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Hillary Clinton Uses Language Games To Scare White Voters

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton went where her campaign previously refused to go: publicly attacking Barack Obama for his membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ, first in a newspaper interview, then again in a press conference. The specific words of … Read More

By / March 26, 2008

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton went where her campaign previously refused to go: publicly attacking Barack Obama for his membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ, first in a newspaper interview, then again in a press conference. The specific words of Clinton's Jeremiah Wright riposte — "He would not have been my pastor," she said to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — convey less about her real motivations than does her decision on where those words would first appear. What the hell is Clinton doing cozying up to a fringe publication like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review owned by a vitriolic plutocrat best known for his hatred of the Clintons?

The answer is that she could trust no other publication to understand, frame, and properly distribute the real message she's trying to express with her sudden revival of the Wright issue. That message: Dear white Pennsylvanian, isn't it clear that black men can't be trusted?

Understandably, Obama supporters reacted with outrage, many of them noticing her use of a racial appeal. Urging us to calm down, Jamie Kirchick writes at TNR that people of all political stripes have legitimate questions about the relationship between Wright and Obama, and Clinton was simply enunciating that sentiment. The statement that we don't choose a family but do choose a church is innocuous.

The thing is, at the risk of repeating myself, context matters. A lot. Take, as an example, a sentence that (I hope) won't hit any political nerves: "Daniel has good penmanship." Here are two cases: (1) You are my kindergarten teacher. Someone asks you about the quality of my handwriting. You answer, "Daniel has good penmanship." (2) You are my boss. Someone asks you to assess my talent and the quality of my work. You answer, "Daniel has good penmanship."

What you literally assert in (1) is identical to what you literally assert in (2). But what you meant to communicate in (1) and (2) could scarcely be more disparate. Whether you succeed in communicating those disparate meanings depends on the competence of your audience not just with the definitions of the words you used and the syntactic rules linking them, but also with the conventions that dictate how to interpret a sentence in a given context. A Martian who had memorized the Oxford English Dictionary and the rules of English grammar and syntax wouldn't have a clue that in case (2), you are actually disparaging me.

Likewise, a Martian would have no idea that "San Francisco liberal" is a reference to homosexuality, that "law and order" spoken in a particular time and place is an incitement to crack down on blacks, or that "neoconservative" spoken in a particular time and place by a particular speaker means "Jew." A Martian would have no idea that a black comedian using "nigger" communicates one thing, and a white comedian using "nigger" communicates something entirely different.

We, however, are not Martians (most of us, anyway). Let's try, therefore, to piece together what Senator Clinton tried to communicate as people familiar with the conventions of political speech and the facts of this particular campaign.

Hillary Clinton could not, as she later claimed, have been merely responding to a question. Her interview was with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a newspaper owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, an eccentric millionaire who spent much of the 1990s funding efforts to prove that Hillary Clinton and her husband murdered Vince Foster and committed countless other crimes. The Tribune-Review's journalistic and editorial values are a reflection of its owner's values. If her intent had simply been to get her message out to the people of Pittsburgh, I'm sure the editorial board of the Post-Gazette — a better newspaper with a larger circulation that isn't owned and operated by a lunatic who until recently was trying to put Hillary Clinton in prison — would have loved to hear from her. Given the news of the past week, knowing the outlook of the Tribune-Review, the most credible explanation for Hillary Clinton's decision to sit down for a heart to heart with Scaife himself (see the picture above) is that she was engineering an opportunity to say something about Jeremiah Wright and frame the resultant coverage to her benefit.

Fine. That's her right and prerogative. The question then is, why would she engineer such an opportunity? What was she hoping to communicate in attacking Obama for being a member of the Trinity Church? The interpretation that she was voicing the legitimate concerns Jamie alludes to doesn't pass the laugh test. Hillary Clinton has no problem whatsoever building, maintaining, and profiting from decades-long relationships with a rogues gallery of assorted crooks and demagogues — including a frightening and frighteningly influential conservative religious clique. (On the other hand, Hillary Clinton's own long-term pastor turns out to be quite the fan of Jeremiah Wright; maybe it's time to choose a new church.)

Clearly, Clinton made the decision to explicitly criticize Obama over his association with Wright because she saw the issue fading from the news while she became a laughingstock for telling risible lies about surviving in a warzone. She did so because she feels the issue can win for her; and the way it can win for her, if it can, is by provoking a white backlash against a candidate who suddenly seems too black. And Hillary Clinton, not being a fool, knows that, too.

Repeat: Context matters. When Jamie, a scrupulous journalist with a legitimate reason for asking questions about Barack Obama and his pastor, says that Obama should have left the church, what he is communicating is that Barack Obama should have left the church. When Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate, says that Barack Obama should have left the church, what she is communicating is that Pennsylvania whites need to vote against the black guy. And if the platform for getting that message out is one gleefully provided to her by a Puccini villain who spent a decade persecuting her — hey, that's politics, right?

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