Columnists > Voices

All those in favor, say 'nay'

When a politician &quotpersonally opposes" your agenda, you can count on his public support

Issue: "Ugly truth of partial-birth," April 17, 2004

HAKUNA MATATA,' WHAT A WONDERFUL PHRASE. 'Hakuna Matata,' ain't no passing craze. It means no worries for the rest of your days. It's our problem-free philosophy. 'Hakuna Matata'" (The Lion King).

Here's another wonderful phrase: &quotI personally oppose it." Just fill in the blanks with the direct object of your choice: &quotI personally oppose abortion." &quotI personally oppose gay marriage." Thus inoculated, proceed to whatever you have in mind to do.

John Kerry has spoken: He &quotpersonally" opposes gay marriage. But never fear. He promised at a gay and lesbian fundraiser in San Francisco on Feb. 27 that he will bestow all 1,049 federal benefits upon state-sanctioned same-sex marriages. Gays can file jointly, collect alimony when things sour, and enjoy all the other 1,047 benefits whose ramifications on society Sen. Kerry has doubtless thought through.

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It became necessary for Sen. Kerry to &quotclarify" his halfway-house position of &quotsame basic rights" after the gay uproar following the Massachusetts Democratic candidate's statement to the Boston Globe that he would support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages in the Bay State, so long as it provided for civil unions. Never mind for the moment the teeny-weeny problem that Sen. Kerry's campaign promise brings him into collision with the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which stipulates that federal marriage benefits cannot apply to homosexual couples, and that same-sex union gains in one state are not portable to another. My own fascination is with the &quotHakuna Matata" angle.

&quotI am personally opposed" is a stroke of political genius. Consider the nights of brainstorming and Chinese take-out in some back room that went into that four-word disclaimer. (&quotWith our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us" [Psalm 12:4].) &quotI am personally opposed" is a phrase that brings joy to the hearts of those whose views the speaker &quotpersonally opposes" they know it as the signal that after the boilerplate confession of private moral anguish comes the plenary granting of everything the speaker &quotpersonally opposes."

&quotPersonally" is the operative word here. What would the phrase be if you just said flat out, &quotI oppose it"? That would sound as if you were actually going to stand against it! Ah, but the magic is in the adverb. &quotPersonally" changes the whole ball game. Without &quotpersonally" the issue remains in the domain of public empirical discourse. &quotPersonally" throws up a barrier of subjectivity beyond which no man can peer save the person who invokes it; it is like strolling in conversation with someone and then coming up against a door marked &quotEmployees only: No admittance." Discussion over.

Far from being problematic for Sen. Kerry, &quotI personally oppose it" gives him gravitas. It establishes his credentials as a thoughtful man, a spiritually tormented figure with greatness thrust upon him, whom the fickle finger of fate has placed in a position of making momentous historical decisions. More than that, he proves himself a man willing to subjugate his own personal feelings (don't call them &quotconvictions") for the greater good of his constituency's collective (and ever-shifting) will. What a guy! What humility and self-denial!

But don't look too closely at the phrase. First of all, purely on the logic of it, what does the redundancy &quotpersonally" add to the meaning? What other way is there of speaking than &quotpersonally"? The word is added for its obfuscation value, not its clarification value.

Secondly, parse the phrase &quotI personally oppose it" and it comes out looking like &quotI believe it is morally wrong," or &quotIt goes against my conscience." So then the speaker is in effect saying to you, &quotI believe X is morally wrong, but I will support X, which I believe to be morally wrong." But why would one aspire to the highest office in the land if not to exert moral suasion? For what does Sen. Kerry trade that?

Moreover, one might well wonder at this point what else the candidate is prepared to support though he believes it to be wrong. Finally, one might draw the odd conclusion that one's political goals are safer in the hands of those who &quotpersonally oppose" them than with those who claim to believe in them.

To accuse a politician of lying may be to give too much credit. As C.S. Lewis put it in Letters to an American Lady: &quotI don't say 'lies' because the people who [say] such things are not really capable of lying. I mean, to lie is to say what you know to be untrue. But to know this, and to have the very ideas of truth and falsehood in your head, presupposes a clarity of mind which they haven't got. To call them liars would be as undeserved a compliment as to say that a dog was bad at arithmetic."

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