Monday, April 14, 2008


If you didn't get the no-joke April 1 e-mail from OUP (first highlighted by The Ridger), perhaps you saw him on the "Daily Show": the "legendary" Bill Safire, "America’s foremost expert" on the language of politics, is out with an updated version of "Safire's Political Dictionary."

Might not be a bad thing to have around if, as Safire contends, he was just another impartial observer keeping score in the world of words. The problem is that he's not. Sometimes he goes to the trouble of looking things up or calling people who actually know stuff. At other times, he simply flat-out makes things up -- funny, always in a way that makes his friends look good and the opposing party look malicious and evil. But since it all comes in the same package, it's impossible to know whether you're getting some middling competent piece of observation and verification or an out-and-out lie. Like, say, this one Sunday:

Another McCain linguistic thrust: in diplolingo, realist was a word adopted a few years ago by foreign-policy wonks tired of being called accommodationist by Kissingerian exponents of tough-minded realpolitik. By effectively stealing the word realist to become their label, those on the dovish side of the spectrum found a way to heap scorn on hawkish believers in the export of democracy: they derided those pressing a ''freedom agenda'' as dreamy Wilsonian idealists.

Whee! Even by Safire's standards, that's a breathtaking bit of invention. (Unless he means it, and would you buy a political dictionary from somebody who apparently slept through the entire Reagan administration*?) So before we get into the evils done to "those pressing a 'freedom agenda'"** and those poor believers in democracy, let's look briefly at what "realism" tends to mean in American political discourse.

The first thing to remember is that "realist" means several things. Everybody wants to be a realist, meaning somebody who sees things as they are and won't be fooled by the knavish tricks of the British (French, Germans, Russians, North Koreans, Iranians, whoever). Rather fewer want to be a Realist, which sounds scarier and more Kissingerian but is essentially rooted in the same place: The world needs to be dealt with as it is, not as we'd like it to be.

The Dr. Strangelove bit isn't the only reason big-R realism is fairly rare in day-to-day campaign discourse. Realism's assumptions make for genuinely bad soundbites. Who wants to start a speech by noting that Saddam Hussein is a rational actor who happens to make it very easy for subordinates to give him bad information? And who wants to walk into a town hall meeting hand in hand with a philosophy that "refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe"? (Take a bow, Hans Morgenthau.) For such occasions, as Safire might tell us, was "that won't play in Peoria" coined.

The easy part of realism is, well, easy: It consists of comparing your rationality with the woolly idealism of the candidate or party you're trying to replace. That's why Reagan could paint himself as a realist, as opposed to all that annoying Carter-era stuff about human rights, and why Condi Rice could slag the incumbents in the 2000 campaign thus: "The belief that the United States is exercising power legitimately only when it is doing so on behalf of someone or something else was deeply rooted in Wilsonian thought, and there are strong echoes of it in the Clinton administration.”*** (Rice and Thucydides, fighting it out for the right to slap Safire upside the head!) The challenging part is acknowledging that (a) most of the other actors out there are just as rational as you are (meaning they can figure out what their interests are and how to act as best they can to bring those interests about), and (b) God doesn't like you any better than S/He likes the next guy.****

What Safire has done, once again, is lie about the fundamental terms of the debate. Realists don't have any problem with "the export of democracy," but they do try to have some awareness of what makes up "democracy" and the conditions under which parts of it can be successfully exported. They're skeptical about a Republican "freedom agenda" for the same reason they're skeptical about Santa Claus; fictional characters who are invoked when power-holders want to coerce compliance can go wait in line with Phil the Groundhog. They're quite capable of discussing the Iraq debacle on moral and ethical grounds, but first things first: Did this act serve the national interest, or didn't it? And if it didn't, should someone be held to account?

That's the problem with Safire. He likes to talk about things like "diplolingo," but he doesn't, or can't, do it honestly. He's always going to have a thumb on the scale for his friends. That pretty much rules him out as a realist, and -- in case you hadn't noticed already -- it's another entry on that long list of evidence that nothing he says about language should be taken seriously either. Why does the Times tolerate this stuff?

* Other than Reagan, I mean.
** The words of this wizard stand on their heads, huh?
*** Rice, C. (2000) Promoting the national interest. Foreign Affairs, 79, 45-62.
**** And even if He did, He wouldn't conjure up a few more divisions of mechanized infantry for the occasion. Sorry about the pronouns.


Blogger . said...


11:05 AM, April 15, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"That's the problem with Safire."

I believe you mean "That's one of the problems with Safire."

1:47 PM, April 15, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Picky, picky, picky.

12:50 AM, April 17, 2008  

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