'The New Criticism' is a form of literary criticism, developed during the 1920s and 1930s, and very much en vogue during the early post-WWII years. While Wikipedia is not always the number one source I would prefer to cite, their description of New Criticism is fairly accurate and good enough for someone who is not a pedantic intellectual snob to understand the general meaning of the term.
The really important facet of the New Criticism was the idea that text itself has a unique and self-contained meaning that can be understood by a close, strict reading of the text itself. Nothing outside the specific text itself contributes anything of value to understanding the meaning of the text itself. This is most important, for the purposes of our discussion, because it means that the actual meaning that the author is deliberately intending to convey is irrelevant. The text means what it means, regardless of what the author meant when he wrote it. This is very convenient device for those critics who want to read their own prejudices into the text. Here we have the fundamental flaw of the New Criticism: a text ultimately means what the critic says it means. If the critic is judged to be following the rules of close reading of the text itself in a vacuum, then the critic's interpretation of the text's true meaning even trumps that of the author.
Wow. I thought I was an elitist.
T.S. Eliot expressed his view of this problem extremely clearly:
"When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention."
The irony, of course, is that Eliot was himself (in some areas) a pioneer of the New Criticism. Ultimately, however, he decided the author's intention came first.
So why have I made you sit through a dissertation on a form of literary criticism I obviously have little use for and that has fallen into disrepute in many literary circles?
Well, it's because of the political renaissance of the New Criticism as it might pertain to political speeches, policy, and debate. Now, representing the other side's comments in the worst light is not entirely new to politics. In some ways it is very old. Even the political lie is hardly a new thing.
However, the right wing has increasingly taken the position that they know the meaning of the things said, written, or proposed by their political opponents better than the people actually speaking, writing, or proposing. It is ironic that a literary tool accused of too universally assuming a natural state of 'liberal humanism' has become the political tool of conservative anti-humanists. Whether one is watching Fox News, listening to talk radio, or reading conservative blogs and opinion columns makes little difference. One can see a twisted and deconstructive variant of the New Criticism being applied to everything the left and center say, write, or propose. There is one constant and universal truth being communicated: the 'critics' of the right know what it all really means far better than the actual originators of the material they 'criticize.' Even their lies are true because they understand the meaning so much better than anyone else.
'Death panels', 'government takeover of health care', and 'cutting Medicare' are the slogans of the new, political incarnation of the New Criticism. None of these catchy and frightening phrases resemble the actual intention of the authors of health care reform policy. Yet they are trumpeted by conservative critics who claim they know better than those actually taking a hand in making the policy. One can find a similar tack taken on nearly every political issue one might mention. Cap and trade? It's 'a punitive and economically dangerous tax on business' despite the fact that cap and trade policies are pursued by countries who are far more successful in the manufacturing market than the United States. The New Criticism, you see, does not allow one to consider anything outside the immediate words being dissected. So the fact that cap and trade policies or health care reforms are successful elsewhere has nothing to do with the specific policies being attacked by the right.
I've gone on the record as saying I have certain reservations and objections to the direction health care reform is currently taking. I've also been equally critical of the green left and the oil-loving right. I don't believe cap and trade is a solution to environmental risks, though I do think it is a sensible and moderate policy. I am somewhat apart from many on the left in that I believe the maintenance of a modern, civilized society and the extension of the benefits of that society to as many people as possible takes precedence over environmental issues. I believe we should find ways to maintain and extend civilized society in ways as environmentally friendly as possible, but I believe human life and human advancement is of prime importance.
Yet I believe it is tremendously important to speak the truth in these matters. The American political right is not doing so. On the subject of the environment, many on the European and international right are also lying. Worse, they are representing their own views as a more clear understanding of the actual meaning of their opponents' ideas than the authors of those ideas. They mischaracterize their opponents' intent or disregard it entirely.
The New Criticism is arrogant and elitist in literature.
It's deadly in politics.