In the recent Townhall sponsored by CNN, Joe Biden was asked about Policemen and other First Responders who are not vaccinated. Should they be mandated to get the vaccine and if they refuse should they be told to remain at home or be let go?
Biden responds: “Yes and yes. (applause) … Look, the two things that concern me: one are (sic) those who just try to make this a political issue. Freedom. I have the freedom to kill you with my Covid. (applause) No, I mean c’mon.” Then, with a dismissive sneer, “Freedom.”
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Love his criticism of those making this a political issue. Wasn’t he the guy who, before the election, told people not to take the vaccine because it was a Trump vaccine? All political calculation on his part.
Just for the record, Biden has a “tell,” which is to say an “inadvertent behavior or mannerism that betrays … true thoughts, intentions or emotions.” Every time Biden says something really, really stupid, he says, “C’mon man” or some variation of it.
On the campaign trail when the question of China as a competitor was raised, Biden answers, “China’s going to eat our lunch? C’mon, man. … They’re not competition for us.” How about challenging Donald Trump to a push-up contest, as if that had anything to do with Presidential leadership: “C’mon Donald, c’mon man, how many push-ups you want to do here, pal?” Stupid. Just stupid.
As for the Townhall, one is at a loss at just what the old duffer thinks he means when he uses the word “freedom.” Does anyone really think they have the freedom to kill someone? If so, that person is a sociopath, not a citizen who chooses not to get a vaccine.
But that’s the motivation Biden attributes to those who would dare oppose his vaccine mandate. And the carefully selected lemmings allowed in the audience by CNN happily applaud his demagoguery.
I will stake any and all I own that there is no person who is choosing not to be vaccinated who believes they thus have the freedom to kill people. Biden is just being stupid, or, if not stupid, super-hyper partisan in demonizing those who dare oppose his dictates.
There actually is a serious point that could be made in all this. In philosophy there are what is known as “verbal disputes,” where disputants get in a row over some question. The classic example comes from William James’s book Pragmatism.
I would illustrate the lesson in my Intro classes by having a student stand behind the lectern. “The lectern is a tree,” I would tell the class, and turning to the student behind the “tree” I would tell him, “You, are a squirrel.”
“Now, simply do as a squirrel would do as I do what I am about to do.” Then, I would slowly start to walk around the lectern. If the student is “with it,” – a sometimes “iffy” proposition – he will start to move also, keeping the lectern/tree between me and himself.
Once I’ve completed the circumnavigation, I would then turn to the class and ask a simple question: “Did I go around the squirrel?”
“Of course,” was generally the first response. “You sure about that?” I would ask.
They’d reaffirm their original judgment even more. Then I would say, “Let me be clear, I am not asking if I went around the tree. I am asking if I went around the squirrel.”
That would set them to thinking. “Wait a minute,” one would finally say. “The squirrel was facing you the entire time, so no, you did not walk around the squirrel.” Some others would agree with her. And then I’d just sit back and watch them all go at each other as to whether I walked around the squirrel or not.
When they were at an impasse, which was the usual result, I’d stop them and explain that the lesson for the day is “verbal disputes” in philosophy. But, of course, it’s not just in philosophy.
The dispute is cleared up when it is pointed out that those who believe I did go around the squirrel have the notion that to “go round” means to start on the northside of the squirrel, then move to the westside, then the southside, then the eastside, then back to the northside.
Similarly – but different – the other group’s notion of “go round” is to start facing the front of the squirrel, then move to the right side of the squirrel, then to the backside, then the left side, and finally back to the front of the squirrel.
So each group was correct, according to their own understanding. The confusion, the dispute, comes when they use the same words “go round,” but have quite different concepts of just what it means to “go round” something.
In the case of William James, he and some friends took a walk in the woods and, after James separated from the group for a bit, he came upon them again in the midst of a raging argument. They were bickering about whether going around a tree on which sits a squirrel is actually to go round the squirrel.
“How can you be so stupid as to think he went round the squirrel” one side would yell at the other. “Stupid!” the other would react, “You have to be an absolute dumbass to claim he did not go round the squirrel.” I’m paraphrasing . And so it would go. Just like a bunch of folks today arguing politics.
James, to his credit, saw the essence of the issue and clarified it to most everyone’s satisfaction. Too bad folks today cannot, or will not, clarify their arguments and judgment so as to bring more clarity and less heat. Some, sadly (think Biden here), deliberately misuse words in partisan ways just to belittle and heap scorn on political opponents. Welcome to the world of politics.
Another philosopher sheds some light on all of this. Ludwig Wittgenstein is an Austrian who ended up teaching philosophy at Cambridge University in England until his death in 1949. He is most famous for his one published book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). It was a dense work that created a sensation in its time.
Despite the initial excitement aroused by it, philosophers today generally reject the book’s findings. It’s too technical to get into here, but the Tractatus is now more a chapter in the history of philosophy than philosophy itself.
It is Wittgenstein’s later work, basically notes and thoughts collected by students and published as Philosophical Investigations, that has cemented his reputation as one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century.
By way of short summary, Wittgenstein believed the story of philosophy is “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” He likened philosophical disputes to a fly in a fly-bottle. Just as a fly is stuck in a fly bottle, people can find themselves stuck and at an impasse, feeling trapped when, let’s say, there is a dispute about what it means to “go round” a squirrel.
Wittgenstein saw philosophy as a form of therapy, in which he would “show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” The key is not to somehow find the correct answer, but to analyze the use of language to make clear what previously was ambiguous and misunderstood, thus dissolving the problem. Much as James did with his friends.
Wittgenstein’s advice when analyzing language: “Don’t think. Look.” Don’t think what a word “is” or represents. Instead, look at how a word is being used. Words get their meanings not from some essence, but from how they are used in context and in ordinary language.
Language is organic. It is built from the bottom up. Language is possible because of the agreed upon uses of words and phrases over time, with a long trajectory of meaning. These agreed upon conventions by the users of language over time are why efforts today to impose gender-neutral pronouns is such an absurdity. Language is not proclaimed from the top down by the self-identified offended and oppressed class. Rather, true language always grows organically from the bottom up.
Certain words may come and go as fads of the moment, but the basic building blocks of language, including use of pronouns, subject verb agreement, word order and use of punctuation, come to be over time.
The goal, of course, is to communicate in a clear and understandable way. An extreme form of clear communication is a lawyerly contract. Terms are stipulated as to exactly what they mean and to that which they refer. All in an effort to achieve a “meeting of the minds” of the parties involved, which is a legal necessity in an enforceable contract.
Ordinary language is messier. It allows for more ambiguity and misunderstanding.
And it takes an irenic soul to look closely at how language is being used in a given circumstance in order to “dissolve” a problem or paradox that arises. These problems, which sometimes result in bitter arguments and occasionally turn violent, occur when, as Strother Martin says in Cool Hand Luke, there is a “failure to communicate.”
When Joe Biden uses “freedom” in his Townhall he presents it as a selfish need on the part of those refusing vaccination that risks the lives of others. Making his best case, he assumes the government is imposing a mandate in order to bring about the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. And in doing so, he demonizes those who dare disagree, calling them killers.
This Utilitarian approach is quite a different notion from those who demand the freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated or not. For them, it is a freedom from government compulsion, from coercion, from federal overreach, which, if allowed, will continue into other aspects of people’s private lives to the detriment of all.
As a rational person, they say, give me the information needed, and not massaged by government bureaucrats for a governmental end, and let me decide. That’s what citizenship is about in a democratic republic. The people decide what is best for them, not a ruling class that lords over them.
Personally, my wife and I have been vaccinated. We chose to. I exercised my freedom to choose what I believe is best for me. That’s a far cry from Biden’s refusal to allow free choice in such a personal matter, especially given the efficacy of immune protection for those who have already experienced the virus. Not to mention the special medical conditions of some people such that it mitigates against their using the vaccine.
But Biden’s approach to “freedom” is a one-size-fits-all, government mandate that removes any free choice in the matter, on pain of losing one’s livelihood. That’s not freedom, that’s serfdom.
Such a resistance to governmental tyranny is written into the very teachings and documents of the Founding Fathers. James Madison, in an 1829 speech to Virginia legislators, proclaimed “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
Biden adopts an idiosyncratic use of the term “freedom” that has no relation to its use in ordinary language. He instead manipulates the term “freedom” to try and paint his opponents as beyond contempt. And thus, the dispute continues, people remain divided, and we all suffer the consequences, like flies in a fly-bottle.
Joe Biden, truth be told, is a very limited and very stubborn man bereft of wisdom.
God help us all.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.
Photo is a screengrab from CNN