The Original Maverick
In a new television advertisement, John McCain’s campaign for President refers to its candidate and his running mate, Sarah Palin, as “the original mavericks.” The Democratic Party and the Barack Obama campaign almost immediately aired a response ad that renews their challenge to the noun, contending that McCain is no longer anybody’s maverick and that Palin never was: the ad shows photographs of him with Washington lobbyists and with the President himself, and trots out the by-now-familiar statistic that McCain has supported the White House’s policies 90 percent of the time.
There’s a larger point here, though, that has to do with the adjective and the way John McCain has appropriated the noun, and the way he’s been allowed to do so over the last eight years. It illustrates the idiomatic savvy of the Republican party and the U.S. electorate’s willingness to believe what it’s told. Here it is: Samuel Maverick (1803-1870) was a land baron and cattleman in the nineteenth century, in what was not yet the state of Texas. He refused to comply with the accepted practice of branding his calves—mostly so that whenever he found a calf without a brand, he could claim it as his own. This is where the term comes from; this fact is not in question. It’s in the encyclopedia. Since then, countless U.S. politicians, a television series (in 1957), the NBA team in Dallas (who played their first game in 1980), and Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun (1986) have been called mavericks. Unless John McCain (born August 29, 1936) is claiming that he was a “maverick” before Texas was a state—and before the word had acquired its present signification—he’s lying. What’s more, we all know it.
This is, I submit, a big lie masquerading as a small one: a more pernicious lie than “no new taxes,” than “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” or even than “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” It’s the worst kind of cynical manipulation, because it depends upon an audience that expects to be manpulated, cynically. To wit: when the Republican Party brands its candidates “the original mavericks,” nobody believes those words to express anything even approximating their literal meaning. It’s just an exercise in branding, like Budweiser calling itself “the king of beers” or a Store 24 closing at midnight. In other words, it’s the kind of lie that doesn’t just deny or refuse to tell the truth, but rather denies the very possibility of telling the truth, by refusing to acknowledge that, simply put, words have meanings.
The philosophy of language is profoundly unsexy, to say the least. Nobody expects Barack Obama, however educated an elitist he may be, to take to the campaign trail this week talking about Wittgenstein, Saussure, or good old Stanley Cavell. Splitting the difference between that and calling McCain a liar (again), however, can illustrate how “John McCain and Sarah Palin: the original mavericks” is, in fact, bad for U.S. democracy. If we’re going to have a democracy, we need an informed electorate—that’s hard enough when politicians tell regular old lies: recall where the last paragraph’s three Presidential lies got us. But we rely, for the kind of information we require to be an electorate, upon language and communication. We absolutely need to agree on it. That’s not an English Only argument: if someone ran for President speaking only in Latin or Hebrew or American Sign Language, we could figure out what he was saying, evaluate his claims, and decide what we thought of them.
We would take for granted, though, that he meant it, and that he wanted us to believe it (once we deciphered it). He might be lying, in other words, but he would be trying to convince us because he would care what we thought—and he assumed that what we think is based on what we know. “Original Mavericks” doesn’t give us that credit; it doesn’t possess the intellectual integrity to lie to us. It doesn’t care if we believe what it says, because it doesn’t pretend to mean it. It recalls a much-ballyhooed 2005 book on, well, the philosophy of language, in which Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt distinguished between lies, which perpetrate falsehoods but maintain the binary between truth and fiction, and bullshit, which denies altogether the relationship between language and verifiable fact.
We’re used to seeing the latter in product advertising: we know better than to think that advertisements represent a realistic experience of the products they want us to buy. Rather, we’re just supposed to associate the product with a matrix of ideas, images, and feelings, which doesn’t have to be either conceptually coherent or plausibly true: McDonald’s and Ronald McDonald and Michael Jordan and the latest kids’ movie; Jack Daniel’s and rock n’ roll and please drink responsibly; cigarettes and anthropomorphic camels who play the blues. John McCain can trumpet his intra-party collaboration with Russ Feingold, a campaign finance law whose every loophole he’s widened; Sarah Palin can propose to shatter both the “glass ceiling” and the laws protecting women’s rights; together, they are antecedent to Samuel Maverick. This associative linguistic territory, in which white, black, up, and down all mean BUY ME, is where the McCain campaign is actually operating. The next ad might as well claim that McCain has fewer calories and a higher average resale value than any other presidential candidate.
In this way, McCain and Palin are, believe it or not, both pioneers and mavericks. They claim to be positioned themselves outside a system—denotative language, in this case, as well as standard Beltway politics—because that’s how they can make those systems work in their favor. “Original Maverick” has found a term that nobody has identified precisely enough to claim or control it, and the McCain campaign has told us it belongs to them. It doesn’t, though; it’s ours, and we very much need to brand it for ourselves. We probably have to expect politicians to lie to us; we should at least require them to do it on our terms.