California Forum

Candidates, stereotypes and nonsense

Opinion writer Gerald Haslam says that presidential wannabes like Sen. Ted Cruz can be less than subtle in their quests for attention, and they don’t seem to recognize that there are unfortunate consequences when politicians dishonestly vilify elected officials.
Opinion writer Gerald Haslam says that presidential wannabes like Sen. Ted Cruz can be less than subtle in their quests for attention, and they don’t seem to recognize that there are unfortunate consequences when politicians dishonestly vilify elected officials. Abaca Press

Presidential wannabes can be less than subtle in their quests for attention, especially when they aren’t doing particularly well.

Recently Sen. Ted Cruz danced around reality when he asserted: “There are unfortunate consequences when the president of the United States repeatedly vilifies law enforcement and when that rhetoric is amplified by the Department of Justice, when it’s amplified by politicians across the country.”

So, of course, two African American politicians – President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch – are vilifying law enforcement because a persistent stereotype says African Americans do that.

Well, nothing the president has said would lead me to assume that blue lives don’t matter to him. Quite the contrary: His view is far more nuanced than that.

Cruz, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to recognize that there are unfortunate consequences when politicians of either party dishonestly vilify duly elected officials. I’ve read statements from Obama praising and questioning law enforcement based on different circumstances. Unlike simpleton critics, he seems to actively evaluate each situation.

In 1950, a future Republican senator, S.I. Hayakawa, observed that “culture is the accumulation and passing-on of traditional nonsense, as well as of traditional wisdom.”

Our culture has harbored far too much traditional racist nonsense, a willingness to believe the worst about people whose only real issue is that they are different from us. Too often we stress cultural differences and assume the worst about others while ignoring obvious commonalities.

There certainly has been no shortage of malarkey when it comes to evaluating police or politicians, especially when they are generalizations. “All conservatives are …” “All liberals are …” “All cops are …” The actual answer, as Hayakawa pointed out, is “all are not the same, and each must be judged as an individual.”

Ironically, because the president is half black, he is often thoughtlessly stereotyped by racists who can’t accept the reality that he’s in the White House. As the popular joke goes, it’s the brown house now. It’s certainly a more accommodating house than it used to be, one that seems accessible to Americans of all stripes.

Many attacks on Obama for being pro- or anti-police, like Cruz’s, are weasel words juggled for unearned advantages.

To avoid confusing them for reality, general semanticists like Hayakawa long urged the use of index numbers to clarify political stances by indicating variation within semantic categories: Republican 1 (Trump), Republican 2 (Fiorina), Republican 3 (Carson); Democrat 1 (Obama), Democrat 2 (Clinton), Democrat 3 (Sanders), etc. This stresses that their differences are as important as their similarities, a truism that seems abundantly clear this election season.

This nation has been going through hard times indeed, as it learns to escape from long-held stereotypes of cops, of blacks, of gays, of women, of Catholics, of Muslims and so on.

Hayakawa long ago urged that instead of offering slanted interpretations of reality, we present verifiable evidence, not subjective interpretations of facts.

Just because colorful Facebook posters urge “Share if you believe Obama is a Jamaican” or “Share if the Holocaust was a hoax,” it doesn’t offer evidence of either assertion, but it does show that nuts, too, can press keys. Those sentences are variations of what are called valuative statements that tell you more about the speaker than about the ostensible subject.

Such utterances, Hayakawa and others long ago pointed out, reduce more or less complex ideas in simplified, convenient ways. Unfortunately, “convenient” and “accurate” are different categories, so beware.

In the political season, some speakers seem convinced that they can overwhelm verifiable reality with opinions and lies until only their self-serving interpretations remain. As none other than Adolf Hitler notably observed: “What luck for rulers that men do not think.”

Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”

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