Bush, language, and ideas

The professor of English came into the classroom and gave the assembled students an essay and asked them to critique it. The students went at it with gusto, gleefully pointing out the many grammatical errors, the poor choice of words, the terrible syntax, the non sequiturs, the poor construction of the argument, the awkward metaphors, the lack of attributions and citations, and so on. They were unanimous in concluding that it was an extremely poor piece of writing.

When they were done, the professor quietly told them that he was the author of the piece. The students were stunned into embarrassed silence by this revelation. They sank even further into their seats as the professor said that he had worked long and hard over many days at writing it.

The professor finally said: “The reason it took me so long to write this was that it was really difficult for me to incorporate into it all the errors that you pointed out. What amazes me is that all of you seem to so easily write this way all the time!”

I was reminded of this old joke when George Bush recently made a statement defending Donald Rumsfeld against calls for his resignation as Secretary of Defense. Bush said: “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider. And I decide what is best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as secretary of defense.”

This was the latest in the never-ending stream of Bushisms (see here and here for regularly updated lists) which have been the source of much amusement and parody. For example, watch this Daily Show clip about the exploits of the comic book superhero The Decider and listen to this clever parody based on the Beatles’ song I am the walrus, which has the lyrics:

I am me and Rummy’s he, Iraq is free and we are all together

See the world run when Dick shoots his gun, see how I lie

I’m lying. . .
Sitting on my own brain, waiting for the end of days

Corporation profits, Bloody oil money

I’m above the law and I’ll decide what’s right or wrong
I am the egg head, I’m the Commander, I’m the Decider

Koo-Koo-Kachoo. . .

While I am amused by these things, I must admit that I am also puzzled by Bush’s difficulties with language and his repeated run-ins with the English language.

The reason for my bemusement is that Bush is the product of a rich and well-educated family. His father was President, his grandfather was a senator from Connecticut and a trustee of Yale University. Bush himself was educated at expensive private prep schools, majored in history at Yale, and obtained an MBA at Harvard. All his life, he has presumably been surrounded by people who have been well educated and would not have routinely made the kinds of speaking mistakes he does. Even if he was not a good student and shrugged off his teachers and classes secure in the knowledge that his privileged background and connections would enable him to get ahead, surely the way that the people around him spoke would have rubbed off on him more than it seems to have done.

First some caveats. You do not need a high level of formal education to speak or write well. There are many, many people who left school early and yet have developed a command of language because they love words, read a lot, and care about what they say. It also goes without saying that you also do not need to come from a wealthy background in order to learn how to speak well. And, conversely, not being able to speak well does not mean that you have nothing important to say. Formally correct language and quality of content are not correlated.

No, the puzzle with Bush is how he could have sent his entire formative years surrounded by formally educated people who belonged to affluent society and would have spoken grammatically correct English, and yet still speak the way he does.

At one time, I thought that he was faking it. I thought that he deliberately cultivated this down-home, aw-shucks, country-boy language, swagger, and attitude as a political strategy to appeal to ‘regular’ voters and avoid revealing his elitist background. After all, recall that ‘rancher Bush’, the person who seems to be perpetually clearing brush in Texas, bought his Crawford ranch only in 2000 when he was running for president.

But now I am not so sure. As the anecdote that begins this essay points out, it is hard for someone who speaks and writes well to make the kinds of mistakes that not-so-literate people do. Writers like Mark Twain and William Faulkner and Charles Dickens took a lot of trouble to recreate the language of their uneducated characters to make them sound authentic. To be convincing at it requires a writer to have a good ear for language and to study closely the speech patterns of the people he is writing about. There is no indication whatsoever that George Bush is willing to put in the hard work that this would require, although he loves to talk about ‘hard work’ and what hard work it is to be president.

There is also something artless in his Bushisms that make them sound natural. Someone who was faking a lack of formal education would likely say more obvious things like “ain’t” and drop his g’s. Except for saying “nukular,” Bush’s Bushisms are quite original and have a genuine air of spontaneity, not the kinds of things that sound like they were planned ahead. Could a speechwriter have come up with something like “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider.”? It is not crazy-wrong or stupid-wrong. Instead it sounds like something that a small child would say (like “gooder” instead of “better”) because children say things that they extrapolate from correct speech.

For another example, consider this quote when Bush was speaking to the press on May 30, 2005:

“It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of — and the allegations — by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble — that means not tell the truth.”

The problem is not that he misspoke and used the word “disassemble” when he meant ‘dissemble.’ All of us makes slips like that and people who are always in the spotlight and being recorded, like he is, are bound to be caught doing so numerous times. The problem is that after using the wrong word, he proceeds to patronizingly explain to the listeners, like a smug child would, what the fairly common word he should have used means. If you listen to the audio (scroll down to May 31, 2005) of him speaking, you will hear him stretch the word ‘disassemble’ out, like he was proud of using it.

(Amusingly, I read that “dissemble” was Dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day” for May 30, 2005, the very day that Bush mangled it. Did he learn that word from that site that day, decide to take it out for a test drive, and crash? The fact that he gave the definition suggests that he had just learned a new word and assumed that it might be new to others too.)

So what could be the cause of all this? It could be that Bush has some kind of cognitive disability. It may be something that developed later in life because it seems to be getting worse with time. (Just yesterday I heard him on the radio pronounce the word ‘heinous’ as ‘heinious.’) I saw a video clip of him in a debate when he was running for governor of Texas and he was very articulate. I do not recall hearing that he was famous for Bushisms when he was younger.

This is not a trivial issue about verbal gaffes and slips. Inaccurate use of language can often signal a speaker’s desire to hide the truth, to dissemble. When we seek to deceive, it requires us to use words in ways that hide their meaning and we can end up saying idiotic things. Careless language can also be due to sloppy thinking, that ideas are churning around in the mind of the speaker in an incoherent mess, and the fractured speech reflects the fact that he is speaking before his mind has formulated the thought. Neither of these things is comforting when we are talking about someone who has the kind of power that Bush does, whose words matter, and can create the kind of misery and destruction that Bush can and has.

As George Orwell wrote in his classic essay Politics and the English Language:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

In this day and age, we cannot really afford to have political leaders who indulge their foolish thoughts.

POST SCRIPT: How the eye evolved

For a long time, it was argued that the eye was too complex, precise, and subtle to have evolved by natural selection. It was the prime example used by anti-evolutionists in the period soon after Darwin’s ideas were introduced.

(Kirk Cameron still invokes the eye as an example of design, though why he bothered to do so just after his friend’s dazzling revelation of the much more superbly, and clearly intelligently, designed banana is a mystery. See the Post Script to this post to understand what I am talking about.)

Evolutionists have countered this by pointing out how the eye might have evolved, the stages that it would have gone through along the way, and the fact that some organisms still exist that display these interim forms because further evolution was not necessary for them.

This video provides a nice step-by-step explanation of the evolutionary process, with visual aids, showing how each succeeding step provides additional benefits to the organism.

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