Friday, May 4, 2018

Did Comey Learn His Monkey Trick from Adam Schiff? - Henry Scanlon

by Henry Scanlon

It isn't just rhetorical gymnastics and sleight-of-hand, although that's part of it.

How the heck do they do it, Comey and Schiff? Each can deliver a string of half-truths, contradictions, outlandish obfuscations, distortions, misrepresentations, and even preposterously self-serving whoppers in a way – and here's the monkey trick – that makes him seem, on balance, and taken as a whole...reasonable.

Anderson Cooper dinged Comey pretty hard, and then Brett Baier absolutely hammered him, but if you don't know the underlying facts, the contradictory things previously said; if you don't know the history of vicious predation; if you don't realize that the narrative is rife with holes and implausibilities; in short, if you are not paying very close attention, it all comes off as a guy reading off the latest baseball statistics or offering a favorite recipe for shrimp and grits – what sounds remarkably like the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but which is fully, completely, shrewdly exsanguinated. There is no blood, no guts, no there. A recitative... It's as if, rather than being a participant in the events under discussion, they are reviewing a movie, each a dispassionate critic passing aesthetic rather than moral judgment from the vantage point of a merely observing (and therefore unaccountable) audience member.

Weirdly, it seems to work: they come off as reasonable guys, giving reasonable answers in good faith and with innocent intention. Somehow, the fact that none of it hangs together and all of it is self-serving fails to register. As such, they get a pass.

Here's the way Jonah Goldberg put it in a tweet:
I don't think people appreciate Adam Schaff's [sic] incredible talent to sound above the fray, non partisan and more in sorrow than in anger, while being hyper partisan.
It's odd, even a bit creepy. How could stuff that tendentious, that self-serving, that shaded, slanted, and purposefully obfuscatory, come off as so...not that?

It isn't just rhetorical gymnastics and sleight-of-hand, although that's part of it. "That's not my understanding"; "That's not my recollection"; and "That's a fair point, but I don't see it that way" are all useful dodges to get nettlesome accusations and implications to ricochet off into more comfortable pastures. But it's actually something else: look closely, and you'll see that the primary ingredient is – no ingredient. That is, no emotion. That is, no human emotion. That is, not reacting as you and I would if we were caught in a lie, an exaggeration, a deflection, or an obvious contradiction.

You and I would get indignant and defensive, even if we tried to hide it. Our voices could rise a pitch. Our body language would reveal our discomfort; we might even squirm a tad. So, too, if things were going the other way, if we were making an accusation, pointing out a wrongdoing; if we were attempting to imply malfeasance, mendacity, or criminality on someone else's part, we might appear, at the very least, chagrined if not aggressive. "J'accuse!" There would be some hint of humanity in our behavior, some revelation of our inner shock or contempt or indignation, our humanity.

But watch Comey and Schiff. Nothing. Emotional flatline. Only well saddled and judiciously inserted regret, a kind of ruefulness that their high-throned fealty to truth-telling requires them to reveal things that, yes, others would no doubt find upsetting, even shocking, but they, Spock-like, merely report. "I never could have imagined saying this, but..." is a phrase designed to mask one's feeling about the behavior itself while crafting theatrics of disappointment that one has (unfairly, but who's complaining?) been put in the position of having to reveal it.

But since they, themselves, have no dog in the fight, only the obligation of duty, their posture, demeanor, voice intonation, and anodyne rhetoric accurately reflects the neutrality of their purely public-service motivations. This allows them to employ – which they both do constantly – the incredibly weaselly technique of invoking their access to privileged, classified information to imply without actually saying it that they have seen the goods on their opponent, things you can't see but they can, or have, but then, at the same time, due to their vaunted commitment to honorable behavior, "I can't talk about that." As in: "Yes, I know whether Joe Blow is a wife-beating, drug-addicted child predator – but I can neither confirm nor deny it." Guess how Joe Blow is faring in that little exchange!

It's a trick. It works, and it's a lot harder to do than they make it look. If you can convince people you are not involved in what you are saying, merely a messenger whose internal ethical rudder compels fealty to truth-telling with disregard for the consequences those truths might engender, your words will tend to be taken at face value, rather than as a calculated attempt to implement a particular strategy such as exonerating yourself or incriminating an opponent. That's the irony: it's all about emotion, or the lack of it, rather than substance. If you can say it in way where you can convince people you don't care about the implications, or, at least, you don't care to manipulate those implications, you come off as righteous.

It's unclear how the two of them got so good at it, but they certainly are. As Comey's day in the spotlight approached, did he take note of Schiff's technique, on display incessantly as Schiff eagerly galumphed from one friendly camera-op to another?

If Comey did, the chances are he's starting a chain. There will be others, because it works, and people are taking note. Watch for it. We may be witnessing the ascendancy of the robo-politician, and the only way to derail it might be a degree of determination to hold their feet to the fire that most of the mainstream media have no desire to do, even if they had the ability, which, these days, they don't. (Gee, thanks, Columbia Journalism School!)

All of this recalls, somehow, and maybe incongruously, the day in 1958 when Yankees manager Casey Stengel was summoned to give testimony in Congress. (The issue was whether baseball should be allowed to keep its monopoly status, but no matter.) Stengel was considered by many to be a crackpot and by many others to be a crackpot genius. He was asked one question. One. He proceeded to give an early clinic on how to appear cooperative and sound sincere while serving up a completely incomprehensible word salad designed to avoid even a scintilla of actual responsiveness or accountability. It was a meandering, soaring masterpiece of rhetorical acrobatics. Every time he began to teeter on the high-wire, threatening to fall and crash to earth, he somehow regained his balance and instead surged forward with increased momentum. This went on until, finally, he arrived at not so much a conclusion as a random stop in mid-sentence, nevertheless, apparently, done. The room sat in stunned silence, utterly incapable of figuring out what to do with all this. Finally, the chairman regained enough presence of mind to ask the next witness, Mickey Mantle, if he had anything to add. The Mick leaned into the microphone and said what was perhaps the only thing that could possibly be called for. "My views are just about the same as Casey's."

Believe me: Casey and The Mick have absolutely nothing on Adam and James.

Henry Scanlon is a writer and photographer from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. See more at Twitter: hscanlon33.


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