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.