The Possession Fallacy

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One of America’s most enduring, and at least faintly humorous, historical images is that of Europeans landing someplace on the continent and claiming everything from there to the next ocean as the property of the high and mighty prince, King Such and Such of Somewhere.

On June 14, 1671, Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, an agent of that most puissant monarch Louis XIV, stood at “the Soo,” the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, and took possession of the Great Lakes, Manitoulin Island, and “all other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto, as well discovered as to be discovered, which are bounden on the one side by the northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea including all its length and breadth.” “This formula,” says F. Clever Bald, the historian of Michigan, “he repeated three times.”

The ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

There is a verbal equivalent. It is the act of seizing on some word or concept and using it to impose your standards of morality, history, or logic on everything that could possibly be related to it. Let’s call this the Possession Fallacy. It might also be called, colloquially, Blab It and Grab It, after an idea current in American Christianity. Some evangelical Christians have the notion that if you pray for something in the right way, if you name it in your prayers, then you are also making a legitimate claim to it, and God must give it to you. The idea is known by Christians who espouse it as Name It and Claim It; by Christians who are skeptical about it as Blab It and Grab It. In either case, the ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

Ours is the great age of self-righteousness, and therefore of the Possession Fallacy. It’s always absurd, but one of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history, simply by pretending that “Republican” and “Democrat” mean today what they meant, say, 150 years ago. Sean Hannity, who knows less about history than anyone but the inhabitants of the House of Representatives, has been doing this for years. Rather than quoting Hannity, who never says anything in less than 1,000 words, I’ll quote an essay published this month in the Aspen Times. Attacking the “hypocrisy” of present-day Democrats, it says:

It was the Dems who defended slavery against the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln; it was the Dems who were behind racial segregation in the South; it was the Dems who opposed civil rights laws; and it was the Dems who bombed government buildings and attacked policemen during civil unrest in the ’60.

It was the Dems of the Ku Klux Klan who lynched blacks and occasionally Jews, and persecuted Catholics.

Et cetera. Some of this is pure nonsense: it was communists, not Democrats, who bombed government buildings. But the deep nonsense is the idea that because some Democrats did X, Y, or Z, this means something about all Democrats — or Republicans — who have ever lived. Anyone who read a book could write endless numbers of sentences in the same form: “It was the national Republicans who advocated Prohibition, while the national Democrats resisted it. It was the Republicans who victimized working people with high tariffs and a national bank, while the Democrats insisted on low taxes, hard money, and decentralized banking. It was Republicans who represented white Southerners in opposition to Northern Democrats during the conflicts over civil rights.” Et cetera.

Slipping into my perpetual role as Mammy lecturing Miz Scarlett: I done tole you an tole you, the two American political parties are organizations designed to get votes. (See, for instance, Liberty, February 2005, pp. 19–24.) Seeking this prey, they wander across the ideological and historical landscape, vacuuming up ballots wherever they can reach them. There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

One of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history.

How preposterous it is to act as if, by saying the name of a political organization spanning generations of history, you can score points either for or against it. This is almost as preposterous as the Left’s current attempt to get its way by labeling people of the distant past as “racists,” “sexists,” “imperialists,” and what not. In today’s terms, Jefferson was a racist, as was virtually the entire population of the world. What are we to deduce from this? That he should be treated as racists are justifiably treated today? Here the assumption is that some leftist agitator, who like Hannity has never read a real book, has the right to name and claim Jefferson’s reputation, on the basis of his own moral superiority — which is quite an assumption in itself. Or is it the idea that not only Jefferson’s memory but also his principles should be treated as those of a racist? “All other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto . . .”

There’s never been a moment in my lifetime when someone wasn’t discovering that the Declaration of Independence is, in the present vocabulary, racist and sexist: racist, because Jefferson was a slaveholder, and sexist, because the document says that “all men are created equal.” If the Declaration were a cow, this would be a constant attempt to rebrand her. But words have meanings, no matter who wrote them, and these particular words, correctly understood in their obvious meaning, provided the intellectual foundation of the abolition movement. When, 81 years after the Declaration, in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that they didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone — including slaveholders, who were happy to hear this new interpretation. As for women — if Jefferson had wanted to say “males” he would have said “males.” The default meaning of “men” in almost every period and region of the English language has been “human beings, people.” Those who assert that “men” equals “males,” unless proven innocent, are trying to snatch the common language and claim it as their own.

There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

There has lately been a competition to see who can use the Possession Fallacy in the most egregious way. The game is very aggressively played, but right now, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, candidate for president, appears to be ahead. O’Rourke kindly interrupted his demanding campaign schedule for some informational “speaking with immigrants and refugees,” and told them:

Here we are in Nashville, I know this from my home state of Texas, those places that formed the Confederacy, that this country was founded on white supremacy and every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects the legacy of the slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression, even in our democracy.

O’Rourke’s syntax was characteristically muddled, but there’s general agreement that by “this country” he meant the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America — although the latter actually was founded on white supremacy, and the former was not, unless you agree with Chief Justice Taney. So he was talking about the United States when he said that “every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects” racist practices, up to and including slavery.

When people use the Possession Fallacy, they’re ordinarily making a claim to the whole ranch and every cow on it, whether or not they know how many cows there are, or, indeed, have ever seen a cow. If they went the other way and tried to gather all the cows that bore their brand, they might not come up with any. To put this in a different manner: Possession can usually be identified as a fallacy when you ask the possessor to name the specifics, and he can’t come up with any. In most cases, asking that question is a waste of time; the most he’ll do is point at Ol’ Bossy and some theoretical cow on the other side of the hill, and that will be enough for him to keep claiming that he owns the whole county.

When, 81 years after the Declaration, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that its words didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone.

But you can ask yourself some questions. What do you suppose would be on O’Rourke’s list of “every single institution and structure”? Does the Presbyterian Church still reek of racism? How about “Sesame Street”? The NAACP? Planned Parenthood? The Democratic Party, USA? Is that what elected O’Rourke to Congress — a racist system? These are just the first questions that came to my own mind. I could expand the list. So could you. I think it would be fun to include all the big-government programs that Beto voted to fund. Since, by his own declaration, these are all racist, he must be a racist too, and an especially sneaky one, since most of those “institutions and structures” are purported to be anti-racist.

Sorry; I’m just taking his words seriously. And that’s the problem for users of the Possession Fallacy. If they want to possess everything, they’re making themselves responsible for everything.

Jeffrey Epstein certainly has a lot to be responsible for, but former President Clinton once tried to take on even more responsibility: he made a strenuous attempt to possess Jeffrey Epstein. Clinton stepped up to the plate, shouldered the burden, bit the bullet, and went whole hog. In 2002, on one of the four trips that Clinton says he took on Epstein’s private plane, he and some (other) people from the world of entertainment journeyed to Africa to “tour HIV/AIDS project sites.” It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them. How was it possible to explain this lavish expenditure of wealth on the egos of Epstein’s junketing celebrities? The answer seemed easy: just appropriate every concept of technocratic goodness you can think of, and deed the whole thing to Mr. Epstein, who would, by association, deed it back to Mr. Clinton and the other gawkers, making it their lawful property. “Through a spokesman” Clinton described the enormous intellectual ranch on which Epstein’s charitable cows were nurtured:

Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science. I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS.

Clinton left out the part about raising the dead. He didn’t want to go too far.

It would have been interesting if anyone had asked Clinton to discuss some specific features of the vast mental property notionally possessed by Jeffrey Epstein, college dropout, high school math teacher, options trader, and consultant for a Ponzi scheme. He might have been asked to say what he meant by the large term citizen service. I don’t have a clue. Neither can I guess what he meant by in-depth, democratization, empowering the poor, or work on (when used of people taking a jaunt on a billionaire’s plane). Clinton, presumably, could have said what he meant, because he had made himself the owner and possessor of these phrases. But he didn’t, and I suspect he never will. He is now at pains to indicate that he barely knew Jeffrey Epstein — although he is not at pains to distance himself from the wonderful work that Epstein once helped to finance. He still wants contributions for that.

It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them.

This is one of the ways in which conceptual mortgages come due. There are others. Let’s return to O’Rourke’s our democracy, a sappy phrase if ever there was one. I remember it from my ninth-grade civics text. Even then, it seemed childish. Like so many other uses of our, it was an obvious attempt to make kids think that they owned something they could not possibly own: our history, our families, our ideals, our cities, our highways, and so forth. The idea seemed to be that it wasn’t enough to praise motherhood and apple pie; one had to speak of our motherhood and our apple pie.

This tactic has now been sickeningly revived by Democrats maddened by the election of Trump. For them, nearly everything in political life involves Trump’s attacks on our democracy. The popularity of our democracy now eclipses that of the equally icky in this country, which the Democrats always used to tack onto the end of their sentences: “We must fix healthcare in this country”; “We must enable everyone to vote in this country”; “We must build more affordable housing in this country.” As you can see, in this country was the kind of phrase that nags use. It was a bitchy reminder that America is not exceptional; it is a country like every other country, no better, no worse, except that it’s worse. The phrase went nicely with only country in the world: “America is the only country in the world that lacks universal healthcare.” Such statements were never likelier to be true than the pious our country phrases, but they had a critical edge. Progressives would die rather than say in our country, but in this country came readily to their lips. Eventually, even the Republicans took it up, reciting it with the zombie-like expression of people who don’t know what they’re saying — which they didn’t.

Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother.

Now our democracy is the obsessive phrase. Inevitably, Republicans have started using this one too, but in any statement made by a Democratic politician you can depend on hearing it four or five times. If you can believe US Representative Elijah Cummings (D, MD), it has spread to the general public. Cummings told ABC: “No matter where I go, what I'm hearing over and over again from my constituents is, ‘Please save our democracy.’"

This is a clear example of the Possession Fallacy. Here is a phrase with no literal meaning, a succession of sounds with as much connection to reality as the incantations of the Sieur de St. Lusson, but intended to lay claim to a continent full of ideas and attitudes. No one says what kind of “democracy” is implied, or what kind of ownership is denoted by “our.” It is merely assumed that the speaker knows the meaning, even as a carpenter knows his tools, and that he is eminently qualified, even as a master carpenter is qualified, to determine this tool’s proper use in shaping the otherwise recalcitrant materials of life. In the present crisis in our democracy, the recalcitrant material is the monster Trump. If there is one thing that is clear about our democracy, it’s that our democracy is anything other than what Trump is about. Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother. To talk of motherhood is to deny the existence of Americans who are not mothers. Let us talk instead of our democracy.

The distasteful thing — well, there are a lot of distasteful things, but one distasteful thing — about our democracy is that it’s a double trick of possession. The first is the implicit but dogmatic assertion that the speaker knows what it means and, without any pretense of defining it, can make it the basis of argument. The second is that while pointedly excluding some people from membership in the mystical social union (Trump, or whomever) it suggests that you, whoever you are, actually own the thing. “Our” means “mine and yours."

From "my" to "our" to "your," the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

Perhaps you think that Robert Francis O’Rourke isn’t smart enough to play tricks on anybody, but you must remember that he didn’t invent this little act; he’s just copying others’ performance. But there’s a third trick going on — did you notice it? It’s the owning-not owning trick. “Our” is first a way of appropriating a concept for private use; then it’s a way of coopting the audience into feeling as if it owned the thing too; and then (the third trick) it’s a way of leaving the audience holding the bag. Beto isn’t saying that he is responsible for the racism of our democracy. How could he be?

He wants you to vote for him. He’s saying that you are responsible. From my to our to your, the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

And that’s how the Possession Fallacy works. It’s a means of forcing responsibility on other people for one’s own acts of ownership. I make something up, and you’re supposed to believe it. If you do, you’ll be the one who pays.




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