The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

What The Definition Of “Is” Is

Posted in Rant by Noah Harlan on March 1, 2010

At the height of the Clinton impeachment there was a big kerfuffle over his “hairsplitting” in his taped deposition. In particular people focussed on his response to a question by stating “well it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Now, when viewed in its full context, there is a rational question being asked. Here is the full quote:

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement”

What the President was asking (and yes, this is hair splitting, but he was participating in a legal deposition and wanted to be incredibly precise – and a little difficult) was ‘are you asking me in the present tense’ (eg: is there a relationship at the moment) or are you asking me in a universal tense (eg: is there now or has there ever been). He maintained that his answer was truthful under the first definition and, if we’re going to be precise, he has a case.

So the definition, usage and context of a little two letter word makes a world of difference.

That brings us to today and our current President. President Obama just had his annual physical and the military (the Navy I believe) released his physical to the public. This shouldn’t be the source of much controversy, unless you are on the right and obsessed with unveiling the dark, evil sekrits (sic) of Obama’s past. The Guardian, in England, is one such ‘newspaper’ with a not-insignificant obsession with Obama’s evil-ness.  At the end of their article “Doctors tell Barack Obama to quit smoking,” they included this line:

The doctors also recommended “moderation of alcohol intake”.

The wingnut-o-sphere pounced on it. Here’s what the Washington Times (not to be confused with the legitimate Washington Post) had to say in a piece called “Obama Boozing?”:

The Guardian reports that President Obama’s doctors have recommended he moderate his “alcohol intake.” Most reportage on the president’s recent physical has focused on Mr. Obama’s continuing smoking habit, but revelation of a potential drinking problem is a much bigger story. How much “alcohol intake” does it take to get a doctor’s attention? And what did the president drink and when did he drink it? If nothing else it might help explain some of Mr. Obama’s policy priorities, and why the government is spending money like a drunken sailor.

Even Matt Drudge picked it up. Unfortunately, ideologues don’t like doing work for themselves. They don’t like reading original material. They are, for all intents and purposes, lemmings. You see, Obama’s doctors didn’t say “moderation OF alcohol intake,” they said “moderation IN alcohol intake.” Doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but context is everything. Look at the full statement in the Medical Evaluation:

Continue smoking cessation efforts, a daily exercise program, healthy diet, moderation in alcohol intake, periodic dental care, and remain up to date with recommended immunizations.

A bit of a different story, no? He smokes and they want him to keep trying to quit and to continue with the other good things he does, like moderation in alcohol intake.

What was it they say? Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.


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