Friday, October 18, 2013

A trick or two

Peter Martins choreography for Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes, New York City Ballet, via.
A compelling little bit of linguistic strangeness in the aftermath of Senator Reid's remark on Senator Vitter:
 “He just is just not playing with a full deck. Something is wrong there.” Vitter shot back in a statement to HuffPost saying, “Unfortunately, the deck I’m playing with in the Harry Reid Senate is quite full -– of jokers.”
Vitter is just trying to be quick-witted here, putting out a statement that is only meant to sound nasty, not to have any particular meaning, like your argumentative early-adolescent son who thinks the most devastating comeback is to repeat what you just said with one of the words changed.

But he betrays a curious misunderstanding of what the idiom (most properly, I think, "not dealing from a full deck") and others like it ("a couple of bananas short of a bunch...") are about, namely, one's own endowment of gifts or skills: the insulter is saying that you're in some sense not all there. But in Vitter's usage the cards aren't in his hand, as it were, but out on the Senate floor; the idiom has become about the people you work with, as if colleagues were just material to be manipulated; and he's complaining that the Democratic senators aren't in some way "good" enough to let him manipulate them. If you don't do what Vitter wants (like acquiescing in the mistreatment of your support staff re health benefits), you're a "joker".

There's something similar to what Reid noticed in Cruz, in the same interview:
Cruz is a smart man, but he “has still not accepted” that he’s in the Senate and can’t constantly be talking down to people as if they’re not on his level. [Reid] added, “He might be able to work a calculus problem better than I can. But he can’t legislate better than I can.”
Cruz wants to work with people the way he might work with symbols on paper or perhaps game tokens, shoving them into place and performing his algorithms. It's the same "conservative" or psychopathic difficulty in recognizing the humanity—the agency—of the other person (of which Reid, in contrast, is liberally, sometimes infuriatingly, aware).

Also, too: Cruz as brilliantly quoted by Chris Cilizza in today's Wapo as "summarizing Cruz's approach to politics in just one sentence:
 “I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the U.S. Senate.”

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