Stump Speech

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It’s sad to realize that the most entertaining use of language during the 2010 election campaign involved the shrieks of a computer-generated pig.

I’m referring, of course, to the Geico Insurance ad that shows a man asking portentously, “Can Geico save you 15% or more on car insurance?”, then answering, “Did the little piggy go ‘wee, wee, wee’ all the way home?” Following that, we see the piggy in question. He’s leaning out a car window, waving a party twirler in each, uh, hand, and squealing delightedly, “Wee, wee, wee! Wee, wee, wee! Wee, wee, wee!”, etc., until the driver, a suburban soccer mom, stops the car and snaps, “Max! Maxwell! You’re home!” “Uh, thanks Mrs. A,” Maxwell the piggy replies, and leaves the car, never realizing how rudely he’s behaved.

It’s hard to explain why this ad is funny. (A lot of people think it’s not.) Part of the explanation must be that it takes something that makes no sense (the “this little piggy went to market” nursery rhyme) and converts it into something that looks like a slice of American reality — the pain-in-the-ass teenager, unconsciously exploiting the harassed middle-class mom. This is whimsy, the form of humor that Monty Python generated by imagining middle-class English people reacting with courteous acquiescence to palpably absurd situations.

Unfortunately, the political campaign that formed the background to the Little Pig ad was going in the opposite direction. The combatants took a serious event, a climactic election, and converted it into a stupefyingly unamusing absurdity.

Paul’s reply was exactly right. “How ridiculous are you?” he asked.

There were few exceptions to this pattern. One of them was the internet ad attacking Senator Boxer of California, who in 2009 made a fool of herself at a congressional hearing by demanding that a soldier call her “Senator” instead of “Ma’am”: she had worked hard to become a senator, she insisted, and therefore deserved every inch of her title. The anti-Boxer ad was filled with characters — generals, judges, policemen, Boy Scouts, nuns, Indian chiefs — who also demanded that they be accorded the highest possible honorific, because they had worked for it. Don’t call me “Sister”; call me “Mother Superior.”

One other amusing episode was the penultimate debate between the two senatorial candidates from Kentucky. The Democrat, Jack Conway, demanded that the libertarian Republican, Rand Paul, tell him whether he thought it was a good idea to worship “a false idol” named “Aqua Buddha.” Conway was trying to take seriously, indeed solemnly, an alleged episode of sacrilege from Paul’s life as a bumptious undergraduate, many years before. Paul’s reply was exactly right. “How ridiculous are you?” he asked.

But few participants in the great electoral process followed his example by ridiculing the ridiculous. When the Democrats dug up a former servant of the Republican candidate for governor of California and held press conferences in which the woman bewailed the fact that her employer had believed her when she furnished a bad Social Security number, no one said, “How ridiculous are you?” or started to laugh.

No, this was an election conducted in high seriousness, an election in which the Obama forces ran TV ads showing the American electorate’s purse being stolen in a darkened parking structure by thugs paid with stacks of Mao Tse-tung notes — and nobody laughed. Ceaselessly campaigning against the Supreme Court’s decision to respect the first amendment, the president kept arguing that by purportedly spending money to express their opinions, his opponents were supporting dictatorship: “This isn't a threat to the Democrats, it's a threat to our democracy." Again, nobody laughed.

It’s important to notice that the word “our” was used far too much in this campaign, by both political parties. Aren’t you tired of the attempt to smuggle togetherness into every political conception? But I’m much more tired of sheer pomposity — and in that category, President Obama won the election, hands down. Now that Senator Byrd is dead, no one can possibly be more pompous than Obama. Note to Republicans: I know your own long training in pomposity, but don’t even consider relying on it in 2012. You’ll never beat the president, once he really cranks it up.

Think about the campaign speeches he delivered, month after month — speeches mercilessly reiterating a single metaphor: the Republicans had been “driving” the nation’s economic “car,” they had “run it into a ditch,” and now they were “asking for the keys back.” That was something, but it wasn’t much, and it shouldn’t have lasted long; because the longer Obama pontificated in that way, the more likely people were to remember that it had actually been Barney Frank in the driver’s seat, with President Bush riding shotgun. Obama appeared to sense the dullness of his ruling metaphor, because he kept adding things to it — images of himself working in the ditch, sweating in the ditch, rappelling into the ditch, and so on, all to fix the car that the Republicans had disabled. You were supposed to picture him as a combination of Errol Flynn and a working-class hero with “Barry” on the tag over his left pocket. Pompous? You bet.

One measure of a nation’s culture is its ability to identify pomposity, and conquer it with laughter.

And think about his long and deep meditations on human psychology, as vouchsafed to a coven of donors in West Newton, MA during the last stages of the campaign. This is the speech in which he attributed dissatisfaction with his policies to the backwardness of voters, especially working-class voters. "Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now,” he opined, “and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country's scared."

For a long time I’ve been saying that if you think the president is good with words, you should read his words. Look at that first sentence. Did you think it would ever end? Now look at his subject-verb agreement, or lack thereof: “facts and science and argument does . . . ” (This is a frequent problem with him.) Look at his use of that most clichéd of all current clichés, “hardwired”: “we,” meaning you and me, not him, have no more volition or reflection than a computer; we just can’t help committing thought crimes. Finally (because I have to stop somewhere), look at the bizarre assumption that we don’t agree with him because we’re deaf to “facts and science and argument.” Science? Does he want the Nobel Prize in Physics now?

That other great scientist, David Axelrod, did even better than his boss at turning normal discourse into absurdity. One of the scenes in Citizen Kane that always make people laugh is the one in which someone points out to Kane, the scaremongering newspaper publisher, that “there’s not the slightest proof” that a Spanish armada is preparing to attack the United States (“GALLEONS OF SPAIN OFF JERSEY COAST!” ); and Kane replies, “Can you prove it isn’t?” That’s exactly what David Axelrod said to Bob Schieffer of CBS News, when, on October 10, Schieffer asked him for proof that the foreign money the Chamber of Commerce was allegedly using to fund anti-Democratic campaigns was “anything other than peanuts.“ “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not?” said Axelrod. Unfortunately, Schieffer didn’t laugh.

It must have been hard to keep from doing that. I know I find it hard not to laugh when I hear partisan utterances of any kind. That’s true even when I’m dealing with a respectable political authority, such as Sean Trende. Trende is Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics (I’m sorry to say that this is the way they spell it). On October 18, Trende wrote an intelligent article for the RealClear site, comparing the election of 2010 with that of 1994. But the pomposity of politics infected even Mr.Trende, its analyst. His essay included the following passage: “This is a different kind of election than 1994, entirely. When my lay friends ask about this election, I explain that it is like seeing Haley's Comet; you'll usually only get to see it once in your lifetime.”

Trende may be right about the election, but what a thing to say! Maybe it’s Trende’s editor, not Trende himself, who mistakes the common mispronunciation (“Haley” instead of “Halley”) for the comet’s actual name; I’ll let that one go. I’ll also give Trende a pass on the common but nonsensical “different than.” But what’s this nonsense about “lay” people? The only distinction that I recognize between “lay” people and other people is the distinction between laymen and clergy. Are political analysts now administering the sacraments? How pompous can you get? And notice how easily that term rolled off Mr. Trende’s keyboard: no suggestion of irony, just the naive conversion of an honorable title — journalist — into a pompous absurdity.

One measure of a nation’s culture is its ability to identify pomposity, and conquer it with laughter. The next time Obama or any other of the new class of priests and “scientific” analysts stands up to pontificate, I hope there’s a chorus of laughter. That will solve most of our problems.




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Prof. Cox,
I am waiting for a collection of all your Word Watch articles in hardback. Please. My grand daughter who is majoring in English needs it.
Thank you for what you have produced. Please keep it up.

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