From a politician mental sharpness and a precise, truthful use of language is expected. Politicians rule us. They make laws and decisions that affect our lives. It is for this reason that knowledge and acuity has to be expected from a well qualified politician. It is a frightful prospect to think that a politician does not meet these requirements.
Yet having seen recently a debate in the Bundestag, and having inquired about it, I cannot arrive at a conclusion other than that some politicians do not meet such expectations at all. I gained the impression that some politicians are indeed not up to the task. I do not use this phrase lightly and polemically, but judge it to be an accurate depiction of what I saw.
In the Bundestag, Sahra Wagenknecht from the Linke gave a speech, where she spoke among others about the civil war in the Ukraine (minute 39 onwards). In a nutshell, her argument was that the war in the Donbass region had to stop immediately, yet that Chancellor Merkel not only did not put any pressure on the rulers in Kiev to do so, but that she gave them continued support. The issue with that support, Wagenknecht pointed out, is that four ministers in the Kiev government are “anti-Semites” and “Neo-Nazis.” Wagenknecht made a couple of other factual statements on the Ukraine and concluded her speech. So far, so good.
Then a response from Katrin Göring-Eckardt came. Göring-Eckardt is not just another backbencher, but the head of the Green’s parliamentary group, and thus occupies a quite responsible position of power. In her speech (minute 55 onward in the same link), Göring-Eckardt attempted to counter to Wagenknecht’s allegations. She did so, by saying that Wagenknecht “did not say a word on the Crimea, and no word on the exodus of the Tatars.” Additionally, Göring-Eckardt accused Wagenknecht of not having acknowledged that there wea “really” an election in the Ukraine, and asked if that wouldn’t mean anything to Wagenknecht.
The problem with Göring-Eckardt’s response was that it constituted a bogus argument in political discourse. It was indicative for speech that is based on reflexes instead of reflection. In American English, one would call Göring-Eckardt’s response a straw man argument, in that Göring-Eckardt’s response did not relate to Wagenknecht’s speech. None of the statements of fact by Wagenknecht were refuted or even acknowledged by Göring-Eckardt. The accusations of Göring-Eckardt against Wagenknecht were not based on anything that Wagenknecht had actually said.
As an example, Göring-Eckardt kept on mentioning the presidential elections to make a point. The problem was, that no one had said anything about these elections, they were not a matter of discussion. Thus it was unclear what the sense of this reference was.
That being not enough, Göring-Eckardt accused Wagenknecht of not having said a word on the Crimea, and not a word on the “exodus of the Tatars.” When I heard this, I asked myself what she was talking about? Since I could not find anything in the news about Göring-Eckardt’s allusions, I contacted her office and asked what exodus she was talking about.
One of the assistants of Göring-Eckardt responded and informed me that she had based her claim on an article in Die Welt. Yet in no reasonable way would it have been possible to infer that an exodus of any kind was going on by reading the article. In the article, it was merely stated that about 500 Tatars had left Crimea since its annexation by Russia. Most of these 500 had settled in the western parts of the Ukraine. Out of a population of a quarter million, 0.2 percent of the Tatars in the Crimea had left.
Now, words have a meaning. Exodus comes from the Bible, where it describes the event where Moses lead the Jews in toto out of Egypt towards Israel. While there are no precise statistics, one can assume that no Jews were left behind by Moses. If 0.2 percent of the Jews had followed Moses, it would not have been an exodus. It would have been a non-event.
After reading the article in the Welt, no one with basic language skills would have used the word exodus. There is simply no exodus of anyone from the Crimea. Emphasizing this aspect is not about pedantry. It is of vital importance to politics that political speech is precise and truthful. The people listening to it, i.e. voters, base their political choices on these speeches.
Göring-Eckardt accused Wagenknecht of not mentioning an exodus. By using the phrase exodus of the Tatars, she created a mental image among the listeners. Göring-Eckardt appealed thereby to the emotions of the audience and not to their reason. To the uninformed listeners, who did not know what was happening in the Crimea, it appeared that something tragic was occurring. An exodus of Biblical proportions had happened and Wagenknecht was hiding this fact. Göring-Eckardt’s position as the head of the Green’s parliamentary group gave further legitimacy to her reproach.
What Göring-Eckardt did thereby was misleading the people. A voter, listening to Wagenknecht might have been persuaded by her arguments and would have supported her. Yet the baseless claim of Göring-Eckardt might than have swayed sway the voter away from Wagenknecht and back towards Göring-Eckardt.
The problem with this is that political speech has to inform and enlighten people and not mislead them. Yet Göring-Eckardt did just that, either due to sloppiness in her preparation or on purpose. Either cause is unacceptable for a politician who is remunerated royally to be a full time politician. From such a person, it has to be expected to be informed and be accurate and precise when partaking in political debate.