That Pesky “Context”…

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, reflecting on the effusive welcome he received in Germany, Obama said the following to a group of House Democrats:

It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions… this is the moment, as Nancy [Pelosi] noted, that the world is waiting for.

Dana Milbank then reported that quote in The Washington Post as follows:

[Obama] told the House members, “This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”

The liberal blogosphere was predictably — and justifiably — outraged that Milbank would so blatantly distort the meaning of Obama’s statement, implying that he was “arrogant” or “presumptuous” (the new right-wing meme), instead of self-effacing and humble, concerning his world-wide popularity.

Today Milbank “responded” to his critics.  He began with this zinger: “I’ve decided to approach today’s chat as a wine writer would. … Today, I am inaugurating the Whine Enthusiast, in which I will rate your whines.”  The real gem came later in the on-line chat, however, when Milbank offered this defense of his butchery of Obama’s quote:

It should be noted, if it hasn’t already, that nobody is questioning the accuracy of the Obama quotes, only the context.

Interesting argument.  According to Milbank logic, it is okay to turn “I do not believe that Obama is a radical Muslim sleeper agent” into “Obama is a radical Muslim sleeper agent.”  After all, the abridged quote is “accurate,” just lacking “context.”  Sure, the “context” directly negates the semantic meaning of the abridged quote. Point that out, though, and you are just “whining”…

11 Responses

  1. When did opinio juris become a flack for Obama?

  2. It’s not about Obama, but about a pliant media that is committed to maintaining its preferred framing of the election — Obama elite, McCain (worth $100,000,000) regular guy, straight talker — at all costs.

  3. When the media’s preferred framing touches on a far more pertinent topic, such as McCain’s “100 hundred year” remark on Iraq, I’m sure you provided a similiar “pesky context.”  Oh wait, you didn’t and wouldn’t–not that I expect you to. 

    The real issue about Obama’s comment is that the modesty and qualifiers you assert as the “pesky context” are false and rather nonsensical. 

    In the statement, Obama says it isn’t about him, but then goes on to say that he is the symbol of what is, in essence, the best of America.  The qualifiers he adds don’t really change what is essentially an enormously presumptuous statement. 

    Boiled down, your argument is “Foolish, Milbank, it isn’t all about Obama.  It is just that Obama represents everything that is pure, good and holy about America.  That’s all.”   


  4. By all means, HLS, since your exegetical skills are obviously so vastly superior to mine, please explain (1) what the “context” of McCain’s remark was, and (2) how saying “it’s not about me at all” actually means “it’s all about me.”

  5. By the way, it’s obviously much easier to be snide — I note the number of condescending “lol”s you’ve used the past couple of days — when you only comment anonymously.  At least the people you mock have the guts to put their names to their comments.

  6. Professor Heller,

    Bear in mind this is coming from a Clinton supporter, but are you really saying that Obama is getting off easy from the media?

  7. Professor Heller,

    In reverse order

    If laughter isn’t appropriate to Gittings statement that Wittes’ argument is served by genocide and mass concentration camps, then I don’t know what is.  Mere derision perhaps?  (It is only 2 Lols btw)

    Regarding Obama’s comment, when he says, “it isn’t about me.”  But then continues to say, “but I represent everything that people hope for in America,” then, yes, it IS about him. 

    Your argument reminds me of a John Stewart joke.  He often jokes that a New Yorker would say, “no disrespect, but . . . (write in favorite personal attack with many expletives).”  According to you, no offence because hey, no disrespect, right?

    About my anonymity, you are entirely correct that I hide behind it (if one can really do that in the internet age).  Unlike you, I don’t have tenure to protect my comments (as I believe you do, but I’m not familiar with NZ titles).  However, more important is that my status as a McCain hack wouldn’t sit well with my colleagues. 

  8. What is this, “Attack of the Anonymous Cowards”?  No, but there have been a couple of OJ posts complaining about media bias against Sen. Obama/in favor of Sen. McCain, which is a rather unique viewpoint.  I do not often see CBS News or the Washington Post accused of having a conservative bias.  It was just recently that supporters of Sen. Clinton complained loudly of a pro-Obama media tilt, recalling one reporter’s confession that ‘It’s hard to stay objective covering this guy.’

    But political bias aside, it is no surprise that journalists will take the juiciest bits out of context in order to write juicier stories.  Nor should it be a surprise that they dogpile mercilessly to follow a narrative storyline.  Sometimes this is consistent with their political leanings and sometimes not, but it helps sell papers.  Does anyone really doubt that Dana Milbank is going to vote for Sen. Obama?  But the full context of Sen. Obama’s loud proclamation that ‘it is not about me’ still seems other than humble and Milbank was right to comment on it (though he should have left the word ‘just’ in the quote). 

    In light of the primary campaign and the book Primary Colors, the Holier Than Thou approach may have been the only angle the Clintons didn’t know what to do with (except look harder for dirt).  But that approach simply may not work as well against a different opponent, for various reasons.  Holier Than Thou did not work against Bobby Rush.  It may be time for a different approach to better connect with voters.  Maybe he should get caught smoking (and have his wife get mad at him).

  9. While I hate ever chopping quotes, I really don’t feel the omissions here make much difference.

    “I have just become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”

    The above is laughably self-important statement unless the context happened to be sarcastic, which no one hear appears to assert.

  10. Self-important?

    What a silly thing to say, as if anyone is confused about the importance of the US presidency. He was simply stating a plain fact, and far from being self-important, what I read there is the profound sense of duty he feels.

    And I know that feeling, not that I have any illusions about my own importance, because I understood that Bush and his gang intended to commit war rimes back in 2001 and I’ve been working night and day ever since to stop them and bring them to justice — not for the sake of profit or power, but for the sake of my children, my grand-son, and humanity itself, including all the demented liars and fools who support these disgraceful gangsters.

    We’ve seen how Bush and Cheney handled their opportunity, and we’ve seen how a victim of torture and war crimes like John McCain was willing to sell out his honor and his humanity by aiding and abetting war criminals and torturers for the sake of his political ambitions.

    There are no issues and there are no options here: the Republican Party is a criminal organization in exactly the same sense that the Nazis and the Soviets were, and John McCain is man who is intellectually and morally unfit to hold any position of public trust, including his present office.

  11. Wow.  You just labeled a large percentage of Americans as being the equivalent of Joseph Goebbels.  That’s an extreme example of the modern legal theory of ‘conspiracy,’ stretching to reach whomever you want to reach.

    And I do believe I recall Sen. McCain being at least as opposed to torture as Sen. Clinton, if not more so.  Perhaps that causes you to indict the 49% of Democrats who support(ed) her; I doubt it.

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