The Straight and Narrow
I was standing in line for Ghost Blasters, a ride at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, looking at the bars in the windows when I started thinking about "Crooked Hillary" the name Donald Trump has given Mrs. Clinton.
Crooked can mean:
- bent or twisted
- dishonest or illegal
- a hooked tool or weapon (crook)
The first question that arises is, "Why do we associate "bent or twisted" with "dishonest or illegal"? This, of course, is a metaphor. We take something concrete, such as a twisted stick, and compare it something more ambiguous and abstract "dishonesty". What do the two have in common? What parallels can we draw between them?
We talk about a person's moral character being crooked, bent or twisted, and specifically we talk about their "moral backbone", the thing that keeps them upright, that helps them resist the forces that try and push them to the ground. Being "low" is immoral, such as someone who is "low down" because their spine could not stand up to the forces that pushed against them. They've been pushed into the dirt, which is why we associate immorality with uncleanliness (low down dirty rat). Having a "strong moral backbone" or being an "upright citizen" means that they have the strength to withstand the immoral forces of the world that swirl around them. Their movements can be trusted, because they will not be blown around in unexpected ways.
This brings us to the next conceptualization of "crooked" that of a journey on a path. "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life" (Matthew 7:14) Walking "the straight and narrow" means you see where you are headed and take the shortest root to your destination. Once you see where you are going, the quickest way to get there is always straight ahead. Any deviation from that is immoral since it keeps you longer from reaching "the goal" in the religious sense, "God" or "enlightenment". In this conceptualization you can "lose your way", "go around in circles" and "stray from the path". A change of mind is a change of direction, and both are looked at as weak and immoral.
If you take a bird's eye view of "the crooked path" what you see is a line that quickly juts back and forth creating sharp edged turns. These sharp edges have connotations of danger, which brings us to the last definition of crook, that of a weapon. Sharp angles are dangerous on a weapon and they are dangerous conceptually as well. There is a reason the window pictured to the left does not smoothly curve form one angle to the next. A haunted house is scary because the sudden juts present a sense of physical danger. Sharp edges can cut your throat, and a sharp turn in someone's loyalty can prove disastrous as well.
Crooked also implies structural weakness. If you are building a house you want the support beams to be straight and solid. You do not want to build with crooked lumber. Imagine living in a house in which every angle is crooked. Not only would you slide around and be off balance, but there would be spots where if you shifted your weight too far, the whole thing would collapse. How would you move in such as house? Cautiously.
What all these conceptualizations have in common is the desire for predictability. When we can predict what someone or something will do, we can trust it, in that, we can accurately predict what it will do in relation to our actions. Imagine 8 stones that form a path across a small creek. You have walked across it a thousand times and you trust each stone, and so you walk across confident in their ability to hold your weight and keep you from falling down. Someone who is unpredictable is a loose stone, without proper support. You do not know which way it will move when you place your weight upon it. This is fine as long as you know what to expect. You will gingerly step on a loose stone to test it. You will move cautiously and carefully until you are sure which way it will shift. The worst mistake you can make is to confidently step on a loose stone, to act with certainty when there is no reason for it to exist.
When Donald Trump calls Hillary "crooked" all of these conceptualizations can be activated. He wants us to believe that we can't rely on her because there is something "crooked" about her inner morality. That as a person, she does does not have the structural integrity to withstand the forces that swirl around her. Because of this, her life's journey is also crooked. The immoral forces make her path jut back and forth in unpredictable ways. She is not someone you can trust because she does not walk the straight and narrow. She does not have a goal that she moves closer to with every step. She is unreliable like the crooked foundation that you walk upon that may collapse at any moment, like the shifting rocks underneath your feet.
The problem with this description is that it doesn't actually describe Hillary Clinton. Regardless of what you think of her beliefs, she is an incredibly predictable person. While she has taken different positions on political issues, she has not swung wildly and unpredictably back and forth. Her changes have been rational political calculations that are responsive to the changing desires of the American people, such as her stance on gay marriage. These are not sudden drastic shifts, but slower smoother curving shifts. The kind of deliberative shifts that someone makes when they are looking far into the future and trying to plot their path. The kind that are highly predictable.
Trump's fixation with Clinton's "crookedness" is actually a much more accurate description of himself. The unpredictability of his ideology, actions and speech, the jerkiness of how quickly he changes direction, all point to the imbalance and danger of his own path. Imagine for a second Trump's ideology as a line on a white page. What kind of line do you see? Do you see a straight and narrow line or a jerky sharp edged volatile "stock market" line that is pushed this way and that by relatively minor social influences?
I have no idea what kind of president Donald Trump would be because I cannot accurately predict what we believes, which beliefs he has are solid and foundational, and which ones are not. Further his rapid ability to switch positions doesn't seem to reflect a political calculation that takes into consideration the changing will of the people but seems more rooted in the fact that he is unable to control his impulsive intuition, which serves no political or moral purpose. It is simply a spasming muscle that's reacting to the immediate physical stimulus that surrounds it. It is not the smooth subtle curve of a line that sees further into the future and elegantly and responsively glides around obstacles. It is the sharp jerky line of someone who is walking with their gaze firmly fixed on their shoes and any obstacle is a sudden unexpected event that sends them reeling in another direction.
When we are asked to "trust" someone politically, it may be implied that we need to believe in their motivations, their inner moral being, their character. But there's another kind of trust, one that I think is more achievable in the world of politics. It's the ability to accurately predict someone's behavior, regardless of whether you agree with it. I trust a wobbly stone on my path, in so far as I know exactly which way it will move given the weight that's shifted upon it.
Politically, I will never find someone I completely believe in. What I can find though is someone whose behavior I can predict with greater accuracy, who is responsive to the changing desires of the American people, and who shifts in smooth subtle arcs in relation to the ever changing goals that we thrust into our future. It's for this reason that I'll happily vote for Hillary Clinton, not because I believe I know her inner moral being, her true character, but because she has proven herself to be a reliable predictable rational actor, and one that isn't so jerky.