Parsing “factual shortcuts”

“Factual shortcuts” was the phrase of the day after Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican convention last week.  It was how AP characterized statements he made about the Medicare cuts, the closing of a GM plants, etc. Many other outlets reprinted the story and the characterization, so it received huge play in the media.

It’s an interesting phrase.  Clearly someone at AP had to think hard to come up with something that was softer than “lies” but stronger than “misstatement” or “inaccuracy” or “questionable claims”. It drove Andrew Sullivan nuts:

“Factual shortcuts” are newspeak for lies. Zack Beauchamp goes nuts at the media euphemisms for lies. I think they should call them “enhanced campaigning techniques.”

Daily Kos snarked:

What is a “factual shortcut”? Does that mean that you were on your way towards a fact, but then decided to hop a fence and cut through Cow Patty Fields?

It really does seem to be a neologism.  Google only gives hits related to the AP usage.  Google Ngram Viewer doesn’t show any occurrences through 2008.  So somebody just added an idiom to the language!

But why bother?  We already have a perfectly good phrase that says pretty much the same thing.  You could say “Ryan’s speech played fast and loose with the facts” and people would understand you perfectly.  And Kos is right–the phrase doesn’t really make any sense.  It seems to rely on an implied negative connotation to the word “shortcut”, as in “there are no shortcuts to success” or similar phrases.  But where is the shortcut in factual shortcuts?  Where are you heading when you take a factual shortcut?  It sounds like a quick and perhaps morally dubious way of reaching a fact.  But of course its meaning is exactly the opposite — it’s a way of avoiding a fact.

I suppose the phrase was formed by analogy with “ethical shortcut,” which is a morally dubious way of resolving an ethical challenge.  So, a “factual shortcut” is a morally dubious way of dealing with a fact–by twisting it in some way so that it means something different from what ordinary people would recognize as the truth.  In this interpretation, Ryan didn’t say anything that you could directly point to as a lie, but if people had all the facts, instead of the ones he twisted, a different reality would emerge.

OK, that’s the best I can do.  Ultimately an idiom doesn’t have to make sense.  I don’t really know what the literal meaning of “play fast and loose” is, but I understand it well enough.

Still, it would be helpful if the mainstream media could bring itself to utter the word lies.

Ayn Rand, Malcolm Gladwell, bad writing, and bad politics

A few years ago I decided I should try to read Atlas Shrugged.  I felt as if I was missing out on a part of my political education.  The novel, and Rand’s philosophy, seemed to have changed the lives of a lot of important people–probably some who were a lot smarter than me.  It came in first in the readers’ poll of the top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century.  Alan Greenspan was a Rand acolyte, and he was a Very Serious Person.  Maybe if I read the book my life would be changed, too!  So I gave it a shot.

I managed to get through about a hundred pages before I had to give up.  The book was just terrible.  I would have thrown it across the room if I’d had the strength to chuck the thing that far.  Rand can write a decent paragraph, but her characters bear no resemblance to any human beings I had ever met.  I couldn’t even get to the philosophy part, because the philosophy was clearly going to be based on the characters (or the characters were based on the philosophy), which meant the philosophy would be as bad as the characters, as far as I was concerned.  Because good writing matters to me.

I sometimes wonder if that’s a mistake, when it comes to judging philosophy or anything else.  I am willing to believe Dan Gilbert about anything after reading his delightful book Stumbling on Happiness; I’m pretty sure that’s a good judgment.  But what about Malcolm Gladwell? He is another delightful writer, but he’s come in for his share of criticism.  Here is Steven Pinker’s assessment of Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw from the New York Times a few years ago.

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

I loved What the Dog Saw!  Now what do I do? Good, clear writing is a reasonable marker for good, clear thinking.  But there obviously has to be more.  I have a feeling that Ayn Rand could have written a terrific novel, and I still wouldn’t have bought into her philosophy, as I understand it.

And the fact that the Republican vice presidential candidate is so enamored of Atlas Shrugged terrifies me.  Maybe this is another bad idea, but I think a candidate’s literary tastes say a lot about him.  If you enjoy novels with two-dimensional characters like the ones Rand created, you’re not going to be able to see the complexity of human existence, which seems to me to be critical to wise leadership.

So, anyone want to guess what Mitt Romney’s favorite novel is?  Click here to find out.  I dare you.