"I don't see how not to believe that they were [not?] working on the basis of internal polls that were just totally wrong"

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A striking misnegation from Josh Marshall, poetically reflecting his confusion about levels of belief, deception, and presentation in the recent presidential campaign — "Disturbing", TPM 11/12/2012:

As you know, the great question that faces the nation today is this: were Republicans, particularly Mitt Romney, really “shell shocked” by the results of Tuesday’s election or is this just some elaborate con-job for reasons as yet unknown. […]

I think at this point, I give up. I give in. I can’t maintain my skepticism. I don’t know quite how shell shocked Mitt and his crew were. But I don’t see how not to believe that Republicans as a group were not working on the basis of internal polls that were just totally wrong. Cui Bono? Why lie this much? I simply don’t see any purpose being served. I’ve heard many suggest that they need to keep up this pretense because these are the bogus numbers they were serving up to Adelson and the other multi-billionaires to keep the money coming in. But this doesn’t really make sense. Are these guys going to react worse because they were lied to than they are if they think the guys they gave their money to are a bunch of incompetents and morons? [emphasis added]


  1. Chris Kern said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    It's interesting how the structure is totally impenetrable but the intended meaning is clear from the context.

    [(myl) This is the basis of Wason & Reich's theory of how such sentences are mostly interpreted — see "No wug is too dax to be zonged", 11/28/2009.]

  2. Eric W said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    This is about the idea of being shell-shocked rather than the misnegation, but I think the two are related. On Fox, Megyn Kelly asked Karl Rove, "Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?"

  3. robert said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    'I don’t see how not to believe ' equals 'I feel forced to believe X'. Substitute that, and the misnegation becomes obvious. The problem is the 'not' in 'were not working', because the speaker is convinced the Republicans were working on the basis of erroneous polls.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

    I was deluged with solicitations form Democrat luminaries citing polls that Obama was doing worse than he did (or Nate Silver was projecting at the time). I don't think one raises money claiming to have a comfortable lead. (Sorry for the non-linguistic comment)

  5. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 3:29 am

    …poetically reflecting his confusion about levels of belief, deception

    He sure does seem confused. In his posts over the last three days about this, he's seemed to vacillate between (moderately) strongly believing the "shellshocked" story, and being (moderately) strongly skeptical.

    What I find interesting about all this, in addition to the story in itself, is the theme (on numerous levels) of the need for simple explanations. The story itself is about the desire for a clear, simple, unambiguous comprehension that may or may not have superseded the truth; and the arguments about the veracity of the claim in the story is also about a need for a clear, simple, unambiguous comprehension.

    It wasn't until I was about thirty years old that I finally understood that reality isn't much like the narratives we tell ourselves about reality; that our cognitive impulse to teleology means that we simplify and elide ultimate causes when they exist, and we (more often) invent them when they don't.

    Right now, Americans on both the left and right want to tell a story about this election. Stories have meanings, they have denouements, they have implicit moral lessons, they are tragedies or comedies. What much of this is, is the collective construction of a narrative. If "shellshocked" is true, it's a tragedy of hubris. If it's false, it's a (dark) comedy of vice.

  6. Brett said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    @Keith M Ellis: I believe Mencken put it thus: "Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers."

  7. J Lee said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    Tampa Bay Times profile of Jill Kelley, figure in Petraeus scandal: "Did so much for the military, fabulous mother and amazing wife; can't say enough nice things about her. She never spared anything for the military. It was all about them."

  8. Mat Bettinson said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

    I imagine it's quite easy to make an error when you're nested that deep in negation. I do wonder if we are more likely to make errors of this kind given that English disprefers double negatives (versus, say, the Chinese who love them).

  9. KurtQ said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

    Right you are, Chris: too dax to be zonged! …What surprises me is that linguists have not yet (to my knowledge) picked up on a more central linguistic peculiarity of this affair: Rove’s immediate on-air reaction to hearing that the Ohio vote tabulating website had just crashed (as indeed it had done at almost precisely the same time on election night 2004). I can’t find the official transcript at Fox, but audio is here [http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9TwuR0jCavk] at 3:53. What I hear is “uh, apparently, uh, the website is now being crashed, because they can no longer refresh it, but….” [Context: he’s explaining why for the moment he can’t report the up-to-the-minute count. He might be saying “…has now been crashed…;” can anyone with higher audio resolution tell which?]

    Either way, Rove is clearly using an agentless passive. A much simpler formulation—and certainly the default for an event being construed as having no volitional agent—would be “the website is crashing / has crashed,” with “website” as the subject of a simple unaccusative [or unmarked middle] predicate.

    This takes on additional interest in view of a claim by the ‘hacktivist’ group ‘Anonymous’ that, anticipating a repeat of the 2004 crash of the Ohio vote tabulation system, which had been followed by a flip of the vote advantage from Kerry to Bush, they had hacked Rove’s computer system and installed a password-protected firewall to prevent exploitation of any possible 2012 election-night crash for purposes of electronic vote tampering. [http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=60e_1353256880]

    Nobody wants to be painted with a tinfoil hat, here, but this convergence of circumstances is curious, to say the least. Rove’s unusual slip of the tongue would make much more sense if he had in fact been expecting that someone (for whatever reason) would be intentionally *causing* the vote tabulation system to crash.

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