Monday, January 24, 2005

Clinton v. Bush

This post says it all:
"Depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." --Clinton Administration

"Depends on what the meaning of the word 'torture' is." --Bush Administration
For all the conservative fury at Clinton's evasions, at least he was lying about something relatively innocuous, whereas Bush is evading his responsibility in much more serious moral crimes.

(Link via Andrew Sullivan.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, your framing of this issue is flawed in several respects.

First of all, you are comparing a non-fictional quote from Bill Clinton (and labeling it as a quote from the Clinton administration) and comparing it to a fictional quote made by an entity, which you call the Bush administration. Clearly, these words are not from George W. Bush. It is interesting and deceptive to transform an actual quote from a real live flesh and blood person, and attribute it to an abstract entity (the Clinton administration), and then take a fictional quote and attribute it to another abstract entity (the Bush admnistration). This creates a false parallel, which creates some sort of intuitive appeal for the deeply flawed comparison.

Second, you fail to deal with the substance of the issue. The quote by Clinton, assuming he did not misspeak, was absurd, unnecessary, and obviously an irresponsible attempt to avoid telling the truth. (Perhaps this is somewhat understandable. Who wants to tell the truth about an affair.) Really though, to be more charitable to Clinton, he probably misspoke. He probably meant to say it depends on what the definition of sex is. Clinton had oral sex, but not intercourse. This surely would have come out in further questioning; Im not sure Clinton was truly trying to be deceptive. In fact, he has a point. You do have to define sex more specifically to answer the question. He does not want to leave a false impression that he engaged in intercourse after all.

The idea that torture must be defined is true and necessary. There is a legal definition of torture which is not necessarily intuitively obvious. Clearly, when dealing with someone like the architect of the 9/11 attacks, it is useful and necessary to know what the legal definition of torture is, so that policy determinations can be made with respect to interrogation. This is actually a difficult problem, especially since some definitions of torture include activities which most people would not intuitively believe to be torture, for example, certain forms of mental distress. For the purposes of providing guidance, it is necessary to see what the exact legal requirements are, since it is possible in the abstract that some forms of interrogation that some people would think are reasonable are actually legally prohibited. The legal lines must be found so that the policy lines can be drawn in accordance with the legal lines.

Anyway, ultimately, I think it is clear that the comparison of Clinton and Bush, in this context, is clearly off base. There are few real parallels, beyond the mere idea that defining concepts is necessary. For Clinton, it was necessary to define sex since he wanted to be clear that his wrongdoing consisted of oral sex rather than intercourse. The definition in the Bush case was not necessary to explain wrong doing, but rather to formulate interogation policy. But then, by creating false parallels, one can deceptively make two very different things appear similar. This is a good example of the power of propoganda. 

Posted by David Welker

1/25/2005 04:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously I know that the parallel between the two quotes is not literally accurate. The quotes are supposed to quickly sum up the essential dishonesty of a whole set of actions. There is still a role for representation and metaphor in political discourse.

Definitions are certainly necessary in each case, but this statement misses the point. Clinton tried to use definitions to say he wasn't "really" having sex even though most people would agree that oral sex is sex of a sort, or at least it's sex enough for us to be scandalized. The Bush administration has issued a memo that defines torture such that only "severe pain" equivalent to organ failure or death counts as torture, thus eliminating things that most people would agree is torture (rape with foreign objects, electric shocks).

Obviously attempting to define torture is not inherently evil - the problem with the Bush administration has been to define it incorrectly in a way that tries to get around prohibitions on turture, just as Clinton tried to evade the charge of having had sex with Monica by saying it wasn't "really" sex. In each case, the definitions that they have come up with are evasive. 

Posted by Andrew

1/25/2005 10:10:00 AM  
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