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Did Trump demand a quid pro quo? Harvard cognitive psychologist weighs in.
Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker reminds us that innuendo and euphemism yield better quid pro quo results than an "or else" ultimatum.
- Lawmakers and pundits disagree over whether President Trump proposed a quid pro quo arrangement with Ukrainian President Zelensky.
- In a recent op-ed, Steven Pinker reminds us that even simple requests often beat around the euphemistic bush.
- But accepting the common sense reading is only the beginning of its legal analysis.
The 2019 federal budget earmarks $400 million of military aid to support Ukraine. The Trump administration bypasses Congress and orders a freeze on Ukraine's foreign aid, with $391 million yet to be paid out. Days later, during a phone call with Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump asks for a favor.
But does this timeline of events properly connect a quid with its associate quo? Yes, said House Democrats when they kicked off their impeachment inquiry. "The quid pro quo is in the President's words," Representative Jon Garamendi (D-Calif.) told CNN.
But Trump's defenders in the GOP have a different read. As Representative Doug Collins (R-Ga.) told reporters: "We read it. There was a discussion among members about it. From the way the speaker made it out to be yesterday, I was expected something there. And when you look at it… there's nothing there."
And Senator David Perdue (R-Ga.): "I just am embarrassed almost that the speaker would take this document, having not seen it, and take this to an impeachment conversation. There's nothing in this document that backs up the whistleblower report. [The media] talked about eight quid pros in there. I can't find one."
If Collins and Perdue were hunting for or-else statements, then their math is on point. There's not one to be found in the reconstructed transcript. But as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker reminds us, language seldom drifts so neatly on the surface.
Language dressed in innuendo
In a New York Times op-ed, Pinker breaks down the reconstructed transcript to show that an overt if-then statement is not necessary to prove a quid pro quo. Removed from partisan squabbling and analyzed as we would most any other conversation, the request becomes clear.
"But to most readers, Mr. Trump's claim that he was merely musing about his druthers does not pass the giggle test," Pinker writes. "That is because people in a social relationship rarely hammer out a deal in so many words but veil their offers in politeness and innuendo, counting on their hearers to listen between the lines."
In fact, such innuendos and euphemisms are part of our everyday language toolkit.
As Pinker writes, we often ask dinner guests, "I was wondering if you could pass the salt." Taken literally, the request makes you sound dim. Your guest holds down a job, drives a car, and can perform any number of complex tasks. Why should you question her ability to lift a tiny container and deliver it all of two feet?
But by couching your request in this non sequitur, you add an extra slathering of politeness to the proceeding "without seeming to treat her like a flunky." In turn, the guest fills in the mental blanks, understands your request, accepts your politeness, and passes the salt with a "Sure thing!"
Allusive remarks are so pervasive in our use of language that they've become foundational to art and storytelling.
When Don Corleone says, "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," not even a rube believes he's referencing his limitless generosity. Everyone realizes that studio executive won't be able to refuse because the Godfather won't be asking. Without an ear for such dramatic innuendo, film and literature would feel simply alien to us.
The emperor's new quos
U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands.
"The Trump-Zelensky dialogue could be used in the chapter of a linguistic textbook on conversational analysis," Pinker writes. He then proceeds to outline that chapter.
The summarized portion of the call opens with Trump congratulating Zelensky on his victory, and Zelensky praising Trump for the skills and knowledge he derived from Trump's election. Trump then steers into the prerequisites of the call.
"A lot of the European countries are the same way so I think it's something you want to look at but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine. I wouldn't say that it's reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine."
Pinker notes that announcing an undesirable state is a strategy to avoid demands while still priming someone to fix the situation. Again, this isn't a strategy employed by politicians and mobsters alone. Pinker offers the classic example of someone saying, "It's cold in here," to prime their cozy spouse to close the window.
Clued into Trump's underlying intention, Zelensky replies with the due diligence of a cozy spouse. Falling over himself to agree that the U.S. supports the Ukraine better than the EU, he states, "We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes."
His goal is to show that Ukraine is reimbursing the U.S. with reciprocity. He points out that Ukraine is ready to "continue" cooperating and they plan to purchase Javelin missiles from the United States. While the foreign aid is never outright mentioned, it sneaks in between the lines here since Ukraine uses those funds to purchase the missiles from U.S. arms makers.
Trump isn't satisfied: "I would like you to do us a favor though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it."
For Pinker, that "though" is the quid-pro-quo glue. He writes that the word signals that Zelensky's previous cooperation has not met the requirements for true reciprocity. Another favor is needed, and only Ukraine can help.
Trump then immediately details what that favor is: He wants Zelensky to investigate Crowdstrike, a debunked right-wing conspiracy theory, and assist Attorney General Barr with an investigation into the Bidens. Quid meet quo.
As Pinker concludes: "His supporters insist he should be taken 'seriously but not literally.' Yet this time it may be the nonliteral meaning of his words that proves his undoing. The common-sense interpretation of his conversation makes it impossible for him to maintain, 'I did not have quid pro quo relations with that man, Mr. Zelensky.'"
The emperor is naked, but is that a crime?
As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have inves… https://t.co/X8NmXJ5ey7— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1570151078.0
Of course, Pinker's op-ed is a linguistic analysis, and much like the Clinton impeachment, the linguistic linchpin—what is "is" anyway?—is only part of a broad argument centering on the appropriate use of the powers of the president.
Today, the question is whether the quid pro quo was for national security—the kind of quid pro quo supporters rightly point out has been demonstrated by past presidents—or whether Trump used his office for private gains in the 2020 election. And even if the quid pro quo is not found to be criminal, it may still be an impeachable offense if an abuse of power.
President Trump's own defense has evolved from "no quid pro quo" to "quid pro quo is fine." As he tweeted: "As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!"
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.