Thursday, June 23, 2011

"I"-less in Gaza

This just in from "The Fox Nation," a suburb of the News Corp. empire for those who have grown tired of the thorough fact-checking, impartial word choice, and careful separation of news and opinion practiced at Fox News proper:

The Obama "I"s have it ... as demonstrated in his speech on Afghanistan Wednesday night, President Obama loves to say "I" in his addresses. (That's it for the text of the item; for the Fox audience, once you say "Obama" and "I," you've said it all.)

As Mark Liberman at Language Log notes,* presidential pronoun use in the Wednesday night address has already drawn the standard reproof from the right-wing commentariat:

Obama is now openly mocked as "President Me, Myself, and I."

Probably true, but not necessarily relevant. If I was in a mood to pose hypotheses based on the reader comments at Fox Nation, I'd see if the "me-myself-I" theme started on talk radio. But in case you hadn't noticed, Obama is "openly mocked" about quite a range of stuff on the Fox discussion boards. The alleged rampant narcissism that's allegedly proven by the "I"-count (when it isn't proving "campaign mode" or the personalization of foreign policy) has been among the most persistent.** But the main point here is the evidence -- put better, the familiar lack of interest in what the pesky numbers themselves say.

Going by the transcript from Fox (with some tweaking; I kept "drawdown" as one word for nouns but made it two as a verb), I got 13 cases of "I" or "I've" in a 2,032-word document, or about 0.64%. Obama used "we" five times as often as "I" -- funny, it's as if he'd been reading Victor Davis Hanson or something -- and "our" four times as often. (By the Pascoe-Shirley standard, Obama's the guy Republicans want in 2012.)  If you're scoring along at home, he said "our troops" five times and "our men and women in uniform" once, equal to nearly half of his I-count.

Obama's down fractionally from his address after the killing of Osama bin Laden, where he was around 0.7%. For comparison, Bush Jr. was around 1% for his "Mission Accomplished" address, Bush Sr. at 2.2% for the invasion of Panama, and Reagan at 3.3% in his Iran-Contra speech.

Before asking What It All Means, it's worth borrowing a point from the Log's tally of pre-Obama inaugural speeches: When there's a lot more within-speaker variation than between-speaker variation, the answer to "what does it all mean?" is likely to be "not much." That's a statistical argument. It's about how big a difference you accept as meaningful and how confident you are that the difference is real, from which you proceed to figuring out what the difference means. And as you've probably noticed by now, those issues aren't in play here. The real answer to "what does it mean" is "Who cares? Let's yell and scream about Obama for a while!" Or, in a quieter tone of voice: "Officer, that colored man is walking down the sidewalk again."

Just to set matters straight, no. No one I know of is suggesting, or has suggested, that criticism of Obama is per se racist.*** That's a very vigilant straw man, but it's a straw man all the same. Public officials should expect criticism of their public performance, and "vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp" attacks (as the Supreme Court put it) are part of the job. Complaints about "personalizing" foreign policy are policy complaints. To the extent they're based on inability to count the things that might or might not advance them, they're pretty stupid, but the First Amendment doesn't say anything about stupid.

Nor is personality off limits; candidates who campaign on character (which is all of them, at some point or another) shouldn't be surprised when character becomes a point of attack as well. But the "narcissism" theme isn't based on a characteristic Obama is demonstrating, under terms of the examples cited. I'm firm, you're stubborn; the same bogus evidence that makes Obama a narcissistic man-child makes another candidate someone who "understands what it is about America that makes it great." And when that specific ingroup-outgroup distinction co-occurs so consistently with other themes -- Obama's love for flashy things; those awful people he invites to sing at the White House; his adminstration's attacks on white voters; his big-city thuggishness; his wife's thighs, hatred for America and passion for fried foods -- we're justified in seeing the specter of race.

Granted, it looks a lot more genteel when it comes with the authority of a pedigreed op-ed columnist. But ultimately, it doesn't matter whether you buy your sheets at Saks Fifth Avenue or at Target. If you cut eyeholes in the pillowcases, you're sending a pretty clear signal about your racial attitudes.

* Also providing a thorough list of previous Log posts on the topic, which editors will want to bookmark for use as this week's syndicated columns arrive.
Whether and how it's connected to another persistent set of themes, which run from Stymie and George Jefferson through fried chicken and watermelon to pleas for a good old-fashioned lynching, is a topic we'll get to later.
*** I'd take it as a sign of good faith if the complainers would at least acknowledge that the openly racist stuff is racist.

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