Palipunditry

by CarlD

I wanted to see if I could get two of my very favorite blogs to work together for a moment. For data we have Mikhail at Perverse Egalitarianism reporting the following utterance by Sarah Palin:

Well, Americans are caring about the problems in the economy of course And wanting to know what those long term solutions are that our ticket can provide and what the other ticket is proposing so when you talk though about what it is that we are proposing and what it is that Barack Obama is proposing again it is relevant to connect that association that he has with Ayers–not so much he as a person Ayers, but the whole situation and the truthfulness and the judgment there that you must question if again he’s not being forthright in all of his answers as to how did you know him, when did you know him, why would you continue to be associated with him!?

If anyone has a right to kvetch about the tortured English here it’s Mikhail, for whom English is among his various second languages. But for an analytic imperative I choose Gary from Muck and Mystery, who thinks that pundits could be doing a much better job of extracting useful information from this stuff rather than scoring easy points about formalist trivia:

I think that there is information in political speech about the ability to think and speak clearly. It’s not always easy to winkle out, and is often ambiguous. Punditry that has real value – if such a thing can be imagined – would be about this very subject. Those who pee in the pool – such as the “snarky intellekchles” in their cottages – would earn raspberries and public scorn.

Gary is teasing me with reference to my last post, and although I enjoy raspberries I’d prefer to skip the public scorn.


Clearly I agree with Gary that for the most part this stuff is a small thing. In that spirit, then, the question is whether we can learn something about Palin’s actual ability to think and speak clearly from the above utterance. Maybe. The first thing to notice is that none of us manage entirely to make sense from sentence to sentence all the time. Thoughts flee or pile up in mid-articulation. Perfection is an unreasonable standard. But what we do look for in competent thinkers and speakers is 1.) a history of other statements that did succeed, and 2.) evidence that the failed statement failed for a good reason.

We don’t have much history on Palin so we’ll have to skip the first test for now. As for the second, in political speech there are basically two good reasons to fail a coherence test. The first is if coherence is not the point, and instead the utterance is a collection of buzzwords designed to produce a pre-rational response. I talked about this in terms of sermonizing in the last post. The second is if an attempt is being made to collate a complex thought on the fly and the elements bottleneck somewhere between the brain and the mouth.

Let’s consider the complex thought possibility first. What would be the elements of it, above? We have Americans caring; problems in the economy; solutions proposed by Dems and Reps. This sorts out pretty readily into the simple thought that folks care about the economy and wonder what the two parties intend to do about it. Fair enough. Then we have Obama’s association with Ayers, specifically Obama’s judgment and truthfulness about their relationship.

We’ll need a little background to sort out this second part. Who is/was Ayers? The implication is that he’s a questionable dude, and by juxtaposition he ought to be questionable in relation to the economy, since that’s what the first part of the sentence was about and we’re offering friendly credit for unarticulated connections. Actually, he was a member of the Weather Underground, and by all accounts an especially effective version of the kind of narcissistic righteous asshole the 60’s counterculture produced in abundance. But he’s mostly over all that now and working for progressive causes within the law, which is where Obama found him. So unless Palin’s thinking is extraordinarily subtle, there is no logical connection between the first part of the sentence, concern about the economy, and the second part, Barack hangs out with mainstreamed former domestic terrorists.

In an analytic philosopher’s fantasy world I just made a decisive demonstration there. In real life I wasted ten minutes I’ll never get back. Political speech is not propositional, it’s rhetorical. In order to see if Palin is showing us something about her ability to think and speak clearly, we need to break down the sentence in terms of emotion-generating words and associations.

Here’s the sequence: economy, care; terrorism, worry. Nice. I care about the economy and I’ve had seven years of instruction in worrying about terrorism, so at the emotional level Palin’s pretty much got me pegged. There are probably a lot more words there than my lizard brain would prefer, but we’ve got a solutions and three proposings, which is good. And although the second part does not logically connect with the first part, the connecting clause asserts “it is relevant to connect that association,” so if I’m nodding along I might as well not stop now. Then we’ve got invocations of truthfulness and judgment, two of the high holy words, and finally three accusatory yous, pointing a finger out at the audience as I tell my students not to do, putting us one-down to her judicial authority for one more splash of productive anxiety before the relief of remembering that the pronoun reference is Obama kicks in.

Bingo bongo, there you have it. Palin is a little raw and mechanical, but she’s showing a precocious mastery of the rhetorical game. She understands that her current agenda is not to govern but to get elected. She has identified and effectively targeted her likely voters’ triggers. She has used just enough words with just enough syllables to fog out everything but the effective buzzers. By demonizing her opponent she has emotionalized and polarized the discussion, which is a classic underdog guerrilla strategy. And she has probably done all of this without thinking it through nearly this systematically, because as John McCain would say, “my friends,” this is electoral business as usual and works real well on playgrounds too.

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10 Comments to “Palipunditry”

  1. Carl, I think you’ve just singlehandedly saved analytic philosophy in its fight to the death with irrelevance and bad breath – Palin To Be Interviewed By Analytic Philosopher – now that is the story I would read… Seriously though, Palin makes long sentence folks like myself feeling a bit self-conscious. Just the other day I was doing one of those “I’ll just talk about everything at once” tirade in my class and all of a sudden I had a nagging thought: “What if someone were to record this and transcribe it?” I bet you it would be worse than Palin’s sentence – but hey this is what I’m paid to do (at least for before the depression hits)

  2. That’s me Misha, I see intellectuals huddled on the rooftops clutching their meager belongings while the rushing waters of reality creep closer and closer and even though it’s their fault for building on the floodplain I have to rescue them, maybe put up a tent city while we build them some affordable housing, a bit of retraining and some jobs in food service perhaps until they can get their feet under them, poor things.

    I call the kind of rambling you’re talking about ‘rough drafts’ and when I or my students produce one I’ll stop us and say Hey, that sounded like a rough draft, let’s figure out what we meant to say in complete sentences. Thus teaching them not to be very good consumers of the goods and services of mass politics, I fear.

  3. Does that mean Palin is giving us a sort of a “thinking out loud” kind of a speech? Where are all the cool cats with psychoanalytic training? If she is free-associating here, I’d like to get a translation, please. Hopefully it will all be over very soon – whatever will I do?

  4. I’m afraid not, because her speech is not about thinking, it’s about stimulating drool responses. The thinking is not in the words but behind them, in the long process of operant conditioning through which politicians of both parties have installed a set of buttons that they can use to play our emotions like keys on a piano. This is not, I would say, a ‘big brother’ kind of centralized intentional domination, but rather a functional narrowing of political discourse through a history of feedback loops through which politicians get pulled toward language, gestures etc. that produce satisfactory responses, then push back by seeking ways to intensify the reward.

    The rationalism of kantian enlightenment is really quite powerless to understand these ordinary human dynamics; even psychoanalysis, which at least in Freud was very much about finding the hidden rationality of the irrational. The field of communication here is emotional and even pre-emotional, simply reactive; it’s an appeal to an older part of the brain that activates and motivates based on preconscious reactions to habituated pain and pleasure associations. Because this is a neurological system that has millions of years of evolutionary head start on rationalization, and because it’s the one we use to live by most of the time, this is a very powerful communication mode. If you don’t feel it, there’s no translation that will quite get you there….

    So no, it won’t be over very soon, we may just stop paying attention to it for a while.

  5. I hate that old part of the brain, it always makes me eat crap like fried chicken… I agree with you on this sort of a strange loop, if I read you correctly, people tell politicians what they want and then hear it back from them and “rediscover” it, but if this is an observable phenomenon that we can discuss, describe and manipulate – otherwise it’s all just a coincidence, right? – then there must be some rationality behind it. I’m not suggesting there’s some shady overlord pulling the strings, actually it would have been better that way, but that things are going in a certain direction with this whole Palin phenomenon and there are lessons to be learned. I think that completely unintentionally on her part she has managed to actualize the kind of politicking that we’ve only seen in parodies of politics in the movies. I mean, of course, there are idiots who will vote for the ticket, but there seems to be a large number of “normal people” who are “energized” by her – energized by what? I wonder and I don’t think I can stop because this is like a gift that keeps on giving. I restrain myself in class because I try not to infuse partisan politics, but once the election is over and she’s the matter of the electoral past, I’m going to be all over it.

  6. Mmmm, fried chicken.

    Must there “be some rationality behind it?” No, not in the usual way we think about rationality as conscious intention; that’s the intelligent design fallacy. But there is an order and process to it that we can grasp and make sense of in a “things going in a certain direction… lessons to be learned” kind of way.

    As I’ve said, Palin’s a bit raw so what’s actually distinctive about her is that she hasn’t mastered the art of embedding the triggers in a superficially-coherent discourse. She’s got everything but the camouflage, and this is why we find her so fascinating, because she’s doing what they’re all doing right out in the open. People are “energized” by Barack too – energized by what? Folks who aren’t inside his rhetorical field don’t get effervesced and are completely baffled by why others do; to them he looks like an empty shirt, a smugly arrogant word-jockey. In contrast Palin does indeed lead them to rediscover themselves by cutting the crap and getting down to what really matters – family, care, security, independence, etc.

    We make our choices, such as they are, but I think what college could be good for is showing how partisanship works, not taking sides; and that’s doable before the election.

  7. You’re right, I suppose instead of “rationality” I should say something like “pattern” – are you suggesting that “intelligent design” is a mistaken view? Does that mean that fried chicken took millions of years to evolve from some sort of slimy amoeba? Maybe this will help the brain with resisting the chicken.

    I think I agree with – “she’s doing what they’re all doing right out in the open” – however, since she’s not doing it intentionally, but due to the lack of experience, and since people who love her aren’t taking it as what at least you and I seem to be taking it, then does it really matter? I mean she’s able to plug right into where people feel things immediately – as Colbert promised to “feel the news” at us – but we’re finding out these days that it is also where all the nasty stuff like xenophobia is – if she taps that resource now and then disappears after the election, are we not going to be stuck with the consequences? Let’s face it, polls are in Obama’s favor and unless something drastic happens, he’s going to win – we will have the first black president with a large number of angry people thinking they now a “terrorist” president…

  8. You’re right, emotional hangover is a concern. I’ve said a little of what I’m thinking about the race part of this in the big stigma, little stigma post. Clearly latent racism can get into escalating feedback loops in uncertain times, as various pogroms and genocides show. But there are also diminishing psychological returns to pushing the same button over and over when the rewards for response are unsatisfying. That’s a damping loop. To be honest, I just don’t think there’s much juice left in race-baiting right now for most people. Certainly there’s a core constituency for it. The terrorism thing is also losing some bite as 9/11 fades in memory. The Republicans are grasping at some rotten old straws in their desperation to squeeze out every last vote.

    The xenophobia/’illegal immigrant’ thing is much more fresh and raw; there’s room for a lot of mischief there. However, I suspect the current troubles with the big corporate economy are bleeding a lot of attention and active anger away from that. Obama gets at least a bit of a honeymoon on the strength of that issue. But once it turns out he can’t fix everything with a wave of his Ivy-educated multicultural hand, I expect a lot of old resentments to come bubbling up and get attached to him. That would be true for anyone who won this particular election, although in his case some of that discourse will certainly be repulsively racialized. But these are just a few of the factors in play.

  9. I have nothing useful to add, you’re saying it well. I especially liked “I think what college could be good for is showing how partisanship works, not taking sides”; and the “once it turns out he can’t fix everything” bit.

    I can add a personal anecdote. Some of the rural folk I deal with talk much like Palin. Some of them are very smart and very rich though they started with squat and dress in rags still. It is a mistake to underestimate them or assume that they don’t understand urbo-speak just because they don’t talk that way. Part of it is an act, costly signalling in a way, that communicates a world of meaning to their intended audience. It’s camouflage for a deadly predator, so to speak.

  10. Thanks. This point about costly signaling is important. In some ways it’s intentional but mostly it’s a cultural adaptation to conditions.

    What conditions? I’m trying to think between your comment here and the great points you made about women like Sarah Palin in your own Quackdoodle post. The quick and dirty reason rural folk are camouflaging is that historically they’re now one-down to the city folks (‘bourgeoisie’, the lords of the global capital fields). People who can get what they want directly don’t resort to subterfuge and manipulation. Accordingly, in metaphorical terms of power dynamics the rurals are the women, and the urbans are the men.

    There’s a lot of very creative work done by underdogs to undermine and level playing fields. Even so, if you accept the metaphor, are you still inclined to say that women are “dominant?”

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