Saturday, October 04, 2008

Language and politics

A few notes from elsewhere on the intertubes, largely drawing on Thursday's debate. (Sorry for the delay; it's busy times here.)

1) A nice bit of quick-n-dirty crosstabbing at Language Log: words used more than 10 times by each of the debaters, with the Palen-Biden and Biden-Palen ratios for each. (Language Czarina wasn't hearing things; Palen really does say "also" all the time.) I wouldn't exactly say this table represents hard science, but it's a snapshot of how science starts: something looks like it might be interesting, someone figures out a way to count some representations of it, and the audience joins in looking at the results and saying "I wonder what that means."

2) The strange impression, flagged at Talking Points and The Greenbelt, that "Bosniak" represents some sort of error. It isn't -- you'd like to say "needless to say, it isn't," but apparently the impression isn't isolated. In a way, that's not surprising; "Bosniak" seems to be pretty much unheard-of in US news language (it shows up sometimes as a proper name) before the wars of the Yugoslav collapse. When it has worked its way onto the newspages since, it's usually explained parenthetically as (Muslims) or (Bosnian Muslims).

Why? For one thing, when it comes to socially inclusive language, news is a conservative field. "That's what readers expect" and "that's what we've always called Those People" are the sort of arguments that carry a lot of weight, even if "always" means "the three or four months since the death toll reached five figures in that war we've been ignoring."* Nor is the US news environment especially hospitable to international news these days. Radovan Karadzic's arrest was barely briefworthy for many organizations, if it made the paper at all.

The error -- that is, the error of assuming that "Bosniak" is an error -- doesn't seem to align with any particular political camp. Center-right babbler Cokie Roberts at NPR fell for it, but so did Will Bunch (left) and Mona Charen (right).** And that leads to something genuinely strange:

ROBERTS: If she [Palin] had said "Bosniak," everybody would be making a big deal of it, you know.
GOODWIN: Correct.

What's cool -- all right, "scary but clinically interesting" -- about that is how quickly the "analysis" of the debate has gone beyond whether something might or might not be true and on to how well it fits the appropriate theme or story line. Our experts aren't just assuming that "everybody" slept through the Balkan wars, but that there is no relevant political discourse outside the horse race. It doesn't really matter if a candidate was or wasn't paying attention during a defining moment for post-Cold War Europe; all that matters is what the pundits might or might not say after This Commercial Break.

That's the part of the much-derided "horse race journalism" that I find particularly scary and stupid. But it's not the worst thing happening in journalism, for which

3) We turn to the National Review Online:

He [Biden] said we didn't have to worry about Ahmadinejad because "the bureaucracy" is in control of the nukes, etc. I guess he thinks that the Supreme Leader is part of some "bureaucracy," huh? Good to know that the top dude at the Foreign Relations Committee has such a fine grasp of how theocratic fascist regimes work.

One is tempted to ask: Is this guy a liar or just a buffoon? (If it's the Michael Ledeen I'm thinking about from my days in the vast right-wing conspiracy, the answer is "both"). For one, Biden didn't say "the bureaucracy." He said "the theocracy" (it was pretty clear in the live exchange, and that's what CNN has in the transcript):

The fact of the matter is, it surprises me that Sen. McCain doesn't realize that Ahmadinejad does not control the security apparatus in Iran. The theocracy controls the security apparatus, number one.

I don't know how many people outside the Iranian bureaucracy have a "fine grasp" on it, but between Biden and the National Review, there's not much contest. It probably goes without saying that Ahmadinejad isn't the supreme leader of Iran. He's a knuckle-dragging populist ex-mayor with no known interest in or knowledge of the outside world*** who happened to be elected president -- subject t0 term limits. None of that means Iran doesn't present serious concerns for US interests, or that Ahmadinejad has suddenly become a nice guy, or that the bizarre unelected apparat of Iran isn't scary in its own right. It does suggest that there are people who have an idea about how the world works and people who don't, and the National Review is among the folks who really don't want you to know the difference.

Dumb can be fixed. Dishonest usually can't. Which of those concerns should journalism critics be spending more time with?

* Don't get me started on presentation editors and the Balkan wars. Don't even think about it.
** As of tonight, it seems to have only made a tiny dent in print journalism, and some outfits (Santa Fe, take a bow) have pointed out that "Bosniaks" is sort of, you know, like, an indication of having heard of the place before last week.
*** The nerve of some countries.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

As a guy at work said, Cokie's right. If Palin had said "Bosniaks" everyone would have been talking about it... unable to believe she knew the term.

And it's pretty amazing how many people seem to think that Ahmadinejad is actually the boss of Iran. Funny, they're the same ones (well, to be fair, some of the same ones) who haven't said the name Medvedev yet.

10:54 AM, October 05, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Maybe I should point out that it's funny because it shows they do kinda sort get that the "president" might not be the boss... some places.

10:55 AM, October 05, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

If I had time for another content analysis right now, I'd be really tempted to play around with the conditions under which, e.g., Putin gets to be rearin' his head and Medvedev doesn't. Iran was never personified as "Khamenei" when he was president. That seems to have been reserved for the supreme jurisprudent -- until Khomeini died and Khamenei succeeded him in that office.

12:54 PM, October 05, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I think that when Khomeini died and Khamenei took over, a lot of people thought they were the same man and needed the "living" leader.

3:19 PM, October 05, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Hmm. Can't rule that out, but I'm starting to wonder if there isn't some other antecedent egg behind both those chickens. Khomeini, Putin, Ahmadinejad are all cartoonable, to put it one way, and Medvedev and Khamenei aren't. How does that work? And how do you deal with exceptions like Tojo Hideki? (Personifies very well, but as far as I know never became a recognizable caricature a la Hitler and Musso.)

Evidently, further study is called for.

10:59 PM, October 05, 2008  

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