that, what will he do next, omygod,  and he is stronger than I am and his drunken friends are all egging him on and where is the door and help me please."

Then there's the likelihood that the act was intended as a form of hazing, of telling this little girl that if she wanted to play with the big boys, this is what she'd have to cope with.

I can think of a few circumstances where the described act indeed might be just a bit of harmless fun.   But those are not about drunken frat parties with almost-strangers.  They might be games between lovers or between very, very good friends where there's some kind of reciprocity, and prior understanding of what the game is.

The most interesting aspect of that original tweet is that someone could write it and not anticipate the furor that resulted.  That "someone" made assumptions about how people, in general, and women, in particular, would react to having a penis thrust in their faces, and those assumptions sounded a bit like the ones Brett Kavanaugh might have made.


*   See, for example, today's Jonathan Chait piece on Warren's electability.  Note that I am not making value judgements about what Warren did, just pointing out that  Trump is held to a different (and more flexible) standard.

** The main reason for this is that such synecdoches are used differently in political speech than in common speech.  In the latter we all know the correct relationship between the part and the whole. If we count heads, for instance, everyone knows that we are really counting people (unless we are head-hunters, I guess).

But in political speech of various types the hidden intention is to make people believe that whatever applies to the part also applies to the whole, even when it does not.  I would like that additional aspect to be clearer than it would be if we just called this stuff a synecdoche.

*** It should have been proper analysis, of course, but there's no real point of analyzing spilled milk. 

Kavanaugh sits on the bench now, together with Clarence Thomas, and from that bench they can both judge cases involving women and sexual violence and so on.