by Robert Waldmann
I admire Jonathan Chait. In particular, I admire his denunciation of those (e.g. Barack Obama) who criticize “some in my party” without naming names. His rule is that if one criticizes an argument, position or view, one should name and quote someone. Otherwise the temptation to debate straw men is irresistable. This fits Chait’s general (confessed) inclination to be mean — he doesn’t mind criticizing people by name.
I often think of Chait’s rule and, when attemting to enforce it use the phrase “two minutes Chait” (rhymes with “two minutes hate”).
His recent post “This Won’t end Well for House Republicans” caused me to advocate (in comments) a much more extreme rule. I argue that commentators should never paraphrase or quote indirectly. I think a good rule would be that all references to anything written or said by anyone must be of the form of a direct quotation followed (if necessary) by an argument that the person really means something other that what they apparently just said.
I think that allowing paraphrases and indirect quotations makes the temptation to, say, claim that Al Gore said he invented the internet, irresistable.
My example is Chait himself. He wrote
Nancy Pelosi once said that Congress had to pass the Affordable Care Act in order to find out what was in it. Republican demagogues pretended Pelosi was confessing to having hidden the details of her bill until its passage, but, as anybody who read the context of her remarks could see, that is not what she meant. Pelosi was dismissing the bill’s bad polling as an artifact of public ignorance. The law’s individual provisions were highly popular, and she believed the law, once functioning, would gain public support, because it would help far more people than it harmed.
Often I bore myself. Here by grinding a very old ax. You are right to criticize Republican demagogues for misleading people about what Pelosi meant. But you misquoted her. According to Matt Yglesias (who I trust because he presents a direct quote with, you know, quotation marks) she said ““We have to pass the bill, so that you can find out what is in it — away from the fog of the controversy.” She was not confessing that she belonged to a group which didn’t know what was in it. She was saying that other people (who were attending the ” National Association of Counties’ 2010 legislative conference” didn’t know what was in it.
Your paraphrase “Congress had to pass the Affordable Care Act in order to find out what was in it.” is materially false. You assert that she asserted that Congress didn’t know what was in it. She did no such thing. I am honestly disappointed that, when your point is that her meaning was distorted, you used a false indirect quotation which is consistent with the misleading interpretation (and not with your interpretation).
You have a rule that, when you criticize, you name names (and quote quotes). This is a very good rule. I think you should have another rule. When you claim someone said “that” something is true, you should rewrite — use a direct quotation. The case of Nancy Pelosi who didn’t say that Congress had to pass the bill to know what was in it (like the case of Al Gore who didn’t claim to have invented the internet) demonstrates to me that indirect quotations and paraphrases have no legitimate useful role in the political debate.
They are often used to mislead (or to lie as in the cases of Pelosi and Gore). Pixels will be killed if you stick to quoting and then interpreting rather than suppressing the exact words and paraphrasing. But I think that you can’t be trusted to paraphrase again. I recommend that all political commentators (including you) stick to direct quotations only from now on.
Here I add that Pelosi isn’t entirely an innocent victim. She was too polite to be accurate. The word “can” implies that her audience couldn’t find out what was in the bill even with diligence. I am sure that what she believed was “since you can’t be bothered to read the bill (it’s only 2000 pages long) and believe Republican lies about it, we will have to pass the bill to force you to find out what is in it”. But she is a politician, so she automatically assured people that they weren’t at all to blame for their ignorance. Her statement was false. At the time people could find out what was in the bill. It just would require a totally disproportionate effort. The claim that they couldn’t (implied by the “can”) was a claim that the contents of the bill were hidden, not just long and boring.
That Republicans and “dozens of political journalists who should have known better” argued that she had confessed that the contents of the bill were hidden is outrageous. It is a demonstrable fact that the bill wasn’t hidden. The debate over the bill was public and extremely detailed. Only people to lazy to check could believe that the details were hidden. The case demonstrates that “dozens of political journalists” are too lazy to do their jobs.
Similarly, Al Gore’s claim “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” was 100% accurate. It does not imply he claimed he invented anything (the word doesn’t appear). It does imply that he claims that the internet was originally a US government project funded by Congress & that he was a congressman who took the initiative of pushing for funding. Also that the transition to a new sector of the private economy was managed by a committee chaired by Al Gore.
Now what could possibly be gained by allowing people to paraphrase to, for a hypothetical example, [Al Gore claimed he invented the internet] ? Very few pixels are saved. The meaning is completely distorted. Paraphrases are very useful to dishonest people.
I really think that a direct quotes only (in political debate and commentary) rule would be an improvement.
To Chait I say: “context” my ass, text would have been good enough.