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Lipstick on your Choler

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 9/16/08

At the outset, the McCain campaign depicted Obama's lipstick-on-a-pig remark as deliberate personal attack. Former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift, who was heading up a Sarah Palin "Truth Squad," accused Obama of calling Palin a pig and described the remark as offensive and disgraceful.
On the cable shows, though, most Republicans were reluctant to go quite that far. "It's an old expression," Mike Huckabee said; " "I'm going to have to cut Obama some slack on that one." And even Swift herself admitted in an MSNBC interview that she really had no idea what Obama had in mind. But the McCain people argued that whatever Obama actually intended, his audience clearly took the remark as a shot at Palin, as you could tell from their applause and laughter.  So he must have meant the remark as a double entendre. Or at the very least he should have realized that a familiar proverb suddenly had a new association tied to its tail.
But actually the lipstick-on-a-pig line tends to get a boisterous reaction, whether it comes from McCain describing Hillary's health-care plan last year or Dick Cheney back in 2004 talking about John Kerry's national security proposals. All you can conclude from those reactions is that people tend to be tickled at the thought of of a tricked-out pig, which is probably why that image pops up one way or another in versions of this proverb that go back a couple of centuries. "Like putting perfume on a pig," you sometimes hear people say, and in back in the nineteenth century they used to say that a pig was still a pig with a jewel in its ear or with a string of pearls around its neck. Actually it's probably a good thing Obama didn't use one of those last to in his speech, or the Republicans would have gone after him for insulting Cindy McCain.
Of course it's possible that some people in the audience were reminded of Sarah Palin when they heard Obama mention lipstick, in the same way you might flash on Bill O'Reilly when you hear the word loofah. Or maybe not. These associations often go right past you until somebody brings them to your attention, and then all at once they sound so obvious that nobody could miss them.
But even if you did recall Palin's lipstick joke when you heard the line, it isn't clear how you were supposed to get from there to calling her a pig. Or maybe it was enough just to get the words lipstick and pig close to each other and then throw the rest of the sentence away. The fact is that once you go down this road, it doesn't really matter if an interpretation makes logical sense. As Jane Swift put it, Obama's real lapse was chosing words that "people like me could take offense at and misconstrue…. You're responsible for your words even if they're misconstrued."
On the face of things, that's a strange principle for a Republican like Swift to be defending: "it's your fault if I minsinterpret what you said." It seems to stand in for everybody and everything the cultural right derides under the rubric of political correctness -- the hypersensitive feminists who are trying to sanitize the English language, the zealous multiculturalists who demand apologies for wholly imaginary slights, the postmodernists who insist that words can mean whatever one wants them to. Right-wing talk radio and Fox news have built a big part of their business model around making fun of this stuff, and even if some of it is concocted, the cultural left has given them a whole lot to work with.

So if you were an upstanding cultural conservative, you might see something undignified in the McCain campaign's reaction to the lipstick-on-a-pig remark. At times it seemed like a send up of radical feminism drawn from a satirical novel by Christopher Buckley or T. Coraghessen Boyle -- the keening indignation, the burrowing for far-fetched meanings and unconscious motivations, and above all the insistence that what matters isn't what someone actually says, but the way we take it.
And in fact there were plenty of conservatives who wanted no part of this. David Brooks described the episode as stupidity on stilts, and David Frum warned against what he called "the inflammation of imaginary grievances." And others on the right worried that the McCain campaign might be perceived as whining, which as it happens was the word that Sarah Palin used last spring to describe Hillary Clinton's complaints about her press coverage.
But whine they did, and with pitch-perfect mastery. You decide whether that's hypocrisy or opportunism or simply adaptiveness. What's remarkable is how naturally the idiom came to them, as if they had been speaking it all their lives. For all the ridicule that has been heaped on the language of political correctness and identity politics -- and the right has no monopoly here -- there's no group that hasn't learned to work it to its advantage. Whether or not you ultimately persuade people that your grievance is justified, you can count on owning the discussion for the next few news cycles.

Copyright © 2008 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.