28 September 1999
A common complaint about politicians--so common it's a stereotype--is that they break their promises. Audiences hear one thing, the politician seems to do another, and then the complaining begins. This scenario could be the result of miscommunication on the part of the politician or misinterpretation on the part of the audience. But the reality is more complex. Politicians do make promises, although they rarely use the word as the verb and themselves as the subject of the sentence. And audiences do hear promises being made and have a right to expect action if the concept of a promise still creates a bond, or a contract, between the one who promises and the one promised.
Listen carefully, and you will hear the politicians running for the various presidential nominations making promises. Often, they will sound/read something like this promise from a recent speech by Steve Forbes:
"Under my plan, that money is your money. If you die prematurely, you can leave it to your spouse, to your children, to your grandchildren - tax-free and untouched by the politicians. That's the moral thing to do, and that's the promise of a Forbes Administration."
Here Forbes is talking about a plan to create more wealth for retirement. As the quote clearly states, this money would pass from generation to generation tax free. The pronoun "that" at the beginning of the first independent clause of the third sentence refers to the situation of the money passing on tax free--so this passing is the "moral" thing to do. The second "that" in the second independent clause is a tricky because it could refer to the same situation as the first clause, or it could refer a general moral situation that Forbes hopes t...
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...ow going in that, in most cases, they cannot deliver specific promises. Yet they promise anyway in roundabout ways meant to create the contract in the minds of the audience while leaving an out when the "unhappy" outcome happens.
Austin is clear about what he thinks of situations such as these. As he says: "'I promise' entails 'I ought'...to say 'I promise' but not to perform the act is parallel to saying both 'it is' and 'it is not.' Just as the purpose of assertion is defeated by an internal contradiction, the purpose of a contract is defeated if we say 'I promise and I ought not'" (51).
Black is white. Night is day. Welcome to doublespeak.
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things With Words. Urmson, J. O. and Marina Sbisa, eds. Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA: 1975.
DiClerico, Robert E. The American President. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1995.
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