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Thursday, October 4, 2012

The night Mitt Romney called his five sons liars

There is a huge industry that has sprung up to analyze and make assertions about presidential debates.  Every four years the the rocks are turned over and all the psychic mediums and clairvoyants and others of their kind are called out to tell us who won presidential debates and interpret what was said, but particularly what wasn't said that they heard but we ordinary folks cannot.  

One branch of clairvoyance is body language.  Its practitioners claim they can divine when people are  lying, know what is really in their minds, and construct entire speeches from a lick of the lips or the blink of an eye.  And so, after Obama and Romney finished their first debate, the diviners gathered around the cauldrons provided by cable news networks, talk radio, and the Internet and summoned their dark powers.  

Mitt Romney did outperform President Obama in histrionics. And that is what our contemporary culture has been media-conditioned to respond to.  The corpus linguists erupt in citing gestures and expressions as signs of what is acually being said. Their grammar of body language, however, is mostly a matter of stating what the gestures, postures, and facial expressions look like to the audience and retreat into the rule that in debates perception is reality.  To them, words don't really matter.

To  some of us who are logo-centric and. think words are of controlling importance in any communication, body language and histrionic performance are elements that call for extreme critical wariness.   Some general semanticists state that the first error is in calling expressions, postures, and gestures body language.   It should not be called language because it does not have a lexicon of meanings or a grammar that governs the way it conveys its meanings.  Body "language" is like a Rorschach blot:  people impose their own notions and prejudices on it. It conveys no transactional meaning and reflects the mentality of the perceiver, not the intentions of the person who is under examination.  In plain words, there is really no such thing as body language that can be profitably interpreted.  There are such things as body signals which convey attitudes and, to some degree, mental states.   But they can easily be misinterpreted.

So, after one has registered the histrionics, the real importance of a debate is what the words said.  The wordsmiths and fact-checkers were busy last night.  Both the The New York Times and the Washington Post had their word analysts busy last night examining where the language departed from the facts, where it got a bit sloppy and imprecise, and where it was intended to mislead.  [ The New Republic has a pertinent article title "What the presidential candidates could learn from high school debaters."]

At one point in the debate, I could hear the real students of rhetoric take in a collective, cautionary breath and people of color, particularly blacks, exhaling in exasperation.    Only a few reporters and commentators noted the significance of the moment.  It is where the men are arguing about the specifics of Romney's tax plan, which Obama calls a $5 trillion tax cut and Romney insists will be deficit reduction measure.  Both the fact-checking links provided above analyze the basis for this dispute.  

Romney was careful last night not to depart from his script and make one of his noted  blunders, except for this moment.  Few people who lived through the civil rights movement and recall the language and its imagery probably caught the serious and, for minority people, fatal, blunder Romney made at this point.  It is where he said, "I know that you and your running mate keep saying that and I know it’s a popular thing to say with a lot of people, but it’s just not the case. Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it." 

One of Romney's main messages last night was that the  President is a  liar.  He was  cagey enough not to be aggressively confrontive in making this accusation, but he was either super cagey in knowing how his statement could play to his base or totally obtuse to how it would play among African-Americans.  In effect, Romney was saying, "Look, boy, I know when you and your people are lying."  No insult is as serious as patronization, and this comment wherein Romney likened a president to a boy was demeaning and patronizing in the greatest magnitude.  Then add the racist overtones, and the remark becomes indefensible.   It was typical Romney and was expressive of the deep attitudes that he harbors.  Romney's strategy throughout his entire campaign has been to claim that there is someone in the White House who should be waiting on the tables, not presiding at them.  

Romney and sons after the debate.
The remark registered on few people in the media.  But it registered acutely on those who gave careful attention to the words, and it will have grave consequences for Romney.  As people let the actual words exchanged in the so-called debate register for their significance, that comment will mark the essential point revealed by the occasion.  It will grow in signficance when people realize what was said.

And one can't but wonder how Romney's sons feel about being publicly labeled as liars.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States