Tuesday, May 03, 2011


Seriously -- how long did you figure it would take for the "narcissist" theme to surface in (ahem) some commentary on the recent events in Pakistan? Take it away, hastily pardoned Iran-contra convict Elliott Abrams!

President Obama will bask in the satisfaction of all Americans that justice has finally been done—and done through an assault that combined the best of intelligence work with a courageous and well planned military operation.  It is entirely appropriate that Mr. Obama and the Administration get and take a fair amount of credit.

It is therefore unfortunate that Mr. Obama seems to want more than that fair share the American people will naturally and rightly give him.  His remarks last night were far too much laced with words like “I met repeatedly,”  “at my direction,” and “I determined,” trying to take personal credit for the years of painstaking work by our intelligence community.

Has this one been thoroughly beaten into the ground yet? (1) Despite the best efforts of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network (which has substantial trouble deciding itself), we really don't know what "I" means in isolation -- let alone what it means to have more or less of it. Which gets us to (2). Sorry. At this stage, it's pretty fair to conclude that huffing about Obama's alleged infatuation with first-person pronouns is the modern right-wing commentariat's way of saying "Boy, you lookin' at something?" The pronoun count here has nothing to do with what Obama says or how his pronoun use compares with anyone else's. If Coca-Cola had taught the world to sing "Land of a Thousand Dances," Charles Krauthammer would be along tomorrow bitching about how often Obama says "naa."

"At my direction" isn't an "I," but it's one of the phrases presidents use when they're explaining military actions -- like "on my orders" when Bush announced the invasion of Afghanistan, or "I ordered U.S. military forces to Panama" when his dad announced the invasion of Panama. You hesitate to even call that sort of thing "content analysis," in that it's really just "looking up televised addresses and counting stuff."

Anyway, on to pronouns! Using a modified Fox technique, meaning you ignore pronouns like "me" and "mine" but count assorted "I"-contractions, Obama's late-night speech on Sunday was about 0.7% "I": eight "I" and two "I've" in 1,388 words. He's a little under Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech (May 1, 2003), which was right at 1%, though Bush was down around 0.5% for the beginning of the Afghan war (Oct. 7, 2001).

The elder Bush managed 2.2% in his Panama address (Dec. 21, 1989): 17 cases of "I" in 769 words. He had no "I" contractions, and -- were you waiting for something interesting? -- didn't end by asking God to bless the United States of America.

Presidential speech, in other words, isn't without interesting stuff; you have to wonder whose scalp Obama would have to be wearing for him to leave the "God bless..." off a speech, for example. And there might well be some sort of relationship between the pronouns presidents use and what they're trying to do. As Mr. Abrams might have noticed if he hadn't been too tied up channeling illegal money to a proxy war in Central America to watch his boss on TV:

As I said to you in March, I let my preoccupation with the hostages intrude into areas where it didn't belong. The image, the reality, of Americans in chains, deprived of their freedom and families so far from home, burdened my thoughts. This was a mistake.

Reagan's Iran-contra address (Aug,. 13, 1987) rang up an impressive 3.3% on the I-meter, but not even Abrams (or Will, or Krauthammer) would be so monumentally stupid as to suggest he was grubbing for more credit for that remarkable set of policy blunders than the public was willing to grant him. And that's really our issue here. The narcissism theme is independent of the numbers -- indeed, of any evidence at all. It's just there to rub a little salt in the wound, in case people forget there's a smooth-talking colored guy in the White House.

Closing sermon for editors: When the Will or Krauthammer column on this theme arrives, spike it. Then call the syndicate and ask for a refund. Maybe the Washington Post will get the message that way.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Lovely! The Iran-Contra example, perfect.

No one has yet proven anything about what pronoun usage means, even if Obama used "I" more than anybody else in history.

8:32 AM, May 03, 2011  
Anonymous Naso said...

Surely 'grubbing for more credit' was precisely what Reagan was doing in that address. "This may look like I erred through arrogance and stupidity, but in fact it was because I just empathise with imprisoned US citizens too darn much."

It was pretty obvious to anyone watching that Obama wanted to take as much of the credit as possible - he'd have been foolish not to, and any other president would have done the same. THough obviously the pronoun theory is absurd.

Also, what's the justification behind not counting other cases aside from the nominative? Aside from the fact that Fox did so?

8:53 AM, May 03, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Fox is where the meme is spread, so you use Fox's own numbers to prove them wrong. Like they notice. Or care.

9:35 AM, May 03, 2011  
Blogger fev said...

Yeah, it's irresistibly tempting to fall for methodological sin just because Fox built a series on it. But all research is about tradeoffs, and you gain a slight advantage back by being directly comparable across time.

Nominatives-only is a dumb way to count pronouns, sure. But without some theoretical basis for arguing what first-person pronouns mean and what circumstances they mean it under, I'm not entirely convinced it's _a priori_ dumber .

I do have a defense tomorrow, and I probably won't be anywhere near that open-minded. :)

10:25 PM, May 03, 2011  

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