The Cotton-Eyed Joe, for you lifelong Northerners, is a boisterous line dance in which participants shout out at intervals, "Bullshit! Bullshit!" The Republican presidential debate last week was a different sort of line dance, in which the participants shouted out at intervals "Obfuscation! Obfuscation!" but the effect was similar.
The shouts came most clearly from Representative Tom Tancredo, who challenged the straight talk of some of his colleagues by saying:
"No more platitudes, no more obfuscating with using words like, 'Well, I am not for amnesty, but I am for letting [immigrants] stay'"
(Quotes in this post are taken from the MSNBC transcript unless otherwise noted)
Tancredo is right on two counts. First, this kind of political formula is widely used (has it always been so popular?). Second, it is not quite bullshit, at least not in my understanding of the Frankfurt definition. So what exactly is it?
I am not sure I have this right, and I welcome corrections, but I think this political formula is a form of paradox, in the sense of "a self-contradictory statement that at first seems true." I haven't been able to find a good example of exactly this type in Wikipedia's list of paradoxes, so I will (for now) call it the Model T paradox, after the statement about that car and loosely attributed to Henry Ford: "You can paint it any color so long as it's black."
The essence of a Model T paradox (as I'm defining it) is that it is composed of two elements: a "giver" element that makes a sweeping, often generous statement, and a "taketh away" element that negates the first.
The Ford example is clear: "You can paint it any color" grants broad privilege, while "so long as it's black" negates it. Tancredo's example is an interesting inversion, in which the first element is highly restrictive ("I am not for amnesty") while the second negates that ("but I am for letting them stay.")
Of course, accusing someone of asserting a "Model T paradox" in political debate has got no pizzazz, so for rhetorical effect I'm going to refer to this phenomenon less academically as a candidate being "cotton-mouthed," meant to evoke the image of speaking through a mouthful of wadding, as well as the sinister behavior of the snake of that name, and (to the imaginative) the "Bullshit!"-filled line dance I described above.
Ironically, Tancredo himself was a Cotton-Mouthed Tom (see how that works?) elsewhere in that same debate:
Moderator: "Will you work to protect women's rights, as in fair wages and reproductive choice?"
Tancredo: "I will work to protect women's rights. The reproductive choice part of that, if I heard you correctly, is a reference to abortion. The right to kill another person is not a right that I would agree with and support."
There's that "Model T" again: "Women will have their rights, so long as it's not reproductive rights."
This kind of formula has been very widely used by politicians in both parties to straddle the line on stem cells. In the debate the biggest cotton-mouth on stem cells was Governor Mitt Romney, who is against stem cell research but doesn't want to say so:
Moderator: "Mrs. Reagan wants to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Will that progress under your administration, Governor?"
Romney: "It certainly will. ...But I will not -- I will not create new embryos through cloning or through embryo farming, because that will be creating life for the purpose of destroying it."
Once again we ride the "Model T." In a nutshell: "You can do embryonic stem cell research, so long as you don't use embryonic stem cells."
The cotton-mouthed "platitudes [and] obfuscating" that make a Model T paradox are distinct from other kinds of bullshit and deception. They are closest in purpose to statements like "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," but the latter is a flip-flop, implying a change in position over time (at a different point in the debate Romney also copped to a flip-flop on stem cells). In contrast to a flip-flop, a Model T paradox gives the appearance of holding contradictory views at the same time.
This deception is also distinct from flat-out fabrication. Governor Tommy Thompson's stem cell answer, for example, was, "There's research currently going on right now at the Weisman Center in Madison, Wisconsin, that's going to allow for adult stem cells to become pluripotent, which will have the same characteristics of embryonic stem cells..." That is simply wishful thinking, an entirely different type of deceit. (For more on Republicans trying to create reality through rhetoric, recall the White House senior advisor who said "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." And don't miss Language Log today on Stanley Fish on Karl Rove: "Language (or discourse), rather than either reflecting or distorting reality, produces it, at least in the arena of public debate.")
Considering we have been living under an administration that has made a science of deception, our understanding of the taxonomy of their deceptions has been slow to arrive. Fortunately (I guess), the Republican contenders promise to provide an abundance of examples.
I'd be particularly interested in hearing of other occurrences of what I'm calling the Model T paradox; in learning the construct's correct name if it has one; and in other formulas you've noticed being used repeatedly for "platitudes [and] obfuscating," as Cotton-mouthed Tom so aptly put it.