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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Straight Talk” with John McCain

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John McCain, 2010 © Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock

September 03, 2018 06:59 EDT

After the death of John McCain, the senator’s admirers speak with effusive praise about his celebrated candor.

The death and funeral of John McCain, a Republican senator and former presidential candidate, have provided a pretext for reflection, if not yet another “momento de la veridad” in the never-ending bullfight known as the first presidential term of Donald Trump. A bullfight in which it’s never clear who’s the bull and who’s the matador, but in which plenty of BS is tweeted and spread across the arena on a daily basis.

Admirers of Trump and many of those who voted for him in 2016 excused his grossest and most bigoted comments on the grounds that he shunned hypocrisy, spoke up, offered “straight talk” and didn’t beat around the bush the way political candidates tend to do.

Now, after the death of McCain, the senator’s admirers, including Democrats and liberal pundits, speak with effusive praise about his celebrated candor, with Paul Kane even attributing to him a dance step in the corridors of Congress labeled the “Straight Talk Shuffle.”

Trump’s notorious disrespect of war veteran McCain, which started during the election campaign, continued after winning the presidency and culminated after his passing leaves us with a quandary. What do we mean by straight talking, and why do we automatically think it’s a virtue?

In an article published last week in Fair Observer, Peter Certo observed that “the ‘straight talk’ people praise John McCain for is actually what most of them can’t stand about politicians: They say noble words but cast ignoble votes.” So let’s try to get a deeper sense of what straight talk means in US culture

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Straight talk:

Speech without nuance that people take as sincere mainly because it lacks nuance and perspective

Contextual note

US culture elevates assertiveness to the status of cardinal virtue, alongside “speaking out.” This explains why those who take the trouble to use nuance and develop perspective have traditionally been deemed irrelevant and been disparagingly branded “eggheads” (“out-of-touch with ordinary “people”), if not pussies. This leaves a wide field open to admire those who make rash statements that seem to reflect deep personal feelings as well as hardy decisions based on incomplete reflection.

Another Fair Observer contributor, Matthew Kolasa, praises Madeleine Albright’s latest book as an example of the “clear, plainspoken language of a diplomat,” a description which most clear-sighted observers of geopolitics and even a rudimentary understanding of diplomacy would qualify as an oxymoron. The one thing diplomats are not — and must not be — is plainspoken. By definition they are the puppets of policy, as Albright has been throughout her career, where she consistently demonstrated her capacity to suspend even elementary moral judgment to align with whatever policy and interests she has been asked to defer to.

Who can forget her “plainspoken” words to justify Bill Clinton’s policies that resulted in the sacrifice of 500,000 Iraqi children: “[T]his is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.” What is telling about Albright is her “language of a diplomat” is the clearly pronounced “we,” indicating that she is willing to affirm a position that may or may represent her own “straight talk.” This further complicates our attempt to understand what straight talk may be in the mouth of anyone involved in politics or diplomacy.

Historical note

In one particularly sentimental and sloppily composed tribute to McCain, Matt Bai believes he has put his finger on the late senator’s essence: He “embodied the one thing we miss most in our politics right now, which is a sense of perspective.” Perspective is something Bai could have used — or at least thought more deeply about — before penning that sentence. Still, we would be wise to remember that, as Certo implies, compared to Trump, the absolute narcissist, everyone appears to have a superior sense of perspective.

We come back to the question, then, of why perspective is so undervalued in US culture that a commentator like Bai doesn’t even take the time to reflect on what it is. The answer may be found in Kane’s previously cited article on McCain in The Washington Post. In a suitably ambiguous statement, he describes the situation where one is “never quite sure which side McCain would end up on a given issue, but [one is] always knowing that if there was a big fight happening, he would be in the middle.”

Being in the middle of Beltway Republicans and Democrats is thus all it takes to develop perspective. At best such perspective is binary, taking into account two formalized points of view. But the notion of perspective goes beyond binary opposition and the search for compromise. It embraces points of view beyond the terms of a particular debate.

But to say so, of course, puts one in the category of egghead. So let’s just let the competing straight talkers — Trump, McCain, Albright and the others — tell us what we need to know and need to think… and then choose the one that most suits our straight feelings.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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