Friday, January 23, 2004

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Mark Kleiman on Clark and Kerry (and Tacitus and Instapundit and Limbaugh)

Mark Kleiman makes a very strong case in defense of Clark.

An important point Kleiman emphasizes: Clark's putative denegration of Kerry came in response to a dig by Bob Dole, who said that Kerry's victory in Iowa had "turned the General into a Colonel." Now, that's the kind of comment that is virtually designed to elicit a sharp response. That, plus the fact that there are perfectly reasonable, non-insulting interpretations of Clark's response, make me inclined to think that this is just another instance of the Blogospheric Spinmeister 5000 Dis-Interpretator (tm) in action.

The BS 5000 has many uses, of course, but here's the relevant one:

Take a very large number of things someone says. Place them in the centrifuge of the BS 5000. Turn it loose and let it spin feverishly for awhile. Look inside. Voila! ( <-- French word) The BS 5000 will have separated the content of what was said, allowing all of the uninteresting (i.e. reasonable) interpretati0ns to dissipate. Left in the bottom of the BS 5000 will be a coating of sludge formed by concentrating the potentially nefarious interpretations. In the blogosphere, this slimy residue is called 'fact'.

We all do it. You know we do. It's so easy, who can resist? And not only are there few social sanctions against this kind of thing, there are actually social rewards. You actually get popular in the 'Sphere for doing it.

Of course, the BS 5000 can also be used in the other way, to filter out injudicious or unflattering content in order to make the speaker seem more virtuous than he really is.

Perhaps that's what Kleiman (and I) did to Clark's words, but I don't think so. I think these Clark cases, like so many cases of interpretation, are fuzzy and underdetermined by the evidence available to us. But nobody is really interested in writing or reading about how we can't tell what someone meant. Add to this the fact that, when one is in an information deficit, one tends to rely more heavily on background information--so if X says something ambiguous, and I already think that x is a good guy, I'll be more likely to interpret his words charitably. I've tried to correct for this reaction, but of course am not in a very good position to determine whether or not I've succeeded. Anyway, in the end I think: Clark's words were consistent with Tacitus's interpretation, and consistent with Kleiman's interpretation. The latter interpretation, however, seems slightly less strained, slightly more plausible, and my guess is that that is how a reasonable person with no dog in this fight would interpret them. I could be wrong.

Interpretation is hard. That's what makes it prone to error and abuse. Perfect material for the BS 5000.


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