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.