Tuesday, May 14, 2019

For the record: Semiotics of Outrage Calumny

So Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), of Palestinian origin, was telling some podcast listeners about how she finds her Palestinian anger dissipating when she contemplates the horror of the Holocaust: her ancestral lands may have been lost and her people driven into exile, but it was incalculable suffering, not hers but the suffering of Jews, that "started it", and people whose only thought was really reparation of that:

TLAIB: “There’s, you know, there’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence, in many ways, had been wiped out. . . . I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time."
It goes into the noise machine to get its meaning turned upside down, and Dinesh D'Souza picks it up to offer new evidence for his contention that Democrats are Nazis but not really but yes really:

I mean really, finally, don't we have to say Dinesh is in some terrible pain, that compels him to do this grotesque thing? Who hurt him?

Semiologically, there's an interesting relationship between what's done with the language here and what's done in Scalia-style originalist jurisprudence: the way it begins by separating the speech from the person, asking not of her, "What did she mean?" but of a slice of sentence, "What do these words mean?"

Then you interpret the words in what seems like the most neutral way, a kind of face value: "It says people can own guns if they want to and no legislature can change that"—"It says when she thinks about the Holocaust she feels calm", as if it was an alternative to a cocktail. And then you reattach it to the person, "The Founders wanted gun ownership to be unregulated" and "Rashida Tlaib uses thinking about the Holocaust as a drug", and go around telling everybody you've discovered something important, but it's only a technique for creating fake news.

We occasionally do the same thing, by the way, and I don't like it, like when we pretend Donald Trump publicly invited the Russian government to steal Hillary documents from the State Department, in a press conference:
"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump proposed from a podium at his Doral Resort. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
It's a stupid take, and it's always been a stupid take. Why would he do that? And if he did, why did he promise the press would pay for it instead of offering to pay for it himself? I mean, we all know he's cheap, but how was that even supposed to work? Nobody ever looks at that sentence at all.

Everybody has an intent when they speak, and Trump more than most, in the sense that he's so short of the normal desire to simply make human connection and shoot the shit, but speaks only out of his personal need to manipulate people and to help himself not feel inferior. Try to think about what could have impelled him to say these two things to the press, less than a week after WikiLeaks had published the Democratic National Committee emails, the day after the US intelligence community announced its "high confidence" that Russian actors had stolen them, and at the climax of the riff that began thus, with Putin:
"I've never spoken to him. I don't know anything about him other than he will respect me," Trump said during a press conference this morning at his golf club in Doral, Florida. "I have nothing to do with Russia."
"By the way, if they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do," he continued. "They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted."
If we take into consideration his own later assertion that he was "joking" in the "Russia if you're listening" line, and just try to imagine what he might have been joking about, I think it's easy that he might have been mocking (he doesn't joke) a number of targets, the intelligence community for its cockamamie idea that the Russians had hacked the DNC, which he continues to deny or cast doubt on even today, and the press for getting all excited about the story, and anybody who might try to suggest that there was any connection between him and this crime. "Oh, sure, the Russians did it. No doubt. I wish they'd give me those other emails! And you journalists would get really excited if it was actually true! You'd love me for giving you the story! I'll just order it up from Vova, look!" He's mocking the story, to show how stupid it is, to sow doubt.

That works for me. And what he's really doing, with characteristic Trump bravado, in my further opinion, is seeing how close he can get to telling them what's really going on without their getting it: because he's seeing for the first time that the negotiations with Russia have been bearing some real fruit (though not the "right" emails, the State Department ones he'd been hoping for), because he's so overwhelmed with his own cleverness in making this work, and he can't bear to be silent about it. It'll kill him if he doesn't brag. But he takes care not to be believed, and distracts us from the truth by putting his cooperation with Putin in the future conditional "(if you're listening" to reinforce the presupposition that they haven't already listened).

Which ends up being a much more narratologically damning interpretation than the one the pandits keep giving you. Let it be a lesson.

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