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The Truth, Mainly - 10/13/2003

Humpty Dumpty politics, 21st century style

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.

—Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."


"It's up to God now."

That's what Arnold Schwarzenegger said after casting his vote last Tuesday. And it set me to wondering. I know things are supposed to be different in California, but still I had questions. To wit:

What was up to God last Tuesday? The outcome of the election? It wasn't up to the voters? Did God take away their free will for a little while—long enough to make them vote for Arnold? Does that make it a rigged election?

Less than a year ago, Gray Davis was re-elected as governor. Was that outcome also up to God? If so, what made Him change His Omniscient Mind about Gray? Was it that he turned out to be a lousy governor? But wouldn't God, with His Divine Foreknowledge, already know that Gray would turn out that way? And what would it say about God if He was the Cause of the election of an incompetent? And if He caused one, did He just cause another?

But those are all metaphysical questions, and there's hardly anything metaphysical about politics. When Arnold said "It's up to God now," it meant just what Arnold chose it to mean, neither more nor less. Probably something like "Hey, it doesn't really matter if I once expressed admiration for Hitler, or if more than once I played around with women who didn't want to be played around with. What matters is that now I'm signaling smarmy religiosity and even in California, smarmy religiosity can pick up votes."

Arnold later said he was looking forward to working with George Bush—and I understood why. Like Arnold, the President reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Wonderland as he goes through his day leaving a trail of mutilated language that means just what he chooses it to mean. Here's a prolonged example:

The Journal Star on Oct. 4 ran a nifty little box contrasting what the President said pre-war about Iraqi weaponry and what U.S. weapons inspector David Kay said post-war about what his team's search didn't turn up. For the verbatim text, see the Oct. 4 LJS. In the interest of brevity, I'm paraphrasing here.

Dubya on Mar. 17, 2003: The Iraqis possess and conceal "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." Kay this month: Haven't found any yet.

Dubya on Jan. 28, 2003: Iraq has "several mobile biological weapons labs…designed to produce germ warfare agents." Kay: Haven't found any yet.

Dubya on Sep. 12, 2002: Iraq has "scud-type missiles with ranges beyond the 150 kilometers permitted by the U.N." Kay: One guy said there were a few, then changed his mind and said there weren't any. Haven't found any yet.

The Truth, Mainly


Dubya on Sep. 12, 2002: If it gets "fissile material," Iraq can build nukes within a year. Kay: No evidence after 1998 of any attempts to build nukes.

Dubya on Nov. 3, 2002: Saddam has chemical weapons and he's used them on his neighbors. Kay: No sign of chemical weapons since 1991.

Kay also said "no conclusive proof" has been found to support the President's assertion in his State of the Union speech that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. And Kay estimated that Iraq had been five to seven years away from reconstituting a nuclear weapons program which Vice President Cheney had said was already up and running.

In each instance, Kay's report, while it doesn't disprove the administration's charges, stops far short of confirming them. But get this:

The President maintains the Kay report justifies our invasion of Iraq.

George Will, no enemy of the President, raises the right question: "So why is it so difficult for the Bush administration to candidly acknowledge and discuss what Americans are not unnerved to learn—that much prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was wrong?"

At least a part of the answer, I think. is that this President doesn't value language very much. Like Humpty Dumpty and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Wonderland, the President believes his words mean just what he chooses them to mean, neither more nor less.

But the really scary thing is that he takes a quantum leap beyond that. In his effort to make his pre-emptive war of choice seem to be a reactive war of necessity, he not only assigns arbitrary meaning to his own words, he assigns arbitrary meaning to the words of others.

That's a level of linguistic anarchy that would leave even Humpty Dumpty—and maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger—shaking their heads.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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