Lately, there’s been a bit of a dust-up over at the ScienceBlogs schizophrenic hive mind over some statements by Mitt Romney. During the course of the kerfluffle, I started thinking about the slippery way words work, and how oddities in our relationships to words affect the way we interpret them. As the fracas was dying down, a related post zinged my way from a different quarter which motivated me to ramble about the whole affair.
It began with Michael Luo writing the following at the New York Times political blog “caucus.”
â€œI believe that God designed the universe and created the universe,â€ Mr. Romney said in an interview this week. â€œAnd I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.â€
He was asked: Is that intelligent design?
â€œI’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design,â€ he said. â€œBut I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.â€
Is this a good sign or a bad one? More exactly, does it signify a move from very bad to less so? Well, tough to say — I don’t think “close reading” is a very useful tool to apply to politicians’ statements. (If this were a letter from Thomas Pynchon, then yes, we should scrutinize it for every nuance of meaning, yet Romney is not a future Nobelist but rather an embryonic Nixon.) Whether a man can be an ally in the struggle for reason and critical thought depends not only upon his ideas, but upon the man himself.
As a person who is moderately informed about biology, I grow nervous when I hear people single out “the human body” for preferential treatment as the desired end product of the evolutionary process. Remember in Calvin and Hobbes when Calvin described the prehistory of Earth from 4.5 billion years ago until today and then announced, “Now, in 1988, there’s me. The acme of evolution!” Satire, almost twenty years ahead of its target. Remember Prometheus, sculpting humans out of clay and stealing fire because all the good tricks had been given to the other animals? The only noteworthy difference between the Greek story and the modern myth is that like Bill Watterson, the Greeks recognized how feeble our bodies are without feral claws and feline night-vision.
Still, maybe one can find a little good in this teleological pandering. (Jason Rosenhouse tries, but PZ Myers isn’t optimistic, nor are Jill and Joshua.) What do I think? Like I said, one must look to the man, not just the words, even if one only wishes to predict what the man might say in different circumstances. The way that Mitt Romney arrives at a statement is not necessarily the way that a theologian or a biology student with a religious background might.
So, one might reasonably ask, what does Romney think the special hand-crafting of the human species implies for us? Does it make us stewards of the environment, or God’s compatriots in completing Creation? (Remember, the first instruction YHWH gave to Adam, back in that garden planted in the land of Eden, was to name all the animals. Genesis says we were naturalists before we were sinners.) Ah, if only:
“This isn’t just some temporary convenience here on Earth, but we’re people that are designed to live together as male and female and we’re gonna have families,” he tells interviewer Mike Wallace, according to an excerpt CBS released Friday. “And that, there’s a great line in the Bible that children are an inheritance of the Lord and happy is he who has or hath his quiver full of them.”
Greta Christina pointed out this tidbit early in the discussion at Rosenhouse’s blog, but most of the ScienceBlogs people have appeared to be more inclined to go haring down that old path, arguing whether those uppity atheists are doing the cause more harm than good.
“What’s at the heart of my faith is a belief that there’s a creator, that we’re all children of the same God, and that fundamentally the relationship you have with your spouse is important and eternal,” Romney said over the course of two interviews, one of which was taped at his vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H.
I don’t have a courthouse nearby to check, but I’m pretty sure that coveting the neighbor’s wife (and servants of both sexes) is down at Commandment 10, with adultery only up at six or seven. Graven images, blasphemy and keeping the Sabbath day were all higher on the Lord’s action item list when he and Moses got together to brainstorm outside the Ark.
Jill of Brilliant at Breakfast summarizes fairly laconically:
You have to admire how deftly he managed to get opposition to gay marriage and an embrace of the “quiverfull” movement in the same paragraph. You know what “quiverfull” is, right? It’s a movement among these lunatics to pump your wife full of sperm every minute that she isn’t pregnant and produce as many people as possible.
See Wikipedia on “Quiverfull”. I wonder why these people don’t call themselves “sorrowful,” since long before Psalm 127 comes Genesis 3:16, in which God says to Eve, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
So. We’ve got a politician whose words fairly ooze with the implication that homophobia is part of the divine plan, and that the statement “Get those shoes off and get back in the kitchen” is an appropriate response to the women’s rights movement. Why am I not enthusiastic about his adoption of the word “evolution” into his vocabulary?
I would have let all this slide and watched the recent blog spat drift into the same grayness as the previous ones, but Joel Achenbach called me back to it.
Every Republican candidate is jockeying to prove he’s scarier than the guy to his left or right. Last night at the GOP debate only McCain took a strong stand against torture. Most of the rest endorsed “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Tom Tancredo endorsed the Jack Bauer method of questioning suspected terrorists. Waterboarding? Whatever!
The presidential hopefuls were asked about their position on “enhanced interrogation techniques, to include, presumably, waterboarding.” This was Rudy Giuliani’s reply:
GIULIANI: In the hypothetical that you gave me, which assumes that we know that there’s going to be another attack and these people know about it, I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of. Shouldn’t be torture, but every method they can think of. And I would…
GIULIANI: Well, I’d say every method they could think of.
And this was Romney’s:
…you said the person is going to be in Guantanamo. I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo. We ought to make sure that the terrorists… (APPLAUSE) … and there’s no question but that in a setting like that, where you have the ticking bomb, that the president of the United States, not the CIA interrogator, the president of the United States has to make the call and enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used. Not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques, yes.
Is anyone else getting that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” vibe? What sort of talk is enhanced interrogation techniques? Just when we were used to calling wars “police actions” and “operations,” they came along and reminded us of political language trickery!
You know we’re deep in the Augean stables when the only guy to speak up is the Libertarian.
RON PAUL: I think it’s interesting talking about torture here — become an enhanced interrogation technique. It sounds like new speak…
I’m a little perturbed that the person taking dictation here didn’t know that “Newspeak” is a proper noun. . . .
Like I said, I was almost accustomed to war being redesignated police action, but when torture becomes enhanced interrogation technique and evolution means “the way God made men straight and women into baby-making machines,” I feel like the enhanced circumlocution techniques of our time have left me far behind.