Small Demon
Nov 152008
 

Note: I began this post several days ago, but I haven’t felt much like writing. Partly this is mid-semester slump, partly that I have been busy with other things, about which I’ll have something to say anon.

It does feel different, doesn’t it, the country having elected Barack Obama president? For one thing, it appears to have driven the far right completely around the bend & that cannot be a bad thing. And though I am no kind oc constitutional literalist, it feels good to have a former Con Law prof as president-elect; after eight years of an extra-constitutional unitary executive, I was particularly happy to see this orgganization chart. And listening the the president-elect’s first news conference, I was struck by the tone of thoughtful intelligence and, yes, the use of complete sentences that followed sensibly from one to the next. The use of language marks a political divide in the modern US, as it probably always has, of course. High tone versus low down.

In fact, I heard the NY Times reporter David Kirkpatrick make an argument about the current state of the Republican party the other day on NPR that made the distinction between the “high” Republicanism of David Brooks and George Will and the “low” Republicanism of Sarah Palin & Rush Limbaugh. It is a division revealed by language and may be more important at the moment, according to Kirkpatrick, than the more usual divisons between fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and imperialist neoconservative foreign policy hawks. Less remarked upon is a similar division on the left, between inside-the-beltway establishment liberals and the progressive grassroots, which has been newly energized by Barack Obama’s campaign. The blogger Digby at Hullabaloo, refers to these two camps as Villagers (the establishment) and DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). And one of the main things that marks these different groups is their use of language, which in turn reflects their different attitudes toward the intellect.

It does seem if Republicans are retreating toward their most radical core beliefs & adopting the attitudes of “low” conservatism & the rhetoric of small town bigotry, but that sort of politics seems to be losing its purchase in many places. Levittown voted for Obama. Michael Sokolove, author of the previously linked article, writes:

My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his [Obama’s] words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr. Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so beaten down that its not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion….

Sokolove concludes that a combination of race & “his manner of speaking” made it difficult for the blue coller workers of Levittown, initially, to trust Obama’s message; ultimately, they voted for him, along with similar workers in suburban Detroit and other places. On the other hand, his race & manner of speaking cut no ice with the voters of the rural south and Appalachia, where race continues to dominate. In Macomb County Michigan & Levittown, on the other hand, the fading of racism allowed Obama’s message, ultimately, to cut through the class markers embedded in language.

Those linguistic class markers interest me as a poet. It appears that particular uses of language, at least on the political right, distinguish “high” from “low” modalities. (This may also be true on the left but the cases are not parallel.) Sarah Palin’s soccer mom dialect delighted her fans partly because they heard their own voices in it, while the mandarins of conservatism found her repulsive. We on the left laughed at her because we associate mangled syntax with stupidity. Palin’s truly pyrotechnic dismantling of syntax seems to me to be a desperate & only partly conscious effort to mask her ignorance — what high school & college students knowingly call bullshitting (as a term of art) when they write papers on books they haven’t read. All of this gets amped up & fed back by audiences celebrating their own ignorance & taking comfort from the spectacle of Palin celebrating hers. So the demotic is in bad repute at the moment, having been turned to destructive purposes. What seems so horribly wrong about Palin’s speech is that it borrows the strngth of demotic English, not to express thought forcefully — as ordinary, even “ungrammatical” English can do — but to cover for dishonesty and moral aridity.

Demotic language — comedy, pop music, even advertising — can, used honestly, drive toward the truth; they can of course also be used to to deceive, cajole, flatter, & pander. My sense of president-elect Obama is that he understands this, though he strikes me as being a little uncomfortable with the demotic. But I feel a real sense of satisfaction that I now have a president who speaks, not in Bushian bursts of static or Palinesque knots of blather, but in recognizable sentences that link togehter into coherent thoughts. In order to lie to the public, Bush & Palin had to lie first to themselves. I don’t think the president-elect is lying to himself & consequently I don’t think he will lie to me.

  6 Responses to “Exhaling”

  1. Obama feels authentic while the others sadly do not.
    He is not tedious. As our President (de jure first, then de facto) he will govern as First Citizen. He has been legally chosen: no doubt this time about
    that. He brings inspiration, tradition, context.
    Eward Mycue

  2. There have been a lot of posts on Language Log about Palin’s use of language — many of which defend her linguistically (while calling for criticisms of her politics).

    I’m not saying she’s a great speaker, but if I were asked a question in public that I HAD to answer, that I did not know the answer to, and that I was not allowed to admit I did not know the answer to (for example, “What do you think of the Bush Doctrine?”), I would probably lapse into syntactical and grammatical nonsense as well …

  3. Andrew, I tried to imply without stating that I’m not criticizing Palin for merely being ungrammatical & wordy. I know the Language Long political line, which is straight descriptive linguistics & I have some sympathy for it (having rejected Orwell’s formulation of the problem long ago); however — and it is an important however — language can & is used to cover ignorance & hatred, or to camouflage ignorance. In Palin’s case, as I suggested, the motormouth syndrome is the product of self-deception as much as the attempt to deceive others. Ultimately, though, I reject the scientism of the Language Long party line — politics cannot be entirely separated from the use of language. What I would grant, though, is that there is a balancing if not entirely symmetrical misuse of language characteristic of the left. I think Barack Obama mostly manages to match his words and sentences to his thoughts & I find it very refreshing.

  4. You got me thinking some more, Joseph, which I really needed to do, because I have felt in the past two weeks or so that I have been giving Palin too much credit. The Lang Log posts on her speech made me listen to her in a different way, and I became aware of how cannily she can put register to use for rhetorical effect (in moving from formal to informal, and vice versa).

    But of course she is also using language in an incredibly evasive way, and not only when she is ungrammatical and obviously evasive. I wonder how much that evasiveness is part of the “charisma” of her presence that many journalists have described her as having, a way of toadying up to people she thinks she might be able to get something from.

  5. I have read some blogger — sorry, forget who — argue that Palin’s speech is modeled on that of the one realm where she has had unqualified success: the beauty pageant. That would support your thesis about charisma, I think.

  6. Geoffrey Pullum posted a Language Log post yesterday countering Mark Liberman’s line on Palin:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=841

    Pullum neatly uses Liberman’s own reading of Palin’s speaking “style” to connect a linguistic analysis with a political critique that is not partisan but simply criticizes politicians who do not speak well as in some way unqualified for office.

    It’s funny that I remember the “We need a verb” thing that Pullum refers to, but I always remembered it as being George HW Bush who needed verbs!

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