Maybe it’s time to stop applying Pinocchio to Mitt Romney and start quoting Alice through the Looking Glass. I am referring, of course, to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s penchant for lying.
While Romney’s primary opponents, especially Newt Gingrich, were frustrated that the media didn’t call Romney out enough, the perception of him as a liar is starting to gain traction. Everyone acknowledges the old saw—there’s lying, there’s damn lying, and there’s politics—and in all fairness we need to acknowledge that Obama upon occasion has lied. (For instance, to get Labor votes in 2008 he was willing to give the impression that he was against open trade agreements, even though he favored them.) Romney, however, has been taking lying to a whole new level. As Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson notes, “There are those who tell the truth. There are those who distort the truth. And then there’s Mitt Romney.”
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has long accused Romney of running a “post-truth campaign,” while blogger Steve Benen compiles a weekly list of Romney lies that sometimes contains as many as 20 items (he calls it “Mitt’s Mendacity”). Blogger P. M Carpenter, in an overwrought post, sees Romney as a cross between Dorian Gray and Elmer Gantry and writes,
There no longer exists any doubt that Mitt Romney intends to win the White House by conducting the most dishonest, unscrupulous and reprehensible campaign ever devised, in mere whimsy. The unethical stench of this man is not only breathtaking, it’s meteoric. I have never seen anything like it, never heard anything like it, never imagined anything like it.
Puzzling to liberal commentators like Dana Milbank of The Washington Post and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC is that Romney lies even when he doesn’t have to. Maddow is also dumbfounded that the lying is unaccompanied by any sense of shame:
Mr. Romney gets caught saying things that are factually wrong, and the thing that is different about him is that he does not mind; he doesn’t fix it; he doesn’t even try to worm out of it. He doesn’t appear to feel any shame about it at all — and he’s happy to keep telling the lie once he knows it is a lie.
This is why Pinocchio may not be applicable. After all, the Carlo Collodi novel has a talking cricket who functions as a conscience, and even though Pinocchio kills it early on (in the book, not the movie), it returns as a ghost cricket to guide him (and to be ignored) throughout the book. Furthermore, there are well-known consequences for Pinocchio’s lying—his nose gets longer, he almost turns into a donkey, and at one point the fox and the cat hang him and he almost dies. (The book is much darker and more heavy-handed than the Disney film.)
But if there are no crickets or consequences, what kind of world are we in? What does it mean if, as Krugman puts it, there is “no real penalty for running an utterly fraudulent campaign.” What does it mean if, as Emily Theroux writes in a useful blog post summing up Romney’s lying, the candidate lies “simply because he can.”
According to the always astute Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, it means that Romney is on to something:
This discovery — that you can tell almost any lie without paying a price — is, in some sense, an example of national politics becoming a lot more like local politics. Blatant lying has always been routine in local races that don’t get a lot of press coverage, but the brighter media spotlight kept at least a bit of a lid on it in higher-profile races. However, with the splintering of the mainstream national media in recent years and the rise of the web and social media, national politics is local again. And being called on your lies by the occasional earnest fact checker now matters about as much as it does when a local columnist for a weekly newspaper calls you on it.
It takes a while for people to realize that norms have changed and to take advantage of it. Lots of politicians are probably still reluctant to lie too brazenly because they’re still working under the old rules, where the national media might call you on it and it might actually make a difference. The smart ones have figured out that this isn’t how it works anymore. Romney’s one of the smart ones.
If this is the case, then maybe it’s time to turn to a work where all the normal rules are suspended. I’ve applied Carroll’s Alice books to contemporary politics before (links to previous articles can be found at the end of today’s post), especially the way that characters contend reality can be what we say it is. Thus Romney could be seen as Humpty Dumpty in the following interchange with Alice:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
The second Alice book occurs in a mirror world where Alice is constantly thrown off balance by inversion, and this seems to be a deliberate Romney strategy. As Romney’s Republican opponents and Obama have discovered, anything can be turned upside down. Whenever you charge Romney with something, be prepared to be targeted with the same charge. Anything you say can be turned upside down and then leveled at you. In a blog post entitled “Romney’s Rules,” Andrew Sprung identifies 12 rules in this new game. Here are six of them:
1. Context doesn’t matter. Anything you say I may use against you, e.g., by making it sound like you said the opposite.
2. My record shall be judged by different standards from that of my opponent. For example, job losses in my first year in office don’t count; in his, they shall define his entire record.
4. When confronted directly with past positions that seem to contradict current ones, I may so thoroughly bend the positions back against each other that none shall be able to penetrate my paradoxes.
5. I may erase the memory of my record of past moderation by attacking my opponents for their imagined moderation.
11. I may simultaneously level mutually exclusive charges against my opponent.
Lewis Carroll was a mathematician who was fascinated by inversions, negative numbers, and the like, so Sprung may be on to something as he tries to find a logical internal order to what Romney is doing. In other words, forget about anything being tethered to truth. We have entered the realm of pure language games.
Alexander Pope, in the Dunciad, was struck by this aspect of mathematics when he saw his civilization going down the tubes. While he sees logic, rhetoric and morality lying in chains—they’ve been overwhelmed by sophistry, obscenity, and legal trickery— he describes “Mad Mathesis” as a branch of learning that is allowed to run free:
Mad Mathesis alone was unconfin’d,
Too mad for mere material chains to bind,
Now to pure space lifts her ecstatic stare,
Now running round the circle finds it square.
As I watch Mitt Romney run for president, I wonder if he thinks that he has found a special “get out of jail free” card. It’s almost like words are a special toy that can always be “mastered” to insure that you come out on top. If people are astounded by the effectiveness of your approach, that’s because they assume there has to be some relationship between language and reality, between signifier and signified. They don’t understand looking glass politics.
In past posts on Lewis Carroll I’ve noted that eventually Alice wakes up. I’m praying that America will as well.
Other posts on Lewis Carroll applied to American politics: