“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 Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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” Ã¢â‚¬â€ a childishly subjective idea that ought to be quarantined to playgrounds and Berkeley city council meetings Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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 Ã¢â‚¬â€ not a collection of destitute or impaired Americans, mind you, but a still-vibrant middle class Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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 Ã¢â‚¬â€ and that’s up.
Obama Ã¢â‚¬â€ who, it seems, is running not only for president but also national babysitter/accountant/daddy/icon Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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.