Existential notes from the campaign

Sun 12 Oct 2008 02:00 AM

Via Leiter and Erfani, this curious little gem from Bloomberg columnist Jeremy Gerard describing the debate:

As the world burned, the presidential candidates were sober, lucid, rarely off topic and always in character last night. Watching it was like having to read Sartre on the first day of spring.

This is a curious metaphor, but he probably just means to say that it is something tediously calm in the midst of much activity. Alternately, it may be a reference to the climax of Sartre's Nausea; Sartre wrote as part of a summary of the book:

Roquentin wanders the streets, voluminous and unjustifiable. And then, on the first day of spring, he grasps the meaning of his adventure: Nausea is existence revealing itself -- and existence is not pleasant to see.

The debate (one may say) is the candidates revealing themselves -- and there is much on the present scene that is voluminous and unjustifiable.

In a somewhat related note, Ron mentions to me that he's been noticing the phrase "existential threat" coming up in the campaign; as in the sentence, "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel." The OED informs me that the sense of "existential" meaning simply pertaining to existence dates back at least to 1693. It does seem a bit archaic or jargony, though. In the 21st-century, the word raises connotations of angst, berets, and black turtlenecks. (Unbidden, one imagines a nuclear Iran laying siege to Israeli cafes. Those guys take up tables all day, never tip, and nihilate their own Nothingness.) I'm not sure why "existential threat" is being used rather than "a threat to the existence of", but puzzling out political idioms is like writing a blog post on a Sunday in October.


from: Gore

Tue 14 Oct 2008 01:50 PM

"Existential threat" is fuzzier, and politicians prefer fuzzy expressions because they allow them to get away with saying (almost) anything. Thus, if one was to raise the question, "So by "existential threat," do you mean that Iran threatens the existence of Israel in terms of threatening an actual, sustained military strike?" Then the politician, remember that Israel and not Iran has nukes (as well as a much stronger, and better-financed, military), can say, "Well, no, but they make comments that disapprove of the current structure of Israel" (Iran leaders from Khamenei to Ahmadinejad often call for a "referendum" by both Israelis and Palestinians to determine the structure of Israel). Thus, fuzzy expressions can allow politicians to talk gibberish, leaving them unchallenged on the shifting sands on which they stand.