Are there any bits of American campaign jargon more annoying than the word “optics”?
It’s inescapable this week, thanks to hurricane Isaac: Republicans in Tampa are worried about how it will look if television pictures show them partying while the storm wreaks destruction on Gulf Coast communities.
But wait! Did you notice how I just managed to explain the GOP’s dilemma without using the word “optics”? That’s because it’s a staggeringly pointless piece of jargon that just means “how things look” or “public perception”. Jargon is occasionally defensible when it expresses, in a syllable or two, something that would otherwise take paragraphs to explain. “Optics” doesn’t do that. Yet here, courtesy of Patrick Gavin at Politico, are 13 instances of campaign personnel or journalists using it in the last few days. (For more, just read Politico any day: its writers love the term.)
“So maybe the biggest problem Republicans will have is optics,” as CNN’s Carol Costello put it. “You can’t have Kid Rock tearing down the house while Isaac tears down houses.”
Journalism professor Jay Rosen is surely right that “optics” is a prime symptom of the Washington media mindset he calls “the savvy” – “that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it’, and unsentimental in all things political.” Such special terms help foster a bond between actual campaign insiders and journalists who want to feel like insiders. As Ben Zimmer noted in a New York Times “On Language” column on “optics” a couple of years ago – he traced the term’s birth, as a piece of political jargon, to 1978 – it also sounds scientific because, in its original meaning, it is. It thus gives chatter about campaign tactics the appearance of a highly technical body of knowledge, like advanced physics, and makes its users look good.
You might even say that “optics” is largely a matter of optics, although, of course, I never would.
One sinister aspect of all this is the way that “optics” helps lend the problem of appearances a sort of stand-alone reality, shorn of all context. Defining the Isaac/Tampa situation as “a problem of optics” inevitably implies that it’s merely a problem of optics: an embarrassing coincidence, as when newspapers inadvertently juxtapose news stories and ads in tasteless ways. But that’s not the case here. Images of weather damage alongside convention-hall balloon drops would be a problem for a reason: because the appalling government failures of Katrina happened under the last Republican president. And because Paul Ryan has proposed deep cuts to disaster relief funds. And because the GOP has sought to hold hurricane-relief funding hostage to its tiny-government crusades. Even TV footage of Isaac not proving disastrous – of, say, New Orleans’ reinforced levees holding up – would draw attention to the helpful role of government in letting societies function, a truth that the Romney campaign has set itself resolutely against.
More abstractly – but no less importantly – pictures of partying delegates alongside hurricane damage could only emphasize the fundamental disconnection between modern political campaigning and most of the rest of reality. They would underline that 21st-century conventions are, indeed, pure “optics”, floating free from the facts of most people’s lives. Even if the Republicans didn’t have a hugely problematic record when it comes to disaster relief, the juxtaposition would risk throwing the strange, choreographed pointlessness of campaigning into stark relief.
This is certainly a problem. But it isn’t a problem of optics.
Here are 7 wild, bizarre and pathetic moments from Trump’s ‘campaign launch’
On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump held a rally that was billed as the official launch his re-election campaign — though he has never really stopped holding campaign rallies.
As expected, the president ranted, lied, and engaged in the raucous attacks that are central to his connection with Republican voters. Some of it was actually just sad, such as his continued obsession with Hillary Clinton.
Here are seven of the wildest, disturbing and pathetic moments from the rally:
1. He said Democrats "want to destroy our country as we know it."
Trump casually accuses Democrats of "want[ing] to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it." pic.twitter.com/4K79KlbEeR
British PM candidates clash over Brexit as Boris Johnson skips debate
Candidates to become Britain's next prime minister clashed over Brexit strategy at their first debate on Sunday but the frontrunner, Boris Johnson, dodged the confrontation.
The 90-minute debate on Channel 4 featured the five remaining candidates and an empty podium for Johnson, the gaffe-prone former foreign secretary and former mayor of London.
In sometimes ill-tempered exchanges, four of the five candidates said they would seek to renegotiate the draft Brexit divorce deal agreed with Brussels even though EU leaders have repeatedly ruled this out.
Michael Cohen ordered back to Congress on March 6
President Donald Trump's so-called "fixer" is being asked to return to Congress for more questioning on March 6.
Outside of the closed-door committee hearing Thursday, Cohen said that the House Intelligence Committee is seeking further information, according to Washington Examiner writer Byron York.
Michael Cohen finished closed-door testimony before House Intel Committee, says he's coming back for another session March 6. Again: No reason for secrecy. Transcripts should be released ASAP.
— Byron York (@ByronYork) February 28, 2019