October 31, 2008

“If it redistributes like a duck …”

David Harsanyi, The Denver Post:

Barack Obama is going to fix the economy by “spreading the wealth around”?

Now, I’m not attempting to demonize Obama, God forbid. It’s just that, as we all know, that’s what Obama told Joe the Plumber.

Obama laughs off the charge of socialist behavior — and to be fair, socialism isn’t the precise term to affix to his ideas. It’s more like Robin Hood economics. On a recent campaign stop, Obama joked that, by the end of the week, McCain would be accusing him “of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten.”

A funny line. But, of course, Obama’s lofty intellect must comprehend the fundamental difference between sharing your G.I. Joe with a friend and having a bully snatch your G.I. Joe for the collective, prepubescent good. It’s the difference between coercion and free association and trade. In practical terms, it’s the difference between government cheese and a meal at Ruth’s Chris.

Now, I’m not suggesting Obama intends to transform this nation into 1950s-era Soviet tyranny or that he will possess the power to do so. I’m suggesting Obama is praising and mainstreaming an economic philosophy that has failed to produce a scintilla of fairness or prosperity anywhere on Earth. Ever.

If you believe that “fairness” — a childishly subjective idea that ought to be quarantined to playgrounds and Berkeley city council meetings — should be meted out by the autocrats inhabiting Washington, D.C., your faith will be duly rewarded.

You know, once upon a time, the stated purpose of taxation was to fund public needs like schools and roads, assist those who could not help themselves, defend our security and freedom, and, yes, occasionally offer a bailout to sleazy fat cats.

Obama is the first major presidential candidate in memory to assert that taxation’s principal purpose should be redistribution.

The proposition that government should take one group’s lawfully earned profits and hand them to another group — not a collection of destitute or impaired Americans, mind you, but a still-vibrant middle class — is the foundational premise of Obama’s fiscal policy.

It was Joe Biden, not long ago, who said (when he was still permitted to speak in public) that, “We want to take money and put it back in the pocket of middle-class people.” The only entity that “takes” money from the middle class or any class for that matter, is the Internal Revenue Service. Other than that, there is nothing to give back.

And who knew we needed such a drastic renovation of an economic philosophy we’ve adhered to these past 25 years (even counting Bill Clinton’s comparatively fiscal conservative record)? Despite a recent downturn, and with all the serious tribulations we face, Americans have just lived through perhaps the most prosperous and peaceful era human beings have ever enjoyed.

From 1982 until now, every arrow on nearly every economic growth chart, every health care chart, every chart that matters, points in one general direction — and that’s up.

Obama — who, it seems, is running not only for president but also national babysitter/accountant/daddy/icon — ignores this success and claims he can “invest” (will that euphemism ever go away?) and disburse your money more efficiently, smartly and fairly than you can. How could any American accept the absurdity of this position?


Conservatives have been accusing liberals of being socialists since, I don’t know, since liberals have been accusing conservatives of being fascists.

But when a candidate explicitly endorses a collectivist policy . . . well, words still have meaning, don’t they?

Ooh! I’ve got this one!

Yes, is the correct answer. But the question is all wrong. Because it is who gets to control that meaning that is important — and what we’ve done, through a series of rejuvenated philosophical and linguistic “discoveries” (that date back, formally, to at least the sophists), is to problematize who is in control of what a text or speech act means.

Which is why the most hardcore post structuralist would answer Harsanyi’s question precisely as I have. Do words still have meanings? Of course.

But the trick is to press these modern-day sophists further — to ask, from what does that meaning derive, and who controls it (or, better, is it even possible to control such a thing)? Because it is there that the you’ll find the kernel assumptions that, when encountered, in real-word form by people like Harsanyi, manifest themselves in a kind of frustrating incarnation of hermeneutic collectivism — which, as I’ve been at pains to point out here, is precisely the kind of animating linguistic underpinning that leads inexorably to “progressive” politics, a denaturing of meaning as something that can be universally determined, and the will to power as the litmus test for deciding both meaning and, from there, provisional “truths”. Contingency, irony, solidarity.

For such a logically incoherent linguistic project to work, one must accept that “meaning” is derived solely from interpretation — a premise that is analogous to the philosophical idea that reality is wholy experiential. The idea behind this noxious notion of how language works along a communicative chain — gussied up and sold as the liberation and democratization of meaning, henceforth to be confiscated away from the autocrats (authors, utterers, ratifiers) who presume to lay claim to it and give its provenance over to the “people” (and here you can see its collectivist aspect) — is that the receivers of messages encounter signifiers (sound forms) which, through convention, they’ve learned to expect are signs (signifiers plus what they reference and signify). So far, so good.

Where it all goes horribly wrong, however, is at the next step — the one where receivers have been empowered to take those signifiers, apply whatever signifieds and referents they wish to the sound forms (“merit” goes from disinterested examination performance to white patriarchal “code” word “advancement through economic, racial, or sex-based privilege”), and either “add” these significances to the “meaning” of the original utterance (with the suggestion that the author wasn’t aware of the fullness of the language), or else declare that these interpretations are part of the author’s original meaning, and so s/he is responsible for any interpretation that a text or utterance seems to yield.

But when an author or utterer signifies — when s/he turns a sound form into a sign, that sign is, by definition, already fixed; which is to say, “meaning” is born when the signifier and signified (the sound form “cat” and the content or referent, “small often domesticated mammal with a fuzzy face and whiskers) are joined by intent (either conscious or unconscious; the meaning in either case proceeds from the same agency). And so for interpretation to work as a function of communication, receivers / readers must appeal to the intent of the utterer / author if what they claim to be doing is interpreting that text.

The confusion comes from the rather commonsense fact that those who receive messages have intentions, as well. First, to see the communication as language (that is, to see signifiers as signs — which requires that the receiver or reader believe that some agency was behind those signs, and so some intent existed to create them); second, to “interpret” that language; and third, to arrive at meaning based upon the first two intentionalist appeals.

It is only when the third phase in the chain is corrupted that we get into trouble, and where the supposed instability of meaning becomes a factor. To wit: if one believes that s/he is permitted to arrive at meaning by way of ignoring the author’s signs (and note, they haven’t ignored intent in the first two steps: one presumes intent when ones presumes marks are in fact language, and that intent can only come from some agency capable of intending), one is committed to the idea that his or her own intent — his or her own ability to look at what s/he knows to be a sign (signifier + signified and referent), reduce it back to its signifier form, then add his or her own signified in order to create new, potentially quite different sign (“cat” = “beatnik jazz musician who always keeps a stash of fine reefer) — is a form of “interpretation.”

But interpretation relies on an implied contract wherein the receiver tries to decode the sender’s encoding (that is, s/he tries to understand what the sender meant by deducing the sender’s intent, either by convention, context, etc); which means that when you surrender the obligation to decode by appealing to authorial intent, you have surrendered the claim to “interpretation” and have moved on to a different process — one where you show how signifiers can be resignified by receivers to create different intentional meanings. Or, to put it in simpler terms, you’ve show how you can take a bunch of pre-offered marks and turn them, by way of your own process of signification, into a text whose meaning is different from the one original intended by the author.

At which point you have written a new text entirely — and interpretation has been replaced by creative writing.

There are, of course, interesting and valuable linguistic lessons to be learned from this project — but what is NOT valuable, and is in fact dangerous, is to claim that one of the lessons to be learned is that this procedure somehow “opens up interpretation.” It does not. Instead, it allows people to create new texts that they then go on to claim shows either 1) that the original text cannot be controlled by the author (untrue, given that the “original text” is fixed at the moment of its intentional signification); or 2) that the author is responsible for any “interpretation” that a group of readers settles upon (which is a rather euphemistic way of noting that the author is responsible for whatever texts others can create from the marks s/he puts on offer).

It is, as I’ve noted many times before, quite easy to see how this latter move — the ascribing of a reader’s intentional rewriting of a text to the author whose intent was quite different — can, if we accept the premise, allow for a cynical group of self-professed “interpreters” to demonize an author without having to worry about the author’s intent.

Which is the same thing as not having to worry about what the original text means.

So when Harsanyi asks, “words still have meanings, don’t they?” — what he needs to keep in mind is that it isn’t the words we need to worry about. It is those who have institutionalized the idea that intended meaning (the act, in most cases, of an individual — but one that is in all cases an individual act) can be stolen and then redistributed by an “intepretive community” — a collective — with its own intentions and passed off as the responsibility of the original author, that we need to push back against.

Not until we do — not until we recognize the essential differences between interpretation of a speech act and the creative writing that can be performed on the receiving end, a project that we are told problematizes the very idea of “meaning” (while doing no such thing; it merely re-establishes the locus of meaning) — will we be in any position to begin fighting back effectively against the important linguistic preconditions for totalitarianism, fascism, and progressivism.

There. I said it.

Spread the word.

Posted by Jeff G. @ 9:44am

Comments (77)

  1. words have meanings
    sheep have bleatings..
    do curds have whey?

  2. I’m sure this has been asked elsewhere, but pdbuttons=nishi/Kate?

  3. I dunno, AFS, but pdb’s rhyme reminds me, otherwise not apropos, of something somebody wrote sometime between 1991 and 2001:

    Big bully Saddam
    Sat on his bottom
    Beating the Kurds into whey…

  4. Jeff,

    Excellent post as always. Please keep this up. You are a unique and valuable voice in the political commentariat.

  5. no. buttons is buttons I think. Hey though what does it mean when Baracky’s NPR sells hopelessness while Baracky sells hopeyness? I think that just means they want a dirty socialist in the White House really really bad. But for real when you can count on your media to carry your water you can be a lot less precise about things I think. You can be a mirror not a sign.

  6. Jeff:

    I second A fine scotch’s sentiment. This is great stuff.

    Maybe because I’m reading through sections of Genesis with a class, I wonder if you have considered the destructive nature of this newly defined “interpretation” has had on religion?

    Isn’t one of the post-modern objections to religion that faith based on scripture is open (How’s that for an ironic use of the word?) to interpretation and therefore defined by the individual?

  7. No one puts words in my mouth but me.

    Anyone who tries gets bit.

  8. In the interest of furthering the deconstruction of the language, I’ve decided that “fairness” means that everyone sends all their money to me. I think that that would bne emminently fair.

  9. Great post, Jeff. One of the most common tactics of hijaking meaning is to broaden a definition of a word or conflate its meaning(s). When liberals conflate the ‘right’ to ‘healthcare’ to the equivelance of the Right to Free Speech, for example. In this equation both ‘right’ and ‘healthcare’ are broadened to elevate their meanings to a more pathetic definition, not a constitutional or legal one, and this use of pathos then puts the right to healthcare on the same meaning plane as free speech. Sophism is a useful tool. Sorta like that nifty set of Sears Robo-pliers my son got me for Father’s Day.

  10. if i got to de-construct my words/jokes
    we’re all in trouble
    i am who i am
    touch me in the morning…
    nice to be noticed/love this site and all u

  11. Great stuff, Jeff. Reminds me of the project taken up by the New Critics and Cleanth Brooks’ notion of the “Heresy of Paraphrase,” by which linguistic trick the receiver replaces the original text with a new one and “interprets” the new one rather than the original, and then posits that meaning (through violence, as it were) back upon the original text. Feminist, queerist, marxist, etc-ist “readings” of texts all apply this formula. When I was still in grad school, whenever we were “gifted” with one of these silly “readings” in seminar, a good friend of mine would lean over and whisper “laminate it.” This linguistic trick is silly so long as it’s applied to harmless literary nothings–but it gets scary when we’re applying it to things like the Constitution. That’s what people need to really pay attention to.

  12. “words still have meanings, don’t they?”

    Let’s see, Obama has a plan he calls a tax cut without actually cutting a tax rate
    “I’ll pursue public financing if McCain does”

    no…they don’t

  13. Words mean what the O! deems them to mean. After all, he is The Word, isn’t he? In all his lightworker glory?

    So let it be written, so let it be done.

  14. beatles/the word
    say it and u’ll be…free?

  15. Reading your comments PDbuttons is like playing that game Myst. You go around collecting clues to discover the meaning of some great mystery, but when you get to the end you realize the mystery was why you didn’t just stop playing the game after 5 minutes.

  16. thank you for the constructive criticism

  17. Maybe because I’m reading through sections of Genesis with a class, I wonder if you have considered the destructive nature of this newly defined “interpretation” has had on religion?

    A rabbi I once studied with said that if you were so motivated, you could use the Torah to “prove” anything you want. That is why a chain of tradition is so important: to constrain this sort of willful artifice.

  18. No problem. I am sure reading my comments ain’t all that fun either. Feel free to return the criticism.

  19. I just call it mind reading. Only they can’t actually read minds so they make a bunch of shit up and act offended.

  20. buttons is fun I think. His comments are like those sounds you used to get when you twisted your radio tuner knob in your car. Seek and scan don’t do that.

  21. We all go off on tangents occasionally in hopes of finding something funny that no one else has already mined. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually I find it’s best to stay within one or two mental zigs or zags of something someone else has already said.

    Believe it or not, bread crumbs are an essential tool in effective humor.

  22. Skittles work even better though, since birds are less likely to eat them.

  23. Excellent post, Jeff. Excellent. This stuff seems pretty much like, um, common sense. Hence, the left’s hatred of Sarah Palin.

  24. Btw, I enjoy pdbutton’s comments, too. Even if I don’t altogether understand them at times.

  25. i’m a star!
    time for my close-up
    good thing my pools covered
    i almost went william holden..
    does that make sense?
    it does to me[ha]

  26. This takes me back to my Grad Studies days when we were plowing through (amongst others) books by E. D. Hirsch and Stanley Fish.  The Hirsch book which remains burned in my memory was “Validity in Interpretation,” which argued for authorial intent as the ultimate touchstone for a text’s meaning.  Fish’s book, “Is There A Text In This Class?” argued almost precisely the opposite — that “interpretive communities” bestowed a text’s meaning upon it.

    (Side comment: The students’ standard jocular response to the title of Fish’s book was “No, ’cause it’s too expensive.”  Kraft Dinner or textbooks?  Hmmmm, hard one…)

    Over the last 30 years, I’ve watched the “meaning” of almost every public utterance become the ideological Play-Doh of various PC movements in Western society, to the point where I’ve largely tuned it all out.  No one seems to care much any more that this interpretive slight-of-hand has taken place, because its real objective has been the securing of power over public discourse (and ultimately the public purse).  In that, the PC movement has succeeded admirably — all that they are usually left with these days is an oft-times public battle over which PC sub-group will determine the ultimate meaning of anything.

    In some ways, I’m glad my life is two-thirds over: the remaining battles over the next few decades will be too ugly (and have too many painful consequences) for this old heart to bear without breaking.

    Perhaps, if the human race is really lucky, an extinction-level asteroid strike will solve this problem in a very direct, concrete fashion.  Then again, perhaps not…


  27. Reclaiming the languge, one word at a time. Great stuff, Jeff.

    buttons, don’t pee in that pool.

  28. We all go off on tangents occasionally in hopes of finding something funny that no one else has already mined.

    I never do that. Speak for yourself McGehee.

  29. As you can see, this post wasn’t given much attention by the members of the collective who will decide how the “right” side of the blogosphere must necessarily function going forward.

    Perhaps if I had mentioned that Obama’s birth certificate is iffy…

  30. Perf, this post was too long to read right on a Friday. I am already preparing for my future of low expectations, intellectual and physical laziness, and entitlement. Keep it short and use the word ‘niggardly’ so that I can have something to report to the Ministry of Offense.

    — Comrade S.T.

  31. I don’t have anything nice to say about those dorks what don’t link. And I conspicuously I think didn’t join in the Allah tongue bath this morning. Or at least I noticed I didn’t join in.

  32. You are so going to own the “Allah tongue bath” search results.

  33. If you could distill this article onto a bumper sticker then it might be possible to change things. I think that level of word-smithing is beyond me, though. It puts me in mind of the Monty Python “Summary Proust” sketch.

  34. Baracky ain’t no duck he’s a dirty socialist. You want you can put that on your car.

  35. Schade, one old Chicago socialist dies as a shiny new Chicago socialist prepares to ascend the throne committee chair so long sought.

  36. “It’s more like Robin Hood economics”

    If he’s going to be the annoying guy that tells us why the joke isn’t funny, I don’t think he should be talking like this. Didn’t Robin Hood take from the taxman and give it back?

  37. Thank you, meya. Yes indeed, Robin Hood was an anti-government tax reformer who is constantly slandered as a dirty socialist by the more ignorant denizens of wingnuttia.

  38. do curds have whey?

    curdlips they.

  39. Top-notch, Danny!

    You answered some elementary questions I wasn’t quite sure how to ask. With the perfect amount of punctuation, thank you.

  40. As you can see, this post wasn’t given much attention by the members of the collective who will decide how the “right” side of the blogosphere must necessarily function going forward.

    They will surely ignore such thought at their own peril! For in time they too shall then come to be known as….Trolls, or perhaps even called “Stanley Fish”. There, it is written.

  41. the pka took my baby away
    or is it the judean peoples front?
    or the peeps front of judea?
    thank god for the buttermilk-
    they sell it at the weigh station
    as i proudly swatch my goat and hold my head up high
    and proclaim-free the Kurds
    [hendrix can kiss the sky-u-yes u-kiss the ground]

  42. A Reese’s Pieces man, alp?

  43. i’d lick the fey

  44. Birth certificates are just another fascist construct, man. Who’s to say what “actually” “happened”, or when or even if, y’know? Free your mind from those rigid constructivist frameworks, dude. Here. Have some kool-aid.

  45. Or, to put it in simpler terms, you’ve show how you can take a bunch of pre-offered marks and turn them, by way of your own process of signification, into a text whose meaning is different from the one original intended by the author.

    @34…”Proffers deformed offers reform”. Or, in a bad way, “Tokens maligned courts decline”. Or, simplest, “Lockdown INTENT!”

    Sure, they’d fit on a bumper sticker, but you’re inviting a curiosity wreck.

  46. pdbuttons, tell me how you feel about these dissimilar wordlet constructs:

    “cudlips” “Xians”

    as an exercise is concatenation, as it were.

  47. #

    Comment by serr8d on 11/1 @ 1:13 am #

    pdbuttons, tell me how you feel about these dissimilar wordlet constructs:

    “cudlips” “Xians”

    as an exercise is concatenation, as it were.

    Tell me how do you, Serr8d, feel about being a faggish hick-troll who needs to go back into his cartoon hole?

    C’mon, Tennessee faggot, speak your feelings in truncated grunts, as you do.

  48. Pdbuttons, practice has paid off. Indeed, it seems to me your clever poetics have improved. Not so much in the beginning, but now I actually like ’em.

    Keep up the good work.

  49. swatches come in shiny colors
    to trade
    for ur land..
    one hand clapping

  50. [‘tons]… it seems to me your clever poetics have improved.


    faggish hick-troll who needs to go back into his cartoon hole

    Harmonious universe!

  51. thor, as I said before, you’re a trust fund punk missing some important motherly drippings.

    There’s no telling how much more you’ve cost Jeff, monetarily, in this fund drive; we do know your cost in associations. Everyone knows you’re not worth a hanging-toenail clipped from Karl. Even if you gave more of your daddy’s money every time you shit on the floor in this site, there’s a cost you can’t repay.

    Because even if you do have the occasional thoughtful writ, you’re remembered for your hate. Quoth your lesser leftist William:

    I agree Thor is pretty funny… comments like: “jesus faggot”… “your god can suck my balls” …etc…

    Heh. William’s lost in ironic thor-love.

    Imagine that. A fat, malignant daddy’s money troll attracts a like-minded but humorless pickin’ and grinnin’ doctor of guitar, and their common interest is their mutual hate of other people’s religion.

  52. pdbuttons. Eerily mocking Nishi.

    Nishi on acid!

    Great job!

  53. But Obama is gonna bring us all together, Serr8d! Like the Chinese, even more together than the Russians.

    thor thinks he’s gonna get to run the Two Minute Hate.

  54. He’d better get off that barstool and lose a few pounds. I doubt he could run a ten minute mile.

  55. Comment by serr8d on 11/1 @ 6:40 am #

    thor, as I said before, you’re a trust fund punk missing some important motherly drippings.

    Though I’ve never said this before, you hang out at Interstate rest stops and use hand signals to attract Larry Craigs and Mark Foleys past the dividers and into your stall.

    What’s the matter hick-troll, don’t like getting your due? Your salad-eating-ass belongs in a that circus of queers known as Tennessee. Go back there. Stay there. Jerk your dad off, there.

    On the big world wide web PW ain’t your hiding hole. Don’t come here expecting anything but boots and balls after your faggot mouth spewed what’s in your head. You are the mule ignorance, the cancerous polyp, a true Tennessee retard. Your bunker hole, boy, is in New Smyrna, Tennessee. People like William show up and find your ilk and move on. They’d otherwise contribute, literally and financially, but not after your hick-stench fills their nostrils. How much does your filth cost Jeff? Yeah, so maybe you fill that personal hate-site of yours with your low-IQ rat poison and move along.

  56. But will it go round in circles?

  57. Thor, you must think you’re Jeff. You can’t even echo well for Jeff, so stop pretending.

    You can’t move me, nor influence me. I’ve whipped your sort for decades; your fat ass probably can’t budge from a chair. You’re nothing to me. You should stop thinking that you are. Or that anything you asseverate can make any difference to what or where I hang.

    Go find your missing dribbles. Try looking under another fat Russian broad, your standard fair for second-hand slurpages.

  58. Your salad-eating-ass belongs in a that circus of queers known as Tennessee.

    Universe discordant.

    Only improved clever poetics can save us now!

    Quickly, pd’!!


  59. will the circle..be unbroken?

    oh the shark bites
    with it’s teeth dear

  60. if i’m wearing a ‘polar-bear’ pin on the right side of my
    ‘hand-me-up’ jacklyyn smith’ k-mart jacket thing…
    can i smack ur face with my left hand?
    cuz i would…i might…
    btw-i’m a lefty

  61. ‘zonoes, pd !

    An improved clever poetic too far !!

    Only another “under what impression are you under” from lillehammer can save us now !!!

  62. under what impression are you under

    In context, sac-o once queried SBP, “under what impression are you under that you have a better command of the English language…?”

  63. nun of the above

  64. a question of balance

  65. true/can’t help myself
    this site is addictive..
    too much fun fun
    and i’m such a wit

  66. I’m glad you’re here cause you tell it like it is I think.

  67. Thank you, ‘feets.

  68. Yes you too. Frickin’ machine took my korter is still a favorite.

  69. true/can’t help myself
    this site is addictive..
    too much fun fun
    and i’m such a wit

    Two out of three ain’t bad

  70. y argue?[snap]
    i love you?[snip]
    i am you?[clip]
    wanna be w/u?[clap]
    let’s central park buggy-horse rent[clop]
    or domestic violence bloody fuck[cop]
    please-tell me to [ ]

  71. Slapshot is one of the best movies ever.

  72. Frog pussy !

  73. Blast.

    Frog pussy !

  74. is my computer carbon footprint for-ever?
    cuz i’d like to take my last blast back…
    scrub me?
    ’twas lame-oh well…

  75. is my computer carbon footprint for-ever?

    Due to your careless comment,

    Another drownt’ penguin is for sure.

    Godspeed Ruprecht !

  76. why does the penguin house smell[just asking]
    and why..why do short actoids always play penguins[asking?]
    how come i can’t fly in my tux?[?]
    and chocolate drizzles on my soft serve vanilla cup/and not the other way ’round?
    [i put my cork fork in my eye-and bow[bow-tie?] to u sir

  77. Pingback: Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen « Is This Blog On?