Friday, October 24, 2008

Folksy as taboo in national politics? The Palin factor

I have found myself annoyed in recent weeks about media commentary regarding Sarah Palin’s use of language and other aspects of how she communicates. Such commentary has touched on several related but distinguishable issues. Among them are accent, use of colloquialisms or folksy figures of speech, cogency and coherence of unscripted remarks, and intellect. What’s bugging me is that some commentators entangle Palin’s use of language and her accent on the one hand with the caliber or substance of her policies and experience level on the other. I don’t find the former problematic per se, while I am deeply troubled by the latter. But I am also increasingly bothered by the media’s insistence on linking all of the above in a way that only exacerbates the resurgence in the culture wars that has been triggered by Palin’s nomination.

In the wake of the vice pesidential debate early this month, a number of columnists had a field day (oops, is that an unacceptable colloquialism?) with how Palin expressed herself. To some extent, media commentators collapsed what they had to say on that front into the policies she espouses and her preparedness to be President. Roger Cohen’s Oct. 6 column is an excellent example of this. His cleverly titled “Kiplin’ v. Palin” piece used Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919) to emphasize that we are living in perilous times. Like many other recent commentators, he quoted Palin at length:

“One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let’s commit ourselves just everyday American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say ‘Never Again.’ Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those managing our money and loaning us these dollars.”


I’m sorry, Governor Palin, words matter.

Cohen elaborates that "'Never Again' is a hallowed phrase," applicable to genocide, not the mortgage crisis, and cites this as evidence that the "world's gravity escapes her."

Fair enough. In Palin’s effort to express to voters her commitment to them, she insensitively invoked this weighty phrase. Later, in the same column, though, Cohen pokes fun at Palin’s accent, as manifest in her failure to enunciate clearly.

Palin, Mainstreeter that she is, loves to drop her g’s, so she’d no doubt call the poet Kiplin’. She might have asked, with that wink, to call him “Rud.”

That’s cutesy politics. But pigs still don’t have wings. The world’s still a dangerous place.

But isn’t Cohen’s dig at Palin’s dropped g’s done to facilitate his own cutesy headline, “Kiplin’ v. Palin”? His earlier point about the world’s gravity was stronger without the latter one regarding her enunciation thrown in. So, what is Cohen really criticizing, and precisely which of Palin’s shortcomings goes to her fitness to be vice president?

All of this had led me to think more about when colloquialisms and accents are OK and when they are not. That is, when does their use brand the speaker an idiot – or at least among the uninitiated, the unclean, and certainly the un-elite? Are the accents and expressions associated with urban places such as the Bronx and Staten Island as likely to hold speakers up to obloquy as Palin’s accent, which I have heard described as Midwestern? (Yes, I recall that I’ve previously called for the separation of the culture wars from the rural-urban axis, but the media seem to have put the related folksy-urbane axis at stake here).

I have long been under the impression that some Senators and members of Congress from rural states and from the South acquired a lot of power in Washington, and that they did so by being themselves. That is, they didn’t entirely lose their accents, and they probably rolled out a colloquialism or two on occasion. If they did not lose great credibility in doing so, why is Sarah Palin so roundly and soundly ridiculed for saying “doggone?” and “bless her heart”? Did Bill Clinton ever use similar phrases in polite company, in his public addresses? Was there a time he was ridiculed for the folksy turn of phrase with which Palin has come to be associated? Or was such criticism seen as out-of-bounds for him because his elite education had laundered his roots in the rural South?

Some commentaries on Palin don't hit below the (communications) belt but rather stick to the substantive issues. They include this one by Thomas Friedman and this one by David Brooks. Brooks goes as far as to call Palin "smart," while also seeing her as reflective of the Republican Party's turn to anti-intellectualism. I think he’s right. Thomas Friedman sticks to criticizing her policies and noting some inconsistencies among them. He also focuses on her lack of experience. All are fair points.

But other columnists have too closely linked aspects of Palin’s use of language that do not necessarily reflect on her intellect, with other aspects of how she communicates, which almost certainly do. Maureen Dowd’s acerbic “Sarah’s Pompom Palaver” mocks Palin’s use of “doggone,” “bless her heart,” and “reward’s in heaven.” Dowd is at least partially redeemed in my eyes because she also notes the awkward relationships that both Bush Presidents, among others, have with the English language.

Indeed, Dowd makes an interesting point about the Bushes that may shed light on Palin’s use of colloquial language. Dowd notes that “being mush-mouthed helped give the patrician Bushes the common touch.” Perhaps Palin has reasons other than habit for her use of language? These might include an effort to seem less intimidating, to be purposefully self-deprecating. Seems like the sort of thing a powerful woman might do. Easy as it is to forget, Palin is a powerful woman in Alaska, where she’s the proverbial big fish in a little pond. Much as she is an object of derision on the national stage, she is still the Republican nominee for vice president.

Thomas Friedman began his recent column with the metaphor “shooting fish in a barrel,” invoking it to express how easy it is to criticize Palin. What an apt use of a wonderful figure of speech. In that same paragraph Friedman tells us what Palin said that “really sticks in my craw.” Just this week in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman said he was in “hog heaven.” Did anyone flinch when Friedman and Krugman rolled out those folksy expressions? What would Dowd’s or Cohen’s response have been if Palin had used one of these metaphors during the debate or during one of her national interviews? Is it only the un-elite, outsiders who are not permitted to use what might be considered their own expressions? Does it take elite appropriation of such bits of linguistic Americana to make them acceptable, and is their use then reserved only for the elite? (I have written earlier about the capacity of urbanites to elevate the rural arts. Is this another example of that?)

Dowd makes another point about how Palin communicates, noting that her sentences “def[y] diagramming.” Palin’s spoken paragraphs, so often quoted in full of late, are certainly not very lucid. (Indeed, it can be difficult to know where the paragraph breaks are supposed to go since these are transcripts of spoken comments.) But how often do the unscripted comments of public speakers parse well, let along perfectly? I’ve listened closely to the comments of Biden, McCain and Obama in recent debates. Reading transcripts of their comments, set out with paragraph breaks inserted, would not necessarily be pretty. Like Palin, they use a lot of filler: “hmmm,” “well,” “also,” “now” and – for McCain – “my friend(s).” They shift topic abruptly and are rarely models of cogency and coherence. Yet I have rarely seen in the newspapers paragraph-length quotes of their remarks.

Bottom line: We should be clearer about what’s really wrong with Sarah Palin—as a communicator and as a candidate. Is it the figures of speech she uses? Her accent? Her failure to enunciate or pronounce properly (e.g., that “g” problem and her W-like struggle with “nuclear”)? Or the fact that she appears not to have a comprehensive grasp of the issues of the day and that she has had little relevant experience?

Of course these are serious times, and they absolutely call for serious leaders. There are plenty of reasons to believe that Sarah Palin is not adequately serious (to use Cohen’s adjective of choice) and, as significantly, that she doesn’t have the experience to be vice president or President. The fact that she’s a little on the folksy side is not one of them. The implication that Palin is not up to the task because she uses colloquial figures of speech not only misses the mark, it aggravates the culture wars. (Why do you think those men in steel-toed boots and Carhartts are rallying around her? It is likely not because they have always wanted a woman to be U.S. vice president).

Palin may be both unqualified and folksy, but surely she isn’t unqualified because she’s folksy.

1 comment:

Essie Webber said...

An acute insight, wonderful post! I wish I had made or acquired your insightful distinction between criticism of her language vs. her substantive qualifications during the 2008 campaign period. However, Gov. Palin is relevant in national politics (until we see how 2010 and 2012 shake out, at least) so it's a valuable commentary going forward. Thank you. Your blog is a newly discovered treasure for me.