21 October 2013

Doubleplusgood duckspeakers

Sarah Palin just delivered a striking example of her rhetorical style.

I strongly recommend watching the video to see and hear her delivery, even though I'm providing a transcript of most of it below.

In transcribing Palin's comments I've added a number of line breaks. This invites comparisons to Hart Seely's unforgettable setting of Donald Rumsfeld's speeches into free verse, and William Shatner's rendering of Palin's speeches in the style of Beat poetry, but that's not my intent. I don't want to laugh at this. I want to reveal the structure of her argument. Yes, there is one.

(In using this technique, I should acknowledge my debt to Mark Crispin Miller, whose book The Bush Dyslexicon demonstrates the power of looking closely at transcripts of politicians' comments.)

Responding from a report that President Obama had said that “nothing has done more damage to our credibility in the world and our standing with other countries than this recent DC fight” over the budget, government shutdown, and House Republican refusal to raise the debt limit:

what emboldened our enemies and
what empowered competitors was

his promise to
fundamentally transform America
from being
a solvent, free, exceptional country
something we’re not gonna recognize

also, what has
emboldened enemies is he with

doubling of our debt since he’s been elected
putting us on a path towards bankruptcy

and then

locking up pipelines and resources
that will result in us being more reliant on
foreign imports for energy

and then of course he having

left behind
his administration
left behind
our brave men
in Benghazi
to be murdered

and then of course there's

where he promised to
bomb Syria
because in that civil war
Syria was going to bomb Syria
and then we never heard another word again
about his threat to
bomb in a foreign civil war

and then of course most recently, Megyn, he

using our military
those who would fight against our enemies
our military
our vets
shutting down their memorials
holding them hostage in terms of budget deals
threatening to withhold paychecks
for our brave men and women

as for
economic competitors:
corporate tax rates
second highest in the industrialized world
that empowers
our competitors

You may have trouble following Palin not only because of the way her arguments jump around, but also because they are almost all incomplete. To decode them, you need to know that they are allusions to right-wing talking points. Take, for example, the allusion to President Obama's “promise to fundamentally transform America”: that's an allusion to a perfectly ordinary campaign speech from Obama shortly before the 2008 election which right wingers relentlessly quote out-of-context to claim that it reveals his sinister plans.

So how does this work? Does Palin just “get lost in a corn maze”, as Tina Fey memorably described the Katie Couric interview she quoted verbatim in one of her spoofs of the Alaska governor? Check out that segment:

That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the tax payers looking to bail out, but ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping tho— it's got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track, so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as— competitive— scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.

I submit that this is not just clumsiness. This is a method, if not necessarily a conscious one.

Mike the Mad Biologist has an excellent and chilling examination of this in his essay Misunderstanding Palin and ‘Palinism’:

I think the fixation people have on Palin’s complete policy incoherence and ignorance is missing the point.
Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
In this way, symbols and short phrases are the goal, not a means (although others, such as corporations and lobbyists, are willing to co-opt the emotions these symbols generate to further their own agendas).

I want to go a step colder.

From “The Principles of Newspeak”, in the appendix of George Orwell's novel 1984:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.
The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness.

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument
Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when The Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

Informed by that, I offer two more long quotes from the that appearance by Governor Palin shown in the clip up top.

Responding to polls suggesting that the budget crisis hurt Republicans enough that it might cost them the House of Representatives in the next election:

people who see the way that
I and Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and
a whole lot of other Americans see

that we are

Taxed Enough Already
of course
that's the acronym for the TEA party movement
we're Taxed Enough Already

and we believe that

the Constitution
that's the blueprint
that leads us
toward a more perfect Union


we will fight very strong
for that

so if the GOP is standing strong
on the planks and the platform
that represents
everything that I just mentioned
if we stand united
well then we
won't lose the House
and we
could even win back the Senate

I tell ya

fiscal conservatives
more energized than ever

after last night's bill
Americans came out as the losers
we're just going to
incur more and more debt
unsustainable spending spree that
Barack Obama is on


we're saying
enough is enough
we are energized

Asked about primary challenges within the Republican party in the next Congressional election:

here's the deal
what we're talking about right now is

the enemy of America's
economic freedom
is this
fundamental transformation of America

the enemy of the enemy is my friend
is any commonsense conservative's friend

so we do have to consider
a politician's record
truly what it is they intend to do
to stop this
fundamental transformation
and to
this stripping away of
our economic freedom


those who can't stand strong
to defend our Republic
to defend our Constitution

heck yeah, they've got to be primaried

otherwise we're going down


Journalists are poking fun at some duckspeaking from Donald Trump. I've included a little bracketed connective tissue to clarify the flow in the mind of the approving listener.

having nuclear

my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer
  • Dr. John Trump at MIT
  • [we have] good genes, very good genes
OK [my uncle and I are]
  • very smart
  • the Wharton School of Finance
  • very good
  • very smart

you know (if you’re a conservative Republican):

if I were a liberal
(if like, OK)
if I ran as a liberal Democrat
they would say I'm “one of the smartest people anywhere in the world”
(it’s true)
when you're a conservative Republican
they try
[to accuse you of being dumb]
oh do they do a number
that’s why I always start off:
  • went to Wharton
  • was a good student
  • went there
  • went there
  • did this
  • built a fortune
you know I have to give my like credentials all the time
because we’re a little disadvantaged
[because liberals accuse you of being dumb]


you look at the nuclear deal
[that Obama foolishly made with Iran]
the thing that really bothers me:
it would have been so easy [to do better]

it’s not as important as these lives are

nuclear is powerful
my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago
the power [of nuclear]
(and that was 35 years ago)
he would explain the power
of what's going to happen
[because the Iranians outsmarted Obama]
he was right

(who would have thought?)
[that my uncle was smart enough to anticipate Obama]

when you look at what's going on
with the four prisoners now
[Americans held by Iran]
(it used to be three, now it’s four)
(when it was three, and even now)
I would have said
“it's all in the [Iranian] messenger, fellas”

it is fellas
you know they don't
they [the Iranians]
haven’t figured that
the women are smarter right now than the men
[women earn more college degrees than men in the US]
[unlike the barbaric Iranians who mistreat women]
so you know
it’s gonna take them about another 150 years
[for Iran to catch up with the enlightened West]


the Persians are great negotiators
the Iranians are great negotiators
so (and)
they they just killed
they just killed us
[because Obama is a weak negotiator, unlike me]

Trump does not speak as much in winks toward rightwing media talking points as Palin does, but he does appeal to rightwing sentiments very succinctly without building an argument.

I note that both Palin and Trump are both regarded by their supporters as telling plain truths that ordinary politicians avoid.


And now we have Palin endorsing Trump.

Color me unsurprised. There is a pattern here.


The Nerdist has a crackerjack video looking closely at the way Trump talks.

Emily of the State <@EmilyGorcenski> has a tweetstorm on Trump's language toward the same point.

Trump doesn't speak in full, coherent sentences, because he's speaking a different language, one his followers understand but we don't.
It's fascinating in a “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” sense. He begins a clause, and finishes it with nonsense filler words.
But his followers have already used their bias to fill in meaning.
“You look at what happened in Sweden last night, they took in large numbers, they're having problems they never though possible.”
This isn't a sentence. It's three sentence fragments strung together that only make sense if you fill in meaning.
Sweden didn't take in large numbers of anything the night before, nor did they have problems taking in large numbers. No, this is innuendo.
And none of us know what it's supposed to mean because we're trying to reconstruct logical sentences, and not filling in with our biases.
The sentence makes perfect sense to his followers. A large number of muslim refugees caused problems that the lying media isn't reporting.
This style of speaking reinforces the biases of the listener, that's why it's so dangerous. We can't treat it as if Obama is speaking ConLaw.
Trump “says it like it is” by saying the first part of a thought and letting the listener fill in the rest. Exactly as it is in their mind.

Alexandra Erin has another long tweet thread using Trump's 2017 CPAC keynote as a way to look at his rhetorical style. A taste:

He's not making points, he's hitting notes of a familiar tune. Their brain fills in the rest of the song and dance.
People on Donald Trump's side have an amazing capability to believe that Donald Trump is on their side.
They can listen to him say three different opposing things, and if they even *register* the ones they disagree with, they assume it's smoke.
“He was B.S.-ing those other people. It's all just politics. He has to say that. But he meant it when he promised me ________.”
But a lot of them? Don't even register that he's saying anything inconsistent. They have classed him in their heads as on their side.
He always talk about the “winning again” in conjunction with war. He doesn't think we've won enough wars, he wants to win some.

@MadAlgorithm on the kind of rightwing conspiracy theories which are often the basis of duckspeaking allusions.

Most right wing conspiracies are meant to do two things. One distract and waste the time of left wing respondents. Two instill urban mythos that may be built upon and drawn upon later.
As long as the false narrative perpetuates w/o dying out it can be used. Particularly as out of nowhere rhetorical "gotchas!" Once it has ceased to be surprising or distracting, it can be dumped down the memory hole.
The false narrative is not meant to survive. They are created at high rates. Most die without ever catching public attention. Some do. It is by whatever is expedient and keeps eyes off of the real con.
There's also the facet wherein such urban mythos maybe brought up in discussion or formal political debate only to be denied as obviously false by the very same people who perpetuate it pretending they don't know what it is.
There is a kind of tactic in use where the utterance of the urban mythos is a political brinkmanship and an application of widescale, distributed gaslighting. bringing it up makes the utter seem deranged & vulnerable to be portrayed as such.
Indirectly, the mass manufacture of urban mythos in this form also serves to provide cover to the actual harebrained schemes that come out of the regressives.
Trump, the GOP, and the Russian collaboration being one such example. Which is a global industry predicated entirely on the business of just this.

The Weekly Sift talks about some related questions in Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric:

In spite of its books and intellectuals, Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally an oral culture. Trumpist conservatism is built on top of it. One of the challenges conservative Christians have faced since pledging their allegiance to Trump is how to justify supporting a man who has literally no Christian virtues, and who appears to understand nothing about the Christian religion.
That’s how oral culture works: This is the story we’re in, so we should do these things. No principles of action are being proposed, so you can’t argue about it in a Socratic sense. It arises from a process of community discernment, not a process of logical thought.

I quite like that analysis because it implicitly recognizes how this kind of oral culture and community discernment does have significant virgues which we have good reasons to respect, even while we also have cause to have frustration with it and opposition to it.

The Atlantic has an article around a similar theme: How Fox News Became A Language:

Political theorists, over the years, have looked for metaphors to describe the effects that Fox—particularly its widely watched opinion shows—has had on American politics and culture. They’ve talked about the network as an “information silo” and “a filter bubble” and an “echo chamber,” as an “alternate reality” constructed of “alternative facts,” as a virus on the body politic, as an organ of the state. The comparisons are all correct. But they don’t quite capture what the elegies for Fox-felled loved ones express so efficiently. Fox, for many of its fans, is an identity shaped by an ever-expanding lexicon: mob, PC police, Russiagate, deep state, MSM, MS-13, socialist agenda, Dems, libs, Benghazi, hordes, hoax, dirty, violent, invasion, open borders, anarchy, liberty, Donald Trump. Fox has two pronouns, you and they, and one tone: indignation. (You are under attack; they are the attackers.) Its grammar is grievance. Its effect is totalizing. Over time, if you watch enough Fox & Friends or The Five or Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, you will come to understand, as a matter of synaptic impulse, that immigrants are invading and the mob is coming and the news is lying and Trump alone can fix it.

Language, too, is a norm. It is one more shared fact of political life that can seem self-evident until someone like Trump, or something like Fox, reveals the fragility that was there all along. You might have observed, lately, how Americans seem always to be talking past one another—how we’re failing one another even at the level of our vernacular. In the America of 2020, socialismcould suggest “Sweden-style social safety net” or “looming threat to liberty.” Journalist could suggest “a person whose job is to report the news of the day” or “enemy of the people.” Cancel culture could mean … actually, I have no idea at all what cancel culture means at this point. Fox, on its own, did not create that confusion. But it exacerbated it, and exploited it. The network turned its translations of the world into a business model. Every day, the most watched shows of the most watched cable network in the country—a prime-time destination more popular than ESPN—take the familiar idioms of American democracy and wear away at their common meanings. The result is disorientation. The result is mass suspicion. Like a vengeful God bringing chaos to Babel, Fox has helped to create a nation of people who share everything but the ability to talk with one another.

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