October 24, 2005

Semantic entanglements

Back in July, Mark Liberman wrote that "the Valerie Plame story is all about referential opacity and felicity conditions for speech acts and other issues in philosophy of language." Since the release of New York Times reporter Judith Miller from jail and that paper's attempt to report reflexively on Miller's involvement in the Plame affair, semantic obscurity has remained the order of the day.

First we were left to puzzle over what the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, meant when he wrote to a still-imprisoned Miller the following bit of purple prose:

Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work—and life.

Since the leak of this letter, bloggers have had a field day speculating that Libby was sending a coded message to Miller, coaching her to give favorable testimony about him to the grand jury. (Satirists Bruce Kluger and David Slavin take the Dan Brown approach and break "the Da Libby Code" via anagrams.) Miller, for her part, when asked about the "turning aspens" letter by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, described her mysterious "last encounter" with Libby:

It came in August 2003, shortly after I attended a conference on national security issues held in Aspen, Colo. After the conference, I traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo. At a rodeo one afternoon, a man in jeans, a cowboy hat and sunglasses approached me. He asked me how the Aspen conference had gone. I had no idea who he was.
"Judy," he said. "It's Scooter Libby."

So by mentioning "aspens" Libby was making an oblique reference to the city of Aspen and a conference Miller attended there? Miller's "explanation" only confuses matters further. Others have conjectured that Libby's esotericism points to the legacy of neconservative godfather Leo Strauss (Strauss was a teacher of Paul Wolfowitz at the University of Chicago, and Wolfowitz in turn taught Libby at Yale). As John Dickerson writes in Slate:

Part of Strauss' teaching is that ancient philosophers wrote on two levels: for the mumbling masses, but also, and often in contradiction of the literal message, on an "esoteric" level that only initiates could make out. Some Straussians have adopted this code themselves. So, where Homer Simpson would interpret Libby's note as ham-handed fawning over Judy, a Straussian close reader might discern something more devious: a literary file in the cake for both of them.

It might take an initiate in Straussian hermeneutics to make sense of some of the linguistic somersaults that have appeared recently in the New York Times as it gingerly deals with its Judy Miller problem. Take, for instance, the matter of Miller's "security clearance," as she herself called it in her Oct. 16 "personal account." In a follow-up story a few days later, Miller was forced to amend her wording when doubts were raised about whether she had anything more than the nondisclosure agreement signed by other "embedded" reporters:

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Ms. Miller said this so-called nondisclosure form was precisely what she had signed, with some modifications, adding that what she had meant to say in her published account was that she had had temporary access to classified information under rules set by her unit.

So when Miller wrote "security clearance," what she had meant to say was "nondisclosure form," naturally enough. As NYU's Jay Rosen pointedly remarked, "What the New York Times has not figured out yet is that Judith Miller is an extreme example of the unreliable narrator. She increases our doubt in the story as she tells it."

More unreliable narrativity came in the Oct. 22 edition of the Times, in an article reporting on a scathing memo about Miller distributed to the Times staff from executive editor Bill Keller. Keller accused Miller of misleading (or at least "seem[ing] to have misled") Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman, since Miller did not tell Taubman that she was a recipient of the Plame leak. Miller's response to Keller's memo is an intriguing study in speech acts: "I certainly never meant to mislead Phil, nor did I mislead him." In the parlance of speech act theory, Miller denies that she intended to commit the "illocutionary act" of misleading Taubman, and she further denies the "perlocutionary effect" that he was actually misled. But wouldn't we need to ask Taubman himself whether he was misled?

In the very next paragraph of the article, Miller manages to make an even more confusing assertion regarding the Keller memo:

She wrote that as she had said in an account in The Times last Sunday, she had discussed Mr. Wilson and his wife with government officials, but "I was unaware that there was a deliberate, concerted disinformation campaign to discredit Wilson and that if there had been, I did not think I was a target of it."

If Miller was unaware that there was a campaign to discredit Joe Wilson, then how would she be able to think one way or the other about whether she was a target of a campaign of which she was not aware? There are Zen koans that are easier to decipher.

Given the tangled web of semantics and pragmatics that the Plame/Wilson/Libby/Miller affair has turned into, it should perhaps be no surprise that the word "entanglement" is itself part of the story. In his memo to the Times staff, Keller wrote:

But if I had known the details of Judy’s entanglement with Libby, I’d have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense, and perhaps more willing than I had been to support efforts aimed at exploring compromises.

Miller shot back: "As for your reference to my 'entanglement' with Mr. Libby, I had no personal, social, or other relationship with him except as a source." It seems that Miller is taking grave offense at Keller's use of the word "entanglement" for reasons perhaps known only to her (though the long-standing rumors about Miller's intimacy with powerful Washington men might have something to do with it). The waters were further muddied by Times public editor Byron Calame. In his Sunday column on "the Miller mess," Calame reports a similar statement by Keller about Miller and Libby, only with the word "engagement" instead of "entanglement." Calame provides the full context of Keller's remarks on his web journal:

But if I had known the details of Judy's engagement with Libby, I'd have been more careful in how the paper articulated its defense, and I'd have been better equipped for the third turning point, below.

According to Kalame, Keller sent him this statement in an e-mail on Wednesday, Oct. 19, and Keller then sent the Times staff "much the same message" in a memo on Friday, Oct. 21. But between Wednesday and Friday, Keller decided to revise "engagement" to "entanglement" (along with many other redactions). "Engagement" would have obviously been a less felicitous choice of words—we can imagine Times staffers sarcastically asking where the happy couple is registered. But connotatively speaking, "entanglement" is not much better, at least from Miller's perspective.

Perhaps some day soon the Office of the Special Counsel will help unsnarl this baffling morass. But I suspect we're in for many more weeks of entangled discourse. More grist for the Language Log mill, at the very least!

[Update, 11/9/05: See this followup on Judith Miller's departure from the Times.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 24, 2005 07:22 AM