Sunday, January 29, 2012


You’ve probably never had the experience, so bear with me on this one.

Two days ago I clicked on a link on an Economist blog and, alas, saw one of my finely-crafted sentences reduced to onomatopoeia.

Last Wednesday, blogging about Obama’s State of the Union address I opened with this sentence: “There’s talking down to people, and then there’s condescending.”

I was referring to a study showing that the most recent Obama SOTU address was pitched at an 8th grade reading comprehension level.

Our president was treating the American people like a bunch of 8th graders.

Then, on Friday, E. G.,  writing on The Economist blog called Johnson, reduced my sentence to a single onomatopoetic word: harrumph. If you go to the Johnson blog and click the hot link on the word harrumph you will arrive at my post.

To say that I am grateful for the attention would be an understatement.

Just so that you do not get any wrong ideas I will mention that the Johnson blog does not have anything to do with anyone’s johnson. It refers, respectfully, to the great 18th century British man of letters, Samuel Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language among other notable works.

In other words the Johnson blog concerns language and its usages.

Blogger E. G.did not merely call my sentence a harrumph. He called it a typical harrumph. (I will note parenthetically that I do not know whether E. G. is male or female. I will use the male pronoun as a default. If E. G. is a she, not a he, I offer my most contrite apologies.)

I have been trying to figure out what an atypical harrumph would sound like, but, alas, to little avail.

Still, an old British adage tells us that one good harrumph deserves another, so here goes.

The dictionary tells us that a harrumph is the sound one makes while clearing one’s throat. It is a non-verbal dismissal uttered by someone of, dare I say, a certain age.

You do not imagine a teenager or young adult dismissing anything with a harrumph. A young person would lack sufficient gravitas to issue a persuasive harrumph.

I will mention, and even underscore, that neither I nor the professors who established the grade level of Obama’s speech, said anything about the presidential IQ. My statement concerned attitude, not intelligence.

Hopefully, you can all see the difference.

You will also understand that those who have manned the ramparts to defend the intellectual superiority of Barack Obama have recently spent eight years happily impugning the intelligence of George W. Bush.

For my part I have warm positive feelings for The Economist. It is a great journalistic endeavor, an extraordinarily successful publication, and worthy of considerable respect.

Thus, I do not want to limit my remarks to the portion of E.G.’s post that concerns me. That would be egotistical… not a good thing.

Austin begins his post by creating the category in which he will embed my finely-crafted sentence. He mentions: “the endless stream of non sequitors surrounding America’s 2012 election.”

I ask you, what possible understanding of the meaning of the non sequitor would suggest that the notion that Barack Obama takes Americans, or perhaps his supporters, or perhaps Congress, to have an 8th grade reading comprehension level is a non sequitor?

What exactly does not follow from what here?

Note that I will not try to ferret out the meaning of the “endless stream.” It feels like bathroom humor and I choose not to go there.

Regardless, E. G. quickly changes the subject from attitude to intelligence. Let’s assume that he knows the difference himself but is obfuscating the issue, because otherwise he might have to explain why he thinks that it’s a non sequitor to say that Obama talks down and/or condescends to the American people.

It is, however, a non sequitor to change the subject from attitude to intelligence. No one suggested than talking down to people or even condescending to them was a sign of limited intelligence. Quite the contrary, you cannot talk down to people unless you are intelligent.

Austin writes: “For several years Mr Obama has been repeatedly attacked, from the right, for not being as intelligent as Democrats would have people believe. To be more precise, there are a lot of people who angrily object to the idea that Mr Obama might be reasonably good with words.”

Truth be told, no one really believes that a president writes his own State of the Union address. Neither I nor anyone also who contributed to what Austin saw as an endless stream suggested that Obama wrote his own State of the Union speech.

Presidents are busy people. They employ an army of speechwriters to perform menial tasks like writing speeches.

We were merely pointing out that Obama’s speech showed a man or a presidency that does not respect the intelligence of the American people.

One might have said that the speech itself was filled with mindless and divisive platitudes, phrases and locutions that the president had been using over and over again on the campaign trail.

Everyone knows that Barack Obama used the solemn occasion of the State of the Union to deliver a campaign speech. Again, this does not signal an absence of intelligence. It's a strategy.

To give Austin his due, a fairly large number of Barack Obama’s detractors believe that the claim about his exceptional intelligence is ... a myth.

The mainstream media has chosen to cover up Obama’s stylistic infelicities and egregious errors of fact. They have followed the Obama camp’s party line, stated explicitly by consigliere Valerie Jarrett, that Barack Obama is too good and too smart for America.

Someone whose leading advisor is a flagrant sycophant might very well be expected to talk down to people, even to condescend to people.

Like it or not, this matters. Today’s politics contains the myth that Republicans are stupid while Democrats are smart.

You wouldn’t want to belong to the stupid party, would you? Given a free choice, you would naturally want to belong to the smart party.

Austin should point out that the meme about Democratic intellectual superiority is an important selling point for the Democratic Party. How many people would rethink their political allegiance if they believed that Democrats were less intelligent than Republicans?

Impugning someone’s intelligence is not an idle slander. It’s a way to keep members of a political party in line.

This despite the fact, discovered by no less than the New York Times, that the more ignorant you are the more likely you are to vote Democratic.

Blogger E. G. dismisses as ridiculous the claim by certain right-thinking people that Barack Obama did not write the two best sellers that he claims to have authored.

If you do not believe that Obama wrote the two books you are, by Austin’s logic, part of a cabal that is working to disparage the intelligence of this brilliant man.

In truth, this issue has nothing to do with the charge that the State of the Union speech was addressed to 8th graders. It simply says that a man who is not a writer, who has never published another word, could not possibly have written Dreams of my Father.

It’s as likely as having someone who never wrote a note of music sitting down and writing a symphony.

The notion that an aspiring politician could hire a ghost writer and pass off a manuscript as his own work is not farfetched. John Kennedy did it with Profiles in Courage.

If you want to establish Obama’s brilliance look elsewhere.

As it happens, Obama has never released any of his grade transcripts or test scores. If the objective evidence is so compelling, why have we never seen any of them?

Blogger E. G. continues his spirited defense of the presidential intelligence by disparaging the Flesch-Kinkaid test. That test established that Obama’s SOTU was pitched to 8th graders.

He writes: “However, there's no normative weight to the Flesch-Kincaid grade level. The score is a function of how long the sentences are and how many syllables the words have. It's a weak proxy for accessibility, not substance or value.”

To test the test E. G. submitted Economist articles and found that they scored at or above the 10th grade comprehension level. This is the level that most previous SOTU addresses score at. I'm not sure what this shows about the test, but, as always: I report; you decide.

But then, he discovered that T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” scored at a 5th grade level. We can easily imagine that Hemingway would also have scored rather low on the test.

This is clever and entertaining, except for the fact that the initial researchers tested SOTU speeches against other SOTU speeches. That feels like a reasonable comparison. Comparing Obama to T. S. Eliot or Hemingway does not seem quite so apposite.

The long and short of sentence construction coupled with a comparison between monosyllabic and polysyllabic words might not tell us everything, but it does tell us something.

Since E. G. does not feel that I was being fair when I taxed the Obama White House with talking down and/or condescending to the American people, I feel duty bound to offer an analysis of the substance of the speech.

Was Obama’s speech a towering rhetorical masterpiece or was it a grab bag of empty election-year platitudes?

That feels like a fair question.E. G. wants it answered, and he deserves an answer.

Rather than offer yet another harrumph-worthy sentence of my own I will quote the justly famed Lexington column from The Economist.

Here’s Lexington’s take on the Obama State of the Union address:

IT IS becoming hard to remember that Barack Obama’s speeches were once described as inspiring, visionary and transformational. His state-of-the-union message on January 24th was none of those things. Then again, circumstances were against him. He said, as presidents must, that the state of the union was “getting stronger”. But everyone knows that the true state of the union is dire: 13m Americans are unemployed, the recovery is fragile and at any moment the economy could be blown sideways by a new gust of bad economic news from Europe. Nor, frankly, was this speech a useful guide to the administration’s legislative plans for the coming year. Since the mid-term elections of November 2010, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has blocked most of the Democrats’ legislation, and will continue to do so, which means that the president’s plans count for little. To be understood, this speech needs to be seen for what it was: an audition for re-election.

I hope that this clears things up.

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