People Often Mean Something Different Than What They Say

In a welcome return to blogging, Jay Rosen turns his attention to the recent New York Times article on the Tea Party phenomenon, lauding reporter David Barstow’s fine work, but critiquing one paragraph.

The excerpt at issue:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

Here is Professor Rosen reacting to that passage:

David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story… Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable?

Professor Rosen adds:

In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so — despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.

On reading Professor Rosen’s post, I thought immediately about The GOP Speaks, a Web project where I asked Republican leaders at the local level to share their beliefs about current controversies. Before the replies stopped coming back (for reasons I still can’t entirely figure out), I received 27 replies to my questionnaire. In response to my second question — “What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama’s presidency?” — I received replies including the following:

+ “Without question the country has elected a Marxist that hates capitalism and liberty.”

+ “It appears the president is preparing to become dictator.”

+ “The unbridled horse race to Fabian socialism on the one hand, and the fact that there are avowed and unapologetic Communists in the White House being paid by US Taxpayers who are advising the president on domestic policy issues.”

+ “His swift moves towards socialism. He is moving so fast that we may not be able to counter much of what he has done.”

As it happens, I disagree rather profoundly with President Obama’s approach to domestic policy, and on foreign policy I am increasingly dismayed by his assertion of extraordinary, imprudent powers like the ability to assassinate United States citizens without judicial oversight, or his administration’s contention that the federal government doesn’t need a warrant to track the movements of any American so long as it’s done via their cell phone carrier. Put another way, I myself think that on several important issues President Obama is moving us marginally closer to tyranny, as so many recent presidents have done.

Even so, I find it preposterous that anyone believes the United States is on the cusp of impending tyranny itself, or that President Obama is uniquely bad on this metric, or methodically preparing to seize dictatorial power, or that his actions as president are somehow so radical as to be irreversible. Indeed I couldn’t believe that my more animated GOP correspondents believed these things to be true either, even when they seemed to state as much. So I followed up with some of them, pressing them about what exactly they believed, and did additional reporting among other conservative citizens as well, hoping to understand the gap separating the rhetoric they use from whatever their actual beliefs turn out to be.

I found a few things of interest. Foremost is that extreme words like tyranny are almost always useless if the goal is figuring out what on earth someone actually thinks. Five people might tell you that their biggest worry about Barack Obama is his tendencies toward tyranny. Buzz words like this tend to spread. On further questioning, you’ll find one guy means he’s upset that the president might seek a tax hike, while another is literally worried that he’s building secret prisons to house American patriots. The former invocation of tyranny is by far more common, and it doesn’t strike the people who use it as imprecise because they marinate in a political culture of hyper-adversarial cable news, Barnes and Noble bestsellers with hyperbolic titles, and talk radio hosts who cast the political battles between American conservatives and liberals as an epic battle between liberty and tyranny. As the volume of political rhetoric gets turned up, folks eventually lose perspective, and having listened to their very loud stereo for hours, it doesn’t occur to them that on talking to folks outside the room they seem to be shouting. Pin these folks down on their actual beliefs, concerns or objections, however, and often as not they are basically reasonable people whose opinions are no more or less grounded in fact than anyone else.

In the comments to Professor Rosen’s post, Paul Davis writes:

I don’t need a reporter doing Barstow’s job to tell me that the views of the tea party “movement” are nuts, but I do very very much want to get to a deeper understanding of how the people who believe what it espouses can hold the worldview that they do. This is critically important since its reasonably clear that their worldview feels internally consistent to them, just as mine does to me. Barstow doesn’t need to write “Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America” – what he does need to write is a clear account of the things that lead others to believe that it is completely justified by whatever they know about the world.

I’d go a step father: Mr. Barstow, who wrote an excellent story as is, could’ve improved upon it by telling us not just why Tea Party advocates believe we’re on the road to tyranny, but what exactly they mean when they say tyranny. In some cases, their answers will betray a factual misunderstanding of the world, at which point it’ll be appropriate to respond as Professor Rosen would like. Other times, however, they’ll explain that by impending tyranny they believe, for example, that the combination of America’s growing debt and its imploding financial sector mean that Wall Street elites and creditors in China are going to wield ever increasing control over the material well being of American citizens. In other words, fear of “impending tyranny” is sometimes going to be less easily dismissed than Professor Rosen imagines.

I do think Professor Rosen’s observations about the desire of journalists to be innocent in reporting on controversial subjects is often accurate, and that it frequently causes them to refrain from offering relevant information to readers who’d benefit from it. All I can conclude at present is that extra reporting on what exactly participants in political debates believe mitigates the problem. The higher the level of abstraction, the harder it is to judge whether something is a matter of fact, interpretation, or opinion. Would you rather disprove that Barack Obama aims to be a tyrant or that he’s coming to take your guns?

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16 Responses to “People Often Mean Something Different Than What They Say”

  1. mfarmer Says:

    I believe that critics who report on the opposition to progressivism focus on words like “tyranny”, that may be thrown around with lack of care, and miss the underlyng concern over creeping statism. Tyranny is a strong word to use in relation to the reality of tyranny in certain countries past and present, but it’s insignificant in understanding the concerns of the opposition to progressivism. Just like the left’s use of Hitlerism was an exaggeration of opposition to Bush, and concentrating on the Hitlerism aspect would be misleading when trying to understand the left’s problem with Bush. We should accept hyperbole, then move deeper to get understandng. When people see the state take on more and more power, or attempt to take on more and more power, that concern is more important than the hyperbolic use of the word “tyranny”. To answer this opposition to progressivism, one needs only to justify the increased power of the state or confirm it’s a problem, but to deny the fact that the state continues to push for more power over our lives is irresponsible. I think concentrating on the extreme elements of the opposition movement is a diversion from a real problem — one can say that the reality of state power is nothing like the hyperbole, but it doesn’t address what the reality is or whether that reality is a problem or a necessity.

    • sdried Says:

      Sloppy, hyperbolic comparisons of American politicians to world dictators are generally ludicrous but at least the left draws a straight line to Hitler from Bush (both being on the right of the political spectrum). One can’t help but shudder for the state of an education system that produces people who think that politicians can simultaneously be facists and communists or that Mitt Romney’s characterization of Progressives as “liberal neo-monarchists” makes sense.

      • Facebook User Says:

        “One can’t help but shudder for the state of an education system that produces people who think that politicians can simultaneously be facists and communists or that Mitt Romney’s characterization of Progressives as “liberal neo-monarchists” makes sense.”

        Too true. The one that bothers me is “elitist,” which used to mean, “rich guy, living in a rich guy’s world” but since those people tend to vote Republican, you’ve now got millionaires, Ivy-educated wonks and sundry DC insiders calling a bunch of scraggly protestors “elitists.”

  2. sdried Says:

    I think the Tealiban is best understood as the stupid being led by the dishonest. What they represent is identity politics driven by fear, racism and resentment. The movement is the spawn of the militia movement that dogged Bill Clinton in the ’90’s. None of their professed beliefs are honest as evidenced by how, when Bush came to power, they suddenly stopped caring about all of the expansions of federal power they claimed to be incensed about during the Clinton years.

    • leonkelly Says:

      Excellent point about followers ignoring the failings of leadership. Barack Obama is completely sold out to Goldman Sachs. Most on the left stand idly by repeating Jonestown-esque mantras and platitudes about avoiding s financial meltdown and preventing things from being even worse. The rich are getting richer under Obama, and most thinkers on the left choose to ignore it.

      • sdried Says:

        I’m not sure who “on the left” you are referring to. I consider myself to be a Leftist and feel profoundly betrayed by Obama.

  3. justinfrederick Says:

    The left never had a radical group walking around with pictures of Bush as Hitler. So for MFARMER to act like the teabaggers are no different from angry liberals during the Bush Administration is just dishonest and insulting to the left. Last friday Bill Maher ended his show citing a survey of the Tea Baggers. The end result was that just over 2% of them knew that Obama had cut taxes for 95% of americans. I thought this movement was about taxes and they don’t even know that there taxes were cut. I think these poeple are angree like many poeple about economic injustice. But they have been so misinformed by talk radio and fox news that they are being used to push an agenda that goes against there own self interests. There more like victims and I almost feel sorry for them.

    If they call themselves the tea party they should at least be somewhat educated on tax policy. Its hard to understand how anybody could take these poeple seriously.

    • mfarmer Says:


      I would accuse you of dishonesty, also, due to your misrepresentation of what I wrote, but I’m afraid dishonesty is not the issue with your misreading of my post.

      But, going back to my post, the real issue is whether more state power and control is necessary, or if both need to be resisted.

      I could go back to left-leaning blogs and magazine articles and interviews with protesters over the past 6 years and display an incredibly high degree of ignorance on the left, but it would be a diversion from the central issues. All any of this back and forth regarding ignorance on the left and right proves, really, is that public education has failed many people.

      • Facebook User Says:


        Agreed, there is idiocy on all sides (and sorry, justin, but “BUSHITLER” signs, stickers, t-shirts, etc. qualify as “walking around with pictures of Bush as Hitler”). The difference with the Tea Party, 9/12 Movement and others is that they are receiving explicit support from mainstream political institutions and the media, thus legitimizing them. Anti-War protestors barely got a sliver of support from the Democratic Party, and they were portrayed as radicals in the MSM. (And yes, the confluence of official support and MSM “neutrality” is significant. It seems that all one requires to appear “reasonable” is for someone else to insist that you are.)

        As for the State Power question, see “More Government Does Not Equal Less Freedom,” from the “Government is Good” website:

        I only point you there because you seem less ideological than many on the right, so you might be able to read it without your head exploding. (Truth is, I couldn’t have read this article honestly ten years ago, when I was a conservative activist. I would have gotten to the heading, “Government Coercion Can Be Good” and shut off completely.)

      • justinfrederick Says:

        (and sorry, justin, but “BUSHITLER” signs, stickers, t-shirts, etc. qualify as “walking around with pictures of Bush as Hitler”).

        I cant ever remember seeing that on the news. I’m sure it was but I never saw it. That is not the same as the Tea Partiers. Who are on the news somewhere almost every night. Holding conventions that have the republican parties ex vice presidentail candidate as a speaker. Who are haveing meetings with the head of the republican party. As well as the full unapologetic support of the highest rated cable, socalled, news channel. Ya you could find a couple extreme examples from the left but in no way was it a mainstream group like the tea baggers. We all know they are not the same. If you can’t see the difference than I don’t know what to tell you.

        Besides for that, there is clear policy desicions by Bush that were being protested by those poeple. Suspention of habius corpus, unwarrented wire tapping, Torture, spying on libraries, secret prisons, basically the hole patriot act. A number of the policies were that were similar to policies used by Hitler. With that said I think that comparison to any american president shows a lack of class and respect. I was never a supporter of that tactic which was clearly used to get attention.

        However with the teabaggers I’m not really sure how they can justify those comparisons. It seems like they just take any historical figure that was responsibly massive loss of life and compare that figure to Pres Obama. Anything that ends in ism makes them feel smart and him look bad, in their view. Socialist one week, communist the next. But my favorate of all a Fascist, ooowwww. Fascism is were big business and the media control the government. Sound sort of familiar. Mike Huckaby said it best when he said ” our county is more fascist than capitolist”. The President is trying to push back against the interests of big business. In my opinion he is not pushing hard enough. This is just another example of the ignorance of nuts in there mouth tea baggers. They call him a fascist for fighting against big business, which is fighting fascism in our own country.

        As for state power that sound like an issue to debate. To bad we are all to busy being distarcted by this nonsense.

        The teabaggers seen to like the idea of the state controlling who can and can’t get married. The teabagger seem to support the ability of the state to controll the right of poeple to a free trail. The teabaggers like to allow the state to control the sexual prefence of american soldiers. But those things make them feel tough as they teabag away. Why would we want to regulate health insurance companies when we could leave them the freedom to let poeple die while they deny coverage. mmmh I love the smell of freedom in the morning, yummy. Its great to have a system with 60%, millions, of household bankruptsies are caused by our freedom to go to the hospitol when we are sick. wait that doesn’t sound right. Maybe because when the teabaggers positions on policy don’t make much sense. They go all Mel Gibson. Painting there faces, riding around on there high horses, pounding there chests and screaming FREEEEDOMMMM.

      • Sean Nelson Says:

        I agree with most of your points, Justin. It’s been pretty well-documented that the (ahem) “liberal” media coverage of anti-war protests in 2002-2003 was largely negative, while the teabaggers today are pretty much getting a free ride.

        As for the relative merits of fascism comparisons, while I agree that Bush was objectively more fascist than Obama due to his enthusiastic, ideological support for corporate welfare (if the fusion of government and corporate interests isn’t fascism, I don’t know what is), I hesitate to use the word to describe my political opponents because of the historical associations. Alas, the word “fascist” has come to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean, to the point where you can research and write a bestselling book on the subject and still think jailing journalists doesn’t qualify as Fascism but organic produce does.

        One cannot expect some people to be reasonable.

      • mfarmer Says:


        I’ve read this and it speaks to harmless interventions. Broadly speaking, people who are calling for limited government are not calling for anarchy, or even, necessarily, a “smaller” government –they are calling for limited power. The article justifies certain interventions as a way to answer the limited government crowd, saying “See, government can do good”, but this misses the point, and in the article, the author glosses over state power which is harmful — but, it’s the harmful aspects of state power which are the problem. If you remove certain limitations, the government presently in power might not abuse their newfound powers, but subsequent governments might. Government should be limited because people can’t be trusted with ulimited power. The more government power is expanded, the more at risk we are that power will be abused.

      • Sean Nelson Says:

        I don’t think the author would disagree with you that “limited power” is essential. Liberals don’t trust blindly in the government to not abuse its power, hence lefty causes such as Prison Reform, curbing Police brutality, opposition to torture, etc. That’s what a constitution is for. Lately, it’s been elements on the right which have argued that habeas corpus doesn’t apply when the President says it doesn’t, which is as clear an example of indifference to “limited power” as I can imagine.

        So yes, on behalf of leftists around the world, I endorse the statement, “Government should be limited because people can’t be trusted with ulimited power. The more government power is expanded, the more at risk we are that power will be abused.”

        The argument between left and right on the proper role of government seems to be a matter of what each side prefers to spend money on. On the Right, it’s largely defense and business-friendly stuff. On the left it’s caring for the poor and the environment. As a veteran and (one-time) businessman, I prefer the latter vision.

        I just don’t see how it is fair to conclude that the left promotes “tyranny.” If a cop beats you up, you call the ACLU, not the Federalist Society.

      • Sean Nelson Says:

        A clarification: please don’t mistake “On the left it’s caring for the poor and the environment” for an accusation of complete insensitivity to the plight of the poor and environmental concerns. I realize that many on the right believe that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and “free-market solutions work better than government solutions.”

        I disagree with each of these arguments, but I believe that most conservatives make them honestly, if perhaps naively.

  4. kurtfawnigat Says:

    Please stop calling it the “tea party.” They don’t get to change the name they picked because they were too lazy to google it for alternative meanings.
    As to the false equivalency media treatment of said teabaggers, I don’t really see what all the hubbub is.
    People like Palin and the vast majority of teabaggers are essentially a wet dream for the MSM. They can’t call a spade a spade because that would be “advocacy journalism.” And there are precious few points (ratings) to be scored by pointing out the fact that the guy that said, “keep your government hands off my Medicare!” is in fact a moron.
    Far better to hedge your bets and paint the teabaggers as a diverse group of reasonable people with legitimate concerns.
    We certainly wouldn’t want to offend anyone with an “Abort Obama and Acorn, not the unborn” placard. That would be mean spirited.
    I think this guy nails it:

  5. Mark Adomanis Says:


    Well said.

    As someone who studies a rather autocratic country I’ve also noticed the profound debasement of the word “tyranny” which you allude to. Much as words like “racist” and “anti-semitic” have come to nothing more than mean “disagreeable,” tyranny, in contemporary American usage, has come to mean anything other than a full-fledged liberal democracy (with low taxes to boot!). This is, of course, most problematic when one wants to describe an actual tyranny as the rhetorical ante then must be upped to an absurd degree.

    In domestic politics the tendency to use inflated rhetoric is certainly damaging, but in when discussing foreign policy it seems to me it’s even more damaging and, on occasion, downright crippling.

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