Roger’s Rules

Thoughts on Hyperbole, Obfuscation, and Vacuous Conditionals

Amateur psephologists need strong stomachs. The GNOHO–the Gross National Output of Hyperbole and Obfuscation–spikes dangerously at this point in the election cycle, and many delicate souls have been utterly overwhelmed by the resulting rhetorical effluvia.

Hyperbole is the simplest, most easily recognized, and therefore perhaps the least noxious of the phenomena with which the the election observer must contend. A typical example, in a story about Hillary Clinton’s dismal showing in the Iowa Caucus Thursday night, from today’s New York Times: “Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton,” write Patrick Healy and John M. Broder “have been in career-threatening scrapes before, but never quite like the one they face in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, when nothing less than their would-be dynasty will be on the line.”

Really? How do you spell “Vince Foster“? What do you suppose Monica Lewinsky would have to say about that? Take your time. Have a cup of coffee and–assuming Michael Bloomberg is not around to police you–a soothing cigar. While enjoying those mediative puffs, ask yourself how popular the name “Whitewater” is in the Clinton household or how you would turn a $1000 investment in cattle futures into $100,000 in a mere ten months, as Hillary did back in the late 1970s. (She managed that impressive feat, she said, after “reading The Wall Street Journal,” an edifying exercise that I heartily recommend, though it is with sorrow that I report I’ve yet to experience anything like such spectacular results.

Hillary Clinton’s experience in Iowa on Thrusday may have been “a career-threatening scrape.” Then again, maybe it was just business as usual for a seasoned political trouper who, whatever else can be said about her, by now surely has tough callouses in all the relevant spots.

But as I say, hyperbole, though common, is in many ways the least noxious of the rhetorical gambits with which one must contend. Far more vertiginous is the profligate deployment of VacCon–the Vacuous Conditional. “For Mitt Romney,” writes Howie Carr in the Boston Herald, “it may be one and done.”

Unless something happens this weekend–and debates have not been Mitt’s strong suit this year–he could be going down in the record books as the John Connolly, the Phil Gramm, the Steve Forbes of the 2008 race.

It may may be, Howie; Mitt could be; then again, maybe it won’t and, even though he could have, he didn’t.

Not of course, that Howie has a monopoly on this unfortuante concession: John F. Harries, writing for Politico, usefully assures readers that “Both Clintons’ legacies may rest on N.H.” Thanks for that, John! It’s not even in writing about politics that VacCon is at its worst. Even more egregious is that way it is employed in financial writing. An online investment service warns that “This mistake could cost you a fortune.” Yes, it could; but what if it made you a fortune instead? Dilating on the current credit crunch in the London Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard offer these dire words: “Crisis may make 1929 look a ‘walk in the park’.”

When a credit system implodes, it can feed on itself with lightning speed. Current rates in America (4.25 per cent), Britain (5.5 per cent), and the eurozone (4 per cent) have scope to fall a long way, but this may prove less of a panacea than often assumed.

It can feed; this may prove.

The problem with the Vacuous Conditional is that (as the name suggests) it is absolutely without substance. Hillary Clinton’s defeat in Iowa might mean X; then again it might mean the opposite of X. The stock market just plummeted more than 200 points. That might mean we’re headed for a depression; but it might mean that the economy is taking a short breather before embarking on yet another robust period of growth.

The habitual use of VacCon rhetoric sometimes betokens laudable caution on the part of a writer. Often, however, it indicates a penchant for obfuscatory evasion. You can understand the temptation. Until recently, Hillary was the “inevitable” candidate. Thursday confirmed what many had known for weeks: that notwithstanding her formidable machine she was deeply evitable. How easily a dollop of VacCon rhetoric could have softened the blow: “Hillary might or may be inevitable.” Either way, you win! The moral? That possibility is cheap. Or perhaps I should say: a cheap trick. This is something that Karl Marx knew and exploited. In an 1857 letter to Engels about one of his own election predictions, Marx slyly acknowledged that “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.” How many journalists have, wittingly or not, taken a page from the playbook of that intellectual blackguard.