More on Belief and the Language of Politics

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

This is really an epistemology post, but the question of birth keeps coming up, pushed not just by originators but by the people who love them. Mitt Romney is caught on film saying, in response to a question about the sayings of Donald Trump:

“You know, I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” Romney said. “But I need to get to 50.1 percent or more and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”

We should break this language down, as a poet would. Number one, we could build an entire college course on this sort of hamming as an example of linguistic parsing. Romney here puts the question of relationship as a question of belief, which is a word I’ve come to dislike immensely. The question of Obama’s birth is not a question of belief but one of available records and standards of counting. For example, I just learned today that the number of Civil War dead was mostly undercounted. The question of how many people died is not subject to belief but to the technologies of arithmetic, even though we will never know the precise number. It’s based on available knowledge. And, of course, the technologies of knowledge change over time. Genesis would have been written much differently if the writers had had computer chips.

I have a running joke with history colleagues, people with Ph.Ds, about their own origins. (Note that the degree gives them little armament.) It turns out they themselves only know where they were born based on documents and on what their parents attest to, much like the President. I wrote a whole novel about this joke. I, for example, was born in El Paso, Texas at, well, at the moment, I can’t remember. And the hospital itself doesn’t even exist on any current map because they went out of business. But I do know I was born. It costs money to grab the certificate, which is required for things like travel. Good thing I’m not traveling.

Romney, a smart guy, knows the difference between belief in something and knowing that something is either valid or observably testable. To suggest that those who dispute the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth is simply a matter of belief is irrational and willfully cynical. It’s like a dispute between scholars about how many people died in the Civil War. One scholar says 100 people, another says 700,000. This is not a dispute of beliefs. Worse, if the former scholar says: “Well, I need the grant money, and those who will give it to me believe in a false arithmetic so I have to make shit up, so there.”

No. The eyes are glassy, quod Orwell (paraphrase).

Comments are closed.