Academic Linguist: Palin Speaks Like A Cognitive “Toddler,” Linguistically She’s “A Child”palin-mcwhorter-crap-social-sciencePer IMAO, for a liberal, there is nothing more important than feeling you are smart. How do they help one another satisfy this absolutely critical, totally overarching need? It turns out, obnoxiously.

There’s a certain species of liberal who seeks out and bonds with other liberals on the basis of a kind of social pact: I’ll pretend that you’re really smart if you’ll pretend that I’m really smart. Eventually the really keen-sounding explanations rise to the top as kinds of shibboleths, where bien pensant Blue Staters intone them as evidence of mutual sophistication. Behaviorally this is locked in at fashionable cocktail parties – and, a little earlier in a liberal’s life, around the bong – by having participants alternate between enthusiastic nodding and faux outrage whenever shiny talismans of rhetorical credibility get flashed.

HuffPo has built an entire business model on providing readers with sophisticated-sounding pretexts for liberal dogma. Ditto for Thomas Frank and George Lakoff. And of course there’s Paul Krugman, whose braying allows young liberals to think that conservatives oppose government wealth redistribution because they just haven’t heard of the multiplier effect. If only those wingnuts would read more, ya know?

The downside of this oh-so-affirming arrangement is that liberals have to instinctively avoid things that might upset them. Republicans can’t really pull that off. They’ve got fervent little cultists getting into their faces at the behest of Dear Leader and his community organizing friends. Plus legacy media still exists and selective exposure is still far from total.

But for liberals, entire state-funded institutions exist so they can go months without encountering disagreement from the right. The problem with the subsequent cocooning isn’t just that they don’t know things. It’s that they lack even a sense for what you don’t know. That’s how you end up with Krugman going into histrionics about how “you’ll search in vain for anything comparably menacing” from the left as Sarah Palin’s target map of vulnerable Dem-controlled House districts. Opps! It’s how you get Gibbs defiantly insisting that it’s impossible to “imagine [that] just a few years ago… somebody walked around with images of Hitler.” Not so much actually.

“We liberals are good and those wingnuts are bad” becomes the template that gets stamped on everything, because it’s the only thing. It’s not just ideology. It’s that many exuberant cocooned liberals don’t know there are live arguments out there. If they did they wouldn’t be so exuberant. Ergo Howard Dean blasting right-wing Court justices for the Kelo decision.

Academia is the perfect cocooning storm. It’s not only filled with liberals who affirm each other’s sophistication on a daily basis. It also has the resources to produce and publish ever newer and more condescending crap anti-conservative social science. Create enough “research” demonstrating that conservativism is a mental handicap and – if you’re lucky – you might get plucked out of obscurity to explain it to other liberals on MSNBC! That way folks in Santa Monica and Boston won’t have to fear the occasional, accidentally-overheard conservative argument on NPR. Since those arguments are just evolutionary holdovers, they can safely be tuned out.

A lot of this happens because it’s tough to get by on numbers alone. Our White House Vulcan Socrates might come close, but for the rest of the left sneering is helpful as the flip side to intellectual back patting (and even President Pythagoras regularly resorts to snide mockery). That’s why Lakoff very popularly used crap neuroscience – defended on the basis of brazen intellectual dishonesty – to explain why conservatives are so wrong. They reject activist judges not out of any coherent philosophy but because they seek out (metaphorically) abusive father figures. They reject centralized state control not because they think that the economy is too complicated for effective planning but because they’re cognitively disabled from thinking in terms of systems.

That last part would probably have been a revelation to all those conservatives who emphasize the necessity of markets in an impossibly complex environment, except they were undoubtedly too stupid to see the contradiction.

Which brings us to this nonsense by John McWhorter, a linguist who is usually pretty careful. Not this time. Maybe it’s personal distaste for Palin. Maybe it’s something else. But he really should’ve known better than to lend academic imprimatur to nutroots propaganda. It’s just unseemly, on top of being wrong. And yet here it is – as exquisite a piece of anti-conservative pseudo-sophistication as you’ll find:

What truly distinguishes Palin’s speech is its utter subjectivity: that is, she speaks very much from the inside of her head, as someone watching the issues from a considerable distance. The there fetish, for instance — Palin frequently displaces statements with an appended “there,” as in “We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there…” But where? Why the distancing gesture? At another time, she referred to Condoleezza Rice trying to “forge that peace.” That peace? You mean that peace way over there… All of us use there and that in this way in casual speech — it’s a way of placing topics as separate from us on a kind of abstract “desktop” that the conversation encompasses… But Palin, doing this even when speaking to the whole nation, is no further outside of her head than we are when talking about what’s going on at work over a beer. The issues, American people, you name it, are “there” — in other words, not in her head 24/7. She hasn’t given them much thought before; they are not her. They’re that, over there.

This reminds me of toddlers who speak from inside their own experience in a related way… Sarah Palin can talk, basically, like a child and be lionized by a robust number of perfectly intelligent people as an avatar of American culture. And linguistically, let’s face it: she is.


No, of course that’s not true:

But there’s another set of reasons for using that and there — not to signal distance from the referent, but to establish fellowship with the audience. The OED’s entry for that as a “demonstrative adjective” sketches the cause and the effect… When Frank Sinatra sings about “that old black magic”, or about “Chicago, that toddlin’ town”, it’s not because the magic and the city are “that, over there”, things that he “hasn’t given … much thought [to] before”. On the contrary, they’re a familiar part of his mental life, and by treating them as “assumed to be known” to the audience, he draws us in as well. Similarly, Billie Holiday’s reference to “them there eyes” is a form of endearment, not a distancing mechanism… So yes, Sarah Palin uses distal demonstratives more than other public figures do, and she often uses them in different ways. This is partly a folksy regionalism, and partly a personal quirk, but contrary to John’s analysis… it’s because she’s welcoming all of us into the familiar space of that good old American experience there.

That second quote comes from Language Log’s Mark Liberman, who is himself a top linguist and a serious, careful liberal. I once half-suggested otherwise and was immediately treated to a succinct, excruciatingly gracious, and distressingly thorough dismantling. It’s not that academics like Liberman or Steven Pinker – the neuroscientist who, though politically to Lakoff’s left, dismantled him on the science – don’t exist. It’s just that they’re not the high priests of the nutroots church, while Lakoff, Krugman and their ilk are. Strange, that.

Comments are closed.