Contextual chaos

You WISH you could write like me! Image from Racing in Retrospect.

You WISH you could write like me or that you looked this good in hats! Image from Racing in Retrospect.

Lack of context can provide endless amusement, such as when you walk by someone just as she says, “I write like a chimpanzee that’s got a magic hat.”

Pretty much the story of my life. No, really. I’m an absolute master of the random phrase.

It’s not as funny, though, when someone takes something innocuous that you’ve said and twists it to serve his own purpose.

In politics today, that’s pretty much standard operating procedure, so much so that some in the media dubbed the 2012 election the “out-of-context campaign.” It’s by no means a new phenomenon, but it seemed to have reached critical mass in that election on both sides of the aisle.

And as far as I’m concerned, it’s just one more way to lie.


I’ve said before that if we err on the Voices page, we’ll own up to it. I received a note from a reader about a column I wrote citing Rush Limbaugh’s apparent ability to read Barack Obama’s mind (yep, still creepy).

The reader believes I took Limbaugh out of context, and he makes a valid point.

Cartoon by Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

Cartoon by Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

Limbaugh, on his radio show in October 2009, said of Obama’s stance on constitutional issues: “I don’t care if these quotes are made up. I know Obama thinks it.” Actually, he said repeatedly throughout the show that he knows “Obama thinks it.”

Sooo … I’m fairly sure I’m in the clear on context there.

Limbaugh, however, is not, having used not only a thesis supposedly written by Obama (he acknowledged it might be fake, which it was), but also a short soundbite devoid of context from a 2001 panel discussion on the courts and civil rights, broadcast on Chicago’s WBEZ Odyssey program, with Obama and two other law professors. At the time, Obama was a state senator and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. The quote in question:

“If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples so that, uh, I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and—and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay. But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.”

Bruce Plante cartoon published Sept. 12, 2012, in Tulsa World.

Bruce Plante cartoon published Sept. 12, 2012, in Tulsa World.

Using this little soundbite from a 53-minute program, Limbaugh and others (Matt Drudge, John McCain, etc.) decided that Obama was bemoaning the fact that the courts hadn’t worked on redistributing wealth. However, in the extended discussion, Obama notes that the Supreme Court is not the place to tackle redistributive change, as it would go against separation of powers, and it’s not set up to undertake such matters.

The producer of that particular show notes on the WBEZ site that while the station was happy to have its work in the spotlight, context is needed, and provides links to the audio from that episode and other appearances by Obama so people can listen and judge for themselves.

But be prepared: Discussions of constitutional law can be a bit dry.

I still have flashbacks to my Con Law professor in college. He reminded me a lot of Charles Nelson Reilly (no, I’m not that old, but we have the same birthday). I’ll never forget the day he (my professor, not Charles Nelson Reilly) remarked on an old city ordinance reportedly still on the books at the time that designated homes occupied by four or more women as … uh … a very specific type of business. Immediately after  he related that, one of my friends/classmates piped up: “Hey, Bren, don’t you live with three other girls?”

Thanks so much, dude. (OK, we all had a good laugh about it, and our apartment was unsullied.)


Quite honestly, much of this to-do over Obama’s stance on the Constitution was started not only by the lack of context, but overly free translation of what he said. If all you look for is conspiracies, that’s exactly what you’ll find. Not everything is a conspiracy. Except the express line at the store that slows to a crawl the second you step into it, especially if you need to get out quickly. THAT one I’ll concede.

Human, I'm sorry, but it appears this is counterfeit. Or Canadian. I dunno ... Image from

Human, I’m sorry, but it appears this is counterfeit. Or Canadian. I dunno … Image from

My plea: CALM DOWN AND STOP READING YOUR OWN BIASES INTO EVERYTHING! Translation: Perhaps when someone says, “I like cats,” that’s exactly what she means, so don’t read into it that she’s planning on taking over the world, replacing all currency with yarn and feathers and mandating belly rubs every hour.

Whew! I feel better now.


Obama (“You didn’t build that,” et al.) is far from the only politician to be taken out of context, and indeed, he was guilty of contextual piracy himself in the 2012 race.

One campaign ad implied that the $18.5 billion debt in Massachusetts at the end of Romney’s gubernatorial term was his alone. Yes, he added $2.5 billion (a 16 percent increase), but previous administrations built up $16 billion of that debt. And there was that tongue-in-cheek ad deliberately taking Romney snippets out of context to illustrate the concept.

And who could forget Sheffield Nelson’s “raise and spend” ad during the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial campaign against Bill Clinton?

Then there are those quotes that, in or out of context, just don’t speak well of those who said them.

Get this, guys ... Democrats think they're helping women! Ha! I know! Crazy, right? Photo by Susan Walsh/AP.

Get this, guys … Democrats think they’re helping women! Ha! I know! Crazy, right? Photo by Susan Walsh/AP.

Mike Huckabee has said that his “libido” comment was taken out of context; however, it’s really not much better in context, and many Republican leaders, including Reince Priebus, have voiced their disappointment in Huckabee’s choice of words.

Yes, some of the early tweets from two reporters did misquote/truncate Huckabee a little, but they quickly corrected them; the ire over his words, though, remained, and in my mind was pretty much deserved.

Huckabee, though, has tried to spin this as strictly a media gaffe, not his, as if those words didn’t come out of his mouth at all (and more than once).

Considering Huckabee’s past incidences of foot-in-mouth syndrome (Banana republic, anyone?), perhaps he (or Janet) should invest in a muzzle.

And maybe Democrats Rod Blagojevich and Charlie Rangel should think about that too. OK, no maybe about it at all for Blago. The man has no off button.



2 thoughts on “Contextual chaos

  1. Well first of all it took me a bit to get passed the first photo. I am absolutely sure that is Cheetah (more correctly Cheeta) but I can’t remember which Tarzan movie it’s from. I’m pretty sure it must have been from the film “Tarzan’s New York Adventure”! But already I have digressed. But I haven’t really engaged so how could I have digressed? Oh, never mind!

    First of all let me get something off my chest since he is one of the subjects of your expose on “out of context”. Between you and me Mike Huckabee is, to keep it in context and politically correct, intellectually disabled! Now that is probably not something appropriate to state in some journalistic context but it encapsulates my entire repertoire regarding many of the comments and actions of the man.

    I was completely and totally taken with your parody, if I may say, regarding your ‘My Plea’ paragraph and the takeover of the world by cats. I believe that pretty well finishes out the landscape of current day politics and a number of media sources.

    In closing I can only offer you a humble “good luck” when it comes to putting the world back into context and exhuming all measure of bias. To quote a line from “You’ve Got Mail” – “If only….”


    • Today, Alan, you are absolutely my favorite person.
      One of the links I put in (I think … never can be so sure some days) was to a piece by Max Brantley on the adoration heaped on the Huckster, but leavened with the sheer annoyance of Arkansans who’ve seen all his many gaffes, spoken and otherwise. I’ve know of many politicians that are genuinely likable, but I never could see that in him (I get a strong sense of “I deserve everything” from him), and doubt I ever will like the guy much. Oh well …


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