The Clinton camp, Emily’s List and seemingly all of Left Blogistan are up in arms about an offhand comment MSNBC’s David Shuster made in discussing Chelsea Clinton’s role in her mother’s campaign. The furor led, this afternoon, to Shuster’s suspension by the network.
Here’s the clip in question:
So let me see if I can parse what’s really going in this case, and I’ll begin by saying that I have no relevant opinion on Shuster beyond this instance. I don’t watch him and for better or worse he’s not part of my media or news landscape.
Let’s start here: what do we really believe Shuster said?
Do we think he is suggesting that the Clintons are literally whoring their daughter out? That seems unlikely, right?
Do we believe this is what he actually thinks? Do we think this is what he intended to communicate?
Or do we understand him to mean there’s something not entirely kosher or appropriate about how the campaign is using Chelsea?
If the latter, then I take it we all pretty much know what he means, right? That is, we’re intelligent enough to understand that the term “pimping” can be used in multiple ways, and that we, being fluent speakers of contemporary English, get precisely the intent of the word as used in the context of his comments?
No, I don’t think any of us could be led to believe that he meant it as a compliment, but how far out of bounds would I be if I were to suggest that the furor we’re seeing this afternoon isn’t entirely honest, intellectually speaking? I mean, if this is the most appalling thing that is said during this campaign, we’ll know we’ve entered a new golden age of civility in political discourse.
Trust me, folks, I get the signification power of language. I spent plenty of time in doctoral seminars surrounded by people who could be described as radical constructionists – that is, they believe that socially speaking there’s damned near no such thing as actual, objective reality. It’s all – all – constructed, primarily through language. Language doesn’t just express thought, it dictates what can be thought. And so on.
So please, let’s have no lectures on the power of language, etc.
I get a little nervous when we wander so close to this precipice: what you intended is of absolutely no importance, even if I clearly understood it. The only thing that matters is who wins the ensuing media football game. This isn’t new, of course. It’s merely a public media bubbling up of an academic project that began decades ago with de Saussure and the Structuralists, and which has been force-marched to its illogical extreme by a generation or two of radical deconstructionism. There is no such thing as an individual. The subject is a myth. There is no such thing as authorial intent – because there is no such thing as an author. And so on.
Let me relate an illustrative story from several years ago. In a rampaging debate thread on one of my academic lists I got a little annoyed with something a prominent deconstructionist scholar had written (he wasn’t a member of this particular group). So I poleaxed his argument. Somebody on the list knew him (I think the person was a student at the university where he taught) and took my critique to him for comment.
The man’s response was a marvel to me at the time, and still is. In a nutshell he said that he wished he weren’t a post-structuralist/deconstructionist because he thought I was misinterpreting his words. But he couldn’t say I was wrong, because according to his philosophy he really couldn’t assert any ownership of his own intent.
Let me boil that down a bit. He said that I had more right to define the meaning of his writing than he did. I want you to think about this and apply it to your own world for a minute. Imagine living in a situation where your words can be twisted to mean anything and you have no recourse. You literally are not allowed to argue that what you meant matters.
Davis Shuster is not Don Imus, unless there are facts that I am as yet unacquainted with. Imus had established a context where it was impossible not to read “nappy-headed hos” as anything but more of the same. But I see no examples of Shuster as a misogynyst. In fact, it’s telling to read the Emily’s List statement linked above, which has to attack MSNBC not for the prior misdeeds of Shuster, but for its tolerance of bad behavior by other personalities. Surely if there were a bad-Shuster context we’d hear about it there, right? All of which leads me to the conclusion that people aren’t just overreacting, they’re doing so according to a fairly transparent agenda. No attempt is being made to participate in good-faith communication. Quite the contrary. This is about cynical political arm-wrestling.
I don’t have any particluar concern for Shuster, per se, but yes, I do have a dog in this fight. I write a lot, and I damned well have a vested interest in a world where I can own what I mean. We all know that the same words can be used in ways that are innocuous and offensive, and we understand which is which by resorting to inflection, tone, syntax, what we know about the speaker and the forum, and so on. If we choose to ignore these critical communication and meaning-making markers, then we can turn just about any statement into justification for a duel.
If we don’t rely on these meaning-making tools, then fuck everybody, because I can say anything and never be held accountable again, right? If I’m not in control of my meaning, you can’t blame me for anything, right? Right?
I don’t ever want to find myself in the position where I can be punked into oblivion because somebody has the power to assign meaning to my words that never existed. That’s part and parcel of a decades-long corrosive project of deconstructionism, and it does none of us any good.
Unless I’m missing something. And if I am, please enlighten me.