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Psychopathology in everyday life (“press gaggle” edition)

What would your diagnosis be if in conversation someone responded to you as Scott McClellan does to the press? (The rest is below the fold because I must quote at length to exhibit the phenomenon I’m interested in.)
Q Do you — does the President repudiate this 527 ad that calls Kerry a liar on Vietnam?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President deplores all the unregulated soft money activity. We have been very clear in stating that, you know, we will not — and we have not and we will not question Senator Kerry's service in Vietnam. I think that this is another example of the problem with the unregulated soft money activity that is going on. The President thought he put an end — or the President thought he got rid of this kind of unregulated soft money when he signed the bipartisan campaign finance reforms into law.
And, you know, the President has been on the receiving end of more than $62 million in negative attacks from shadowy groups. The President is calling for an immediate cessation to all the unregulated soft money activity. He believes that it should all be stopped. The unregulated soft money activity that is going on does nothing to elevate the discourse. We hope the Kerry campaign will join us in calling for an end to all the unregulated soft money ads and activity.
Q So the President joins McCain in criticizing this particular ad?
MR. McCLELLAN: We hope the Kerry campaign will join us in calling for an end to all the unregulated soft money ads and activity that are going on. Again, the President has been on the receiving end of more than $62 million in negative attacks from shadowy groups. And the President thought he got rid of this kind of activity when he signed the bipartisan campaign finance reforms into law. This campaign should be about the issues and it should be about the records.
Q Scott, more specifically, though, will the President or the campaign ask this particular group to pull this particular ad off the air?
MR. McCLELLAN: We're calling for a cessation to all the unregulated soft money activity, and we hope that the Kerry campaign will join us.
Q Scott, during the primaries in 2000, or I guess during the Republican Presidential Primaries, an unregulated ad was run against John McCain. At the time, the governor said, "We don't have anything to do with it." Can you give us a sense of the evolution, what's changed from, we don't have anything to do with it, to, let's all stop it.
MR. McCLELLAN: The President supported the bipartisan campaign finance reforms that were passed, and he felt that they improved the system. And that's why he signed them into law. We should have a level playing field for candidates and parties. You have, right now, a problem with these unregulated soft money groups. These were loopholes that we thought were closed when the President signed the campaign finance reforms into law. And so the President believes that all the unregulated soft money activity should stop. We hope the Kerry campaign will join us in calling for an end to all this kind of activity.
The President knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of more than $62 million in negative attacks from these kinds of shadowy groups.
And the next day:
Q Will there be any pulling of attack ads on Senator Kerry?
MR. McCLELLAN: What are you referring to?
Q Will there be any initiative to get the attack ads on Senator Kerry, as we were discussing yesterday —
MR. McCLELLAN: Are you talking about yesterday?
Q Yes. The military service attack ads.
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we continue to urge Senator Kerry to join us and call for an end to all the ads and activity by these shadowy groups that are funded by unregulated soft money. These ads are examples of the kinds of problems with this unregulated soft money. The President signed the campaign finance reforms into law in part to get rid of this kind of activity.
I think it’s safe to say that Scott McClellan would easily pass the Turing-test-in-reverse (in which a human being tries to convince a computer that he’s not a human being). From the table below it’s apparent that the message of the day can be generated by a simple finite-state automaton. This is dumbing-down with a vengeance.
I the President thought he got rid of this kind of unregulated soft money when he signed the bipartisan campaign finance reforms into law
in part to get rid of activity / activities the President signed the campaign finance reforms into law
II does nothing to elevate the discourse
III we urge Senator Kerry to join us in calling for an end to all from shadowy groups
we continue to urge Senator Kerry to join us in
we are a cessation to all ads
IV are a problem
the President believes activities must cease
V the President has been on the receiving end of more than $62 million in negative attacks
the President knows what it's like to be
How to read the table: there are five types of sentence, indicated at the left. Each includes one or more rows of the table. Start with one of the left-hand cells in a row and move right, without leaving the type that that cell belongs to. The order in which you generate the sentences is up to you.
Another version of the same automaton:
messaut
The only purpose of taking questions from reporters is to ensure that the buzz-words of the day are written down & transmitted. It doesn't even matter much how they are decorated with surrounding material so as to form complete sentences. McClellan works hard to introduce the clump "unregulated soft money activity by shadowy groups" into every pseudo-answer as many times as possible. I suppose that’s how he got the job—by being a virtuoso message-automaton.
For most readers McClellan’s tactics are obvious. We know that officials and institutions have “messages” they want to impress upon us (“message” is a bit misleading when applied to something that quite often contains no information), and that the purpose of flacks is to flog those messages ad nauseam. That this has become utterly commonplace is no reason to cease to oppose it. What’s the alternative? To become a flack too?
More pernicious than mere dumbness is that the message-automaton does not respond appropriately to what is said to it. That was one of Descartes’ tests by which to distinguish a machine with a soul from one without (Discours pt. 4). The message-automaton has no soul. Now acting like a machine, even if it is an offense to one’s own nature, needn’t be an offense to others. But the administration, by way of its communication with us through the press, is treating us as if we were automata. It is ironic that an administration that wears its Christian heart on its sleeve should treat people not as beings endowed with immortal rational souls and free will, but as beasts (though here I do a disservice to the beasts, or at least to anything with more brains than a sea slug).
Pascal, of course, did say that once you’ve accepted the argument of the wager, and decided that it is in your interest to believe in God, the next step is to inculcate faith by going through the motions of faith. Kneel before the altar enough & that mastery of your body will eventually enforce upon the mind the faith you simulate. He implies that the same is true of belief in the right of kings to rule. The pomp of courts, the splendor with which the king adorns himself, the magnificence of his retinue, impress the beast in us, and induce belief in the natural superiority of the king.
But for Pascal, the choice is between having the body, a thing of no worth, as master, and having God, a thing of infinite worth, as master. Reason has only instrumental value in leading the proud to faith, and temporal powers, despite their appearance of right, have no claim on us.
Bush has said that he “trusts that God speaks through him” (LibertyPost; the original story is at Lancaster Online, which requires registration). It must be said that when He spoke through Moses He was considerably more articulate. But set that aside, and set aside the presumption of the claim to divine utterance. Politically Bush is taking upon himself the authority which God reserves to Himself and His agents on Earth. As President he has no such authority, but only that vested in him by the people & in accordance with the Constitution he has sworn to uphold.
The message-automaton befits a despot communicating to his subjects, or, in more contemporary terms, a behaviorist conditioning his captive subjects. It does not befit the leader of a democracy.
To see how a President, faced with a far greater challenge than Al-Qaeda, invokes the intentions of God without arrogating to himself the exclusive right to know & act upon them, read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
One blueprint for the message-automaton is Newt Gingrich’s “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”, an anti-democratic document in more than one sense.
See “Language & politics” for some studies of political discourse and the use or abuse of “keywords” like those in Gingrich’s lists.
Update: Here is Bush being his own message-automaton:
QUESTION: But why won't you denounce the charges that your supporters are making against Kerry?
BUSH: I'm denouncing all the stuff being on TV, all the 527s. That's what I've said. I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process. And I asked Senator Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money, not only on TV, but to use for other purposes as well. I, frankly, thought we'd gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill. I thought we were going to once and for all get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising.
What I really like here is the ‘frankly’.

LinkAugust 16, 2004 in Current Affairs · Ethics · Religion

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