Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The “Global Test”
John Kerry, Game-Theoretical Semantics and Thomas Jefferson, Liberal Weenie

So, of course there’s a big dust-up about the following:

Kerry said in the debate that the United States had the right to take preemptive action abroad if it "passes the global test, where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

The Bush camp is putting the worst possible spin on this, as usual. The well-known rule of discourse (reflected in game-theoretical semantics) is that if Person A says something vague or ambiguous and Person B doesn’t understand it, then Person B is free to ask for clarification—but it is Person A’s right/responsibility to do the clarifying, not Person B’s.

So, for example, if you ask me who I was on the phone with and I say “nobody,” you could, if you were so inclined, ask me whether I meant that (a) I was on the phone with someone whose identity I didn’t care to disclose or that (b) I wasn’t on the phone with anyone at all (that is, that I was just talking to a dead line). But you would not get to choose one of these interpretations for yourself. And you surely are not entitled to arbitrarily choose one interpretation and then go around telling people that’s what I meant.

That is, if I say something that is unclear, then it’s my right/responsibility to explain what I mean. You do not get to choose the worst or weirdest interpretation and then claim that that’s what I said/meant. As Peirce points out, all human communication this side of pure number theory is rife with vagueness. We live with it all the time, it’s essential for communicating about most things, and we all—when we are being civil to each other—know how to deal with it: we ask utterers to clarify their utterances.

Kerry’s utterance is open to several perfectly reasonable interpretations, and I can’t imagine any sensible person giving it the interpretation the Bushies are proposing. It is simply not reasonable to interpret Kerry’s words as meaning that we were going to ask for France’s permission before we undertook to defend ourselves. Kerry himself has made his intentions about this very clear. The fact that the Bush campaign has once again stooped to new lows in contemporary American political discourse shows how (a) dishonest, (b) ruthless, and (c) desperate they’ve become.

What Kerry said reminded me immediately of the following lines, lines that have come to mind many times since the run-up to the invasion of Iraq began:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

A decent respect for the opinions of mankind does require that we make our reasons public and guarantee that they are cogent, as Mr. Jefferson and the Founders recognized. The Bush administration has demonstrated nothing but contempt for these principles, as they have demonstrated contempt for democracy by distorting Kerry’s position on the question. Fearful that they will lose the election if the public understands Kerry’s real positions, they have undertaken yet another propaganda campaign to distort the facts and make the better argument seem the worse.

If Jefferson were alive today, he’d be outraged.

In response the Bush camp would, no doubt, point out that he fathered black children and spent an awful lot of time in France...


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