There is an excellent piece in The Nation this week by Win McCormack titled "Deconstructing the Election."
His argument, in a nutshell, is: (1) French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida say there are no fixed meanings, only spin, and those with the power control the spin. (2) Conservative writers such as Lynne Cheney and Dinesh D'Souza say these ideas are a threat to the Republic and our way of life. (3) By asserting, during the recent election standoff, that machine counts were superior to hand counts and that judges could not be trusted not to vote their party affiliation, James Baker essentially argued that there is no meaning, only spin. (4) Therefore, by the Republicans' own logic, Baker (and his boss) are a threat to the Republic and our way of life. Working within this framework, McCormack gives a good recap of the GOP's ruthless power-grab during the standoff.

- Tom Moody 3-13-2001 6:47 pm

as with the "rule of law" farce, the spin that conservatives dont spin is ludicrous and even more cynical than those who have been made cynical by the lure of subjectivity. conservatives say these things primarily because they are cynical and self serving but also because it fits nicely into their worldview. if there are no absolute truths, how can "my way" be the right way? as a wise man once said (ok, it was me and by wise, of course, i mean, wiseass) "i doubt, therefore, i am not." lynne cheney and her ilk are not filled with doubt, only a lust for power.
- dave 3-19-2001 9:57 pm

The term "spin" came into common parlance during the Reagan era: one of the Gipper's cabinet members or advisers (Weinberger? I can't recall) bragged about exercising "spin control" to give maximum effect to White House pronouncements. Of course, the Clintonistas were also masters of this. Manipulation of public opinion is pretty well ingrained in the political process these days; as you suggest, the difference between left-wing intellectuals and right-wing intellectuals is that the left worries out loud that spin might be lying, while the right characterizes its own bullshit as absolute truth.
- Tom Moody 3-21-2001 10:06 pm

In the end, I really don't care for this article much. I guess it's clever, but its insincerity is not much better than what it critiques. There are some philosophical arguments here of real import, but McCormack just uses deconstruction (for want of a better term for what is really a range of modern and post-modern thought) as a lash to whip the right with, and then says "well, I don't really believe in it either". Any time someone says the other guy is a big hypocrite, but my side's aim is true, it raises a red flag with me. We don't need high fallutin' philosophy to reveal the venality of politicians. There's a perfectly good populist understanding of the problem, and it goes back a lot farther than modernism. To flog someone with a theory you don't believe in is irresponsible. I'd rather hear him stick up for the "truth" that both sides supposedly embrace. I really don't believe that the Republicans "cheated", or "stole" anything: they just acted the way politicians will act, (albeit in a more extreme situation than we usually get to see them in), and they had certain logistical advantages that allowed them to outflank the enemy. Notice how we've moved into military terminology, just as the decon critique suggests?

Deconstruction gets under some people's skin, but its attack on objectivity is just the "soft science" side of the uncertainty principle, which I assume is accepted by right and left, since it's more or less a proven scientific fact. Everybody knows the "truth" that there were a certain number of votes cast, but our ability to count them is compromised by a margin of error which leaves the ultimate result arguable. That's hard to live with, but it's a "truth", of a different sort. The discomfort of ambiguity is part of life, but its pain shouldn't always be interpreted as the result of evil practices by the others. We'd do better to ask whether either party has any real philosophical underpinnings, other than antique boilerplate? And what's up with contemporary thought that offers critique without prescription? These questions might open a real discussion of ideas, as opposed to a pissing contest.

Serious ideas tend to have complex implications. The tradition to which deconstruction belongs has been important to me, but I've also seen it used to beat up on innocent people. Just like the election, it ends up being about the way people act, rather than the reasons they give for it. A lot of different philosophies have been used to justify the same old behavior. Actually, I'm impressed if Lynne Cheney has really read Derrida, let alone understood him. It would be great if we could get politicians to spend more time on academic argument than on winning and wielding power, but I guess the two things aren't separable in that arena.

Getting back to uncertainty, one good point was made in passing, which I thought should have gotten more play in general. That's about the double marked ballots for Buchanan. Here's another ambiguity that can't be resolved without making assumptions (as opposed to objective counting), but if we accept that these would have tipped the state to Gore, then we're also saying that the first projections from exit polls were, in fact, correct, and that the polls were a better measure of the electorate's intent than the actual vote. As Jim and I have discussed somewhat, polling, in various guises, is one of our key behaviors, and an endlessly fascinating subject, with all kinds of tangents. It makes people very nervous, and, like certain philosophies, it's surrounded by hypocrisy. All politicians use it, and everyone knows this, but they're not allowed to admit that it actually matters to them. After the election there was something like a show trial, where TV news executives were brought before congress to answer for their mixed up reporting. They all took their medicine, and not one suggested the uncomfortable "truth": that they had the story right to begin with. As long as our speech and thought are controlled on that level, our political disputes amount to squabbles among children in the sand box, and the real issues will be left to philosophers that no one can even understand.
- alex 3-23-2001 5:29 pm

Thanks for your post, Alex. You make some very good arguments, and I agree with much of what you say. My lingering "issues" are as follows: 1. I do believe the Republicans cheated and stole the election. The race was essentially a tie, and, as you suggest, the votes that would tip the scale one way or the other were smaller than the margin of error. While the left retreated into navel-gazing over this mind-boggling improbability, the right yelled and shoved its way into office. 2. McCormack could be "flogg[ing the right] with a theory he doesn't believe in," or demonstrating precisely why he doesn't agree with the theory: as applied by the left, it lets the right off the hook for lying. 3. I'm sure Lynne Cheney and Dinesh D'Souza think Werner Heisenberg is a decadent commie, too.
- Tom Moody 3-26-2001 3:13 am

Me mum mailed me the following clipping from from The Dallas Morning News 3/16/01 by Washington Post writer E.J.Dionne. (Not a new notion, but still a sound one.)

Be wary of belittling president

"Memo to George W. Bush's opponents: Now is the time for a moratorium on calling the president of the United States stupid.

This is a call to enlightened self-interest, not censorship. Nobody wants to get in the way of Jay Leno, David Letterman, the Saturday Night Live crew and all others whose job it is to speak humor to power. If Mr. Bush keeps giving them material - and even if he doesn't - they should keep us laughing at him.

But it is a form of intellectual laziness for Mr. Bush's critics to see attacks on the president's intelligence as a sure way to work themselves back into power. On the contrary, such swipes shove popular expectations of the leader of the free world ever lower. Before long, we expect less of him than we do of the average city council member or county commissioner. How many times does Mr. Bush have to "exceed expectations" before this lesson is learned?

Casting Mr. Bush as a dummy also plays into his strategy of turning himself into a Texas common man. How can a Harvard M.B.A. who inherited large social, political and financial advantages - and who wants to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans - end up looking like a populist? When his opponents cast themselves as elitist mandarins looking down their noses at a guy who won 50 million votes, thats how.

Yes, there are moments when Mr. Bush's apparent lack of control over the material can create real problems. A recent example : the need for aides to explain, interpret and otherwise clean up after Mr. Bush spoke a few words about our nation's policy towards North Korea.

But if Mr. Bush is to be criticized here, it isn't for being dumb but for being inattentitive to the job he was elected to do. Mr. Bush's aides are making a cult of how he spends so much less time being breifed and talking about policy than Bill Clinton did. Maybe our current president should hit the briefing books a little harder.

And then there is the matter of his grammar. Mr. Bush's ongoing war with syntax is troublesome - less as a sign of brainlessness than as an indicator of indiscipline or indifference. On the other hand, many who read transcripts of their own words discover that they, too, are capable of producing horridly mangled sentences. (I speak here from experience.) And you have to admit that no president ever won or lost because of his skill at diagramming sentences. The Bush-as-dummy scenario isn't sustainable when you consider who made a monkey of whom during the 2000 campaign.

Throughout the year, Mr. Bush was as clear as he could be about what he intended to do if elected. He promised the very big tax cut he now is fighting for, a partially privatized Social Security system, a voucherized Medicare program (though he didn't exactly call it that) and Supreme Court justices on the model od Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. He clearly and unequivocally was a conservative.

But Mr. Bush was also skilled at reciting soothing words that separated him retorically from Newt Gingrich's Revolution. As a result, he regularly was described in the media not as the conservative he is but as a "moderate." The moderate tag made it all the easier for a certainprominent third-oarty canidate for president to suggest that the differences between Mr. Bush and Al Gore weren't of sufficient consequence to make voters worry much about which of them won.

Who looks clever in this story? Who looks foolish? Hint: A candidate who pulls off what Mr. Bush did is no dumbskull.

Fortunately, most practicing politicians are too cautious or too diplomatic to call the president a dummy. But Mr. Bush's rank-and-file opponents are falling into the same trap their forebears did when they confronted Ronald Reagan.

By writing off Mr. Bush's intelligence, his adversaries will lull themselves into ignoring how far-reaching his proposals on taxes, Social Security and Medicare really are. Mr. Bush, like Mr. Reagan before him, wants to make it much harder for those in the future who would use government to ease inequalities and solve social problems. The truly stupid thing would be to fail to take Mr. Bush's plans seriously."

E.J.Dionne writes for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is

- bill 3-26-2001 8:17 pm

This writer seems to be saying that Bush is smart. I think Bush, like Reagan, is basically an animatronics puppet for the right, and as such, only has to be "smart enough." With a 70 million dollar war chest and plenty of bright schemers behind him, the main thing he had to do to get elected was hold his head properly and look deeply into the camera, convincing Mr. and Mrs. Average American that he was a Nice Guy (and not fuck up too much, like Quayle did). Now that's he in, the people behind him are working the levers like mad--paying off his rich backers, jump-starting the oil industry, getting women back in the kitchen, and delivering homeless drug abusers into the arms of Jesus. It's people who believed he was a moderate who are the real "dumbskulls."
- Tom Moody 3-26-2001 9:13 pm

Yes, "only as smart as he needs to be" and "pay no attention to those men behind the curtain." The writer only casts his net on underestimating "W", not "TEAM BUSH."

- bill 3-26-2001 9:56 pm

i dont see what difference the recount numbers make at this point. [Please note that as you were writing this, I revised my last post to take out that optimistic reference --Tom]. both sides will spin their povs but the shrub still has the nuclear codes and the rest of the power. maybe it will motivate the democratic base for the mid-term elections in 2002 but otherwise it will have no other effect than to encourage democrats to shake their fists at the wind. speaking of demos, they are still bashing ralph nader. on abcs "this week" george "stuffin envelopes" couldnt help but admonish nader voters by claiming all these nasty bush programs actually prove that there is a discernable difference between repugs and demos. well duh? ralph nader is not an idiot. he knows theres a difference and so do his supporters but the point is that the party was shifting rightward and being overrun by corporate interests. and somehow this ties in with something said early about the effectiveness of the rights shocktroops versus the irresolute left. the right has embraced its radical wing whereas the left has ostracized its more far reaching bretheren. now this may have been a consequence of who was in power. will the right become divided if bush, in an effort to get reelected, must appease his more centrist allies, while the left pulls together as their desire to obtain control overrides their individual disagreements? that remains to be seen. as for ej dionne, i think he has too many deadlines to reach. the problem with getting paid to write a column is that you have to have something to write about. anyone is an idiot that thinks someone can get through yale and harvard without a degree of intelligence. sure we like to make fun of his "syntactical" errors but anyone on camera for so much of the day is bound to trip up a fair amount. and although public speaking is vital to the job of president, ive never held that skill it high esteem. i too would prefer someone who wrestles with derrida, which would preclude myself, but what bush lacks is intellectual curiosity discipline and a facile mind. he is not worthy of being president except that of his deke chapter at yale. ok, this is becoming disjointed. onward...
- dave 3-26-2001 9:58 pm

You guys are jammin,' each and every one.
- jimlouis 3-27-2001 3:35 am

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