Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Sneering Times

Does sneering in the NY Times actually need to be chronicled? Probably not, because the Times sneers so regularly and obviously. Still, I can't help myself after reading Maureen Dowd's column pumping Caroline Kennedy for Hillary's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.

It starts like this:
Ask not, you know, what your country can, like, do for you. Ask what you, um, can, you know, do for your country.

After a lifetime of shying away from the public spotlight, Caroline Kennedy asked herself what she could do for her country.

Her soft-spoken answer — to follow her father and two uncles and serve in the Senate — got her ripped to shreds in the, you know, press.

I know about “you knows.” I use that verbal crutch myself, a bad habit that develops from shyness and reticence about public speaking.

I always thought that Caroline and her brother, John, had special magic capital in America because of their heartbreaking roles in the Kennedy House of Atreus.

Dowd goes on,

People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God.

OK, you're probably saying, there's no sneering here. Dowd is being nice to Caroline! She's making excuses for Caroline's verbal tics, saying her family background gives her political capital. So what if she isn't part of the corrupt political establishment? That's a good thing. She's a Harvard and Columbia girl and an author. Why is the press being so mean to her?

Compare all this to an earlier column that Dowd wrote regarding a different candidate's verbal foibles and family background:

Talking at the debate about how she would “positively affect the impacts” of the climate change for which she’s loath to acknowledge human culpability, she did a dizzying verbal loop-de-loop: “With the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that, as governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change subcabinet to start dealing with the impacts.” That was, miraculously, richer with content than an answer she gave Katie Couric: “You know, there are man’s activities that can be contributed to the issues that we’re dealing with now, with these impacts.”

At another point, she channeled Alicia Silverstone debating in “Clueless,” asserting, “Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.” (Mostly the end-all.)

A political jukebox, she drowned out Biden’s specifics, offering lifestyle as substance. “In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been, you know, all our lives,” she said, making the middle class sound like it has its own ZIP code, superior to 90210 because “real” rules.

Sometimes, her sentences have a Yoda-like — “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not” — splendor. When she was asked by Couric if she’d ever negotiated with the Russians, the governor replied that when Putin “rears his head” he is headed for Alaska. Then she uttered yet another sentence that defies diagramming: “It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there.”

Reared heads reared themselves again at the debate, when she said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “were starting to really kind of rear the head of abuse.”

She dangles gerunds, mangles prepositions, randomly exiles nouns and verbs and also — “also” is her favorite vamping word — uses verbs better left as nouns, as in, “If Americans so bless us and privilege us with the opportunity of serving them,” or how she tried to “progress the agenda.”

That's Dowd on Sarah Palin. 

You get the idea: if you're a Harvard and Columbia grad and a member of America's royal family, your weakness in public speaking and your tragic-but-tawdry family background are positive qualifications for office. But if you're from the rural middle class and talk the way most middle-American people do, well, go back to the dirt-floor cabin from whence you came, you garbling ineloquent rube.

Should I point out that a columnist who mocks the grammatical errors of others probably shouldn't split her infinitives ("to artfully market herself")?

One more thing. Dowd's "House of Atreus" reference is inapt. The House of Atreus was riven with internecine hatred, cannibalism, child-killing, husband-killing, mother-killing, and madness. The Kennedys are more like the house of Priam, with all the noble sons cut down in their prime, survived only by their sisters and mother.


Anonymous said...

David, I respect your disdain of sniping and sneering (scoffing is actually one of the BIG sins in The Book), I think there's an important nuance between the two examples you quoted. In the CK example, there are phrases like "you know," that drive people crazy when listened to in a recorded interview and are bad things for candidates or any public speaker. In the SP critique, it wasn't so much about a speaking style or overplayed phrase; rather, it was about the content of the speech. I think that's an important difference, however nuanced.

Ya think?

David Wharton said...

Not really, Sue. Dowd's attack was almost entirely style-focused. One sentence that she singled out as weak in content contained the fact that Palin was the first governor to form a subcommission on climate change. How's that content-less?

Roch101 said...

I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning -- or afternoon.