Obama, McCain, Pigs, and Lipstick
Cheney... brings Armey in… and he lays out a big stack of papers and he says, ‘Let me explain to you what’s really going on. … Saddam's much more dangerous than we want to tell the public.’ He told Armey two things he never said in public and that are not true. He said Saddam personally, and his family, had direct ties with al Qaeda. And he said Iraq was making substantial progress towards a miniature nuclear weapon.
NOW THAT THE FUSS IS OVER, let's revisit the "lipstick on a pig" incident from the viewpoint of rhetoric.
First, the facts:
Barack Obama made the following comment in a speech.
John McCain says he's about change, too. So I guess his whole angle is:
"Watch out, George Bush. Except for economic health policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Carl Rove style politics, we're going to really shake things up in Washington."
That's not change. That's just calling the same thing something different. You know... you can put lipstick on a pig—it's still a pig.
The McCain campaign responded to this by claiming that he had called Sarah Palin a pig.
Even though it is by now obvious to anyone who has been paying attention that the above remark had nothing to do with Sarah Palin, notice the following two points:
The clear reference within the context is as follows:
McCain's similarity to George Bush = Pig
McCain's claim to be a reformer = Lipstick
Read it again if you aren't sure. There is no other way to interpret it without forcibly wrenching the statement from it's context.
Even if, by some wild flight of the imagination, someone, say the McCain Campaign, managed to force Sarah Palin into the above context, the most they could claim Obama implied would be that John McCain was trying to hide his similarity to Bush by bringing Palin on for appearances:
McCain's similarity to George Bush = Pig
Palin as Vice Presidential candidate = Lipstick
In that case, the pig is still McCain's policies. Sarah Palin would be the lipstick.
There's simply no way for a reasonable person to read, or hear, the words above, as an insult to Palin, even if they really, really want to.
So what's going on here?
The answer lies in the relation between two uses of language, and how those uses relate to each other. They are both perfectly legitimate—we all use both of them every day.
Let's take them one at a time.
Scientific Rhetoric: This is language used to reason, to communicate truth, and to improve understanding.
Obama is using scientific rhetoric when he defines the difference between himself and McCain by pointing out that McCain's policies are practically identical to Bush's, in spite of McCain's claims to be a maverick.
Notice, I'm not talking about whether Obama is right or wrong about this—I'm only talking about his rhetoric.
He believes that McCain is just more of the same, based upon his analysis of the facts; he wants his audience to be convinced of the same thing; and he presents that position in a reasoned manner, giving clear examples. This is scientific rhetoric, aimed at sharing his understanding of a situation with the listeners.
Political Rhetoric: This is language used to manipulate others, to influence them to action.
Obama uses this kind of language as well. He uses it when he frames his argument against McCain's position as a hypothetical statement by McCain, thus making it sound more ridiculous. He uses it when he brings out the old political punch line about lipstick on a pig.
In both cases, he is using a combination of scientific and political rhetoric, designed to simultaneously convey his own understanding of the issues and motivate his listeners to vote for him.
So what's the difference between what Obama did in that speech and what the McCain campaign did, charging Obama with a sexist remark.
The difference is that while both kinds of rhetoric are valuable, and even necessary, they are not simple alternatives to each other.
Scientific rhetoric, the use of language to promote understanding, is always useful and helpful for its own sake. Even if I am wrong about something, trying to explain it in a clear and understandable fashion is a useful task—it may well even lead me to see where and how I am wrong.
Political rhetoric, however, is not useful, or even safe, on its own. Attempts to influence others are only good for others, and for ourselves, if they are grounded in scientific rhetoric as well.
The second I begin to choose a message, not because I think it is true and want to deepen my listeners understanding, but merely because of how it will influence them, I am on dangerous ground, and so are they.
Political rhetoric that is not regulated by an underlying scientific rhetoric, an underlying desire to stick to the truth, soon leads to distortion and lies and a loss of contact with reality.
That last one is important, because, when we begin to spin a tale for others it becomes very easy to believe it ourselves.
Have you ever found yourself wondering just how much of the nonsense that came out of the Bush administration was lies, and how much was self-delusion? Unrestrained political rhetoric is a very dangerous thing in the White House.
So here's the scenario. Obama has made a remark which goes to the heart of the matter—he has put his finger on McCain's greatest weakness: the fact that he is offering more of the same while presenting himself as a maverick.
He has rooted this charge in a powerful combination of political and scientific rhetoric. He has spoken clearly and with understanding, but also has found an amusing and powerful way to drive the point home. His remark has both style and substance, and McCain's people would very much like to make sure he never uses the line again.
They can't answer the charge head on, because it would just call attention to its logic. But McCain has already moved to about 93% political rhetoric anyway, so his people aren't even considering the truth of the matter.
It comes down to pure political rhetoric: What can they say that will draw people's attention away from this powerful argument, and also keep Obama from using it again?
It doesn't matter whether it's true or not.
And they come up with a plan. They'll pretend that they're shocked and outraged that he called Sarah Palin a pig. Never mind that they know full well that the connection is theirs, and theirs alone.
It will, with any luck, keep the press busy for a few days, so no one is thinking about the issues.
It will, with any luck, put the Obama campaign on the defensive.
But the real payoff is that it will put the focus on the word "pig" instead of the substance of what Obama said, and quite possibly make him want to avoid that argument in the future.
Nothing in all of this reasoning has anything to do with scientific rhetoric—with a desire to communicate and understand the truth. It's all rooted in the desire to manipulate people for political ends, to win by whatever means works.
The truth just doesn't come into it.