Terrance Heath

Between You and I

Filed By Terrance Heath | March 02, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, grammar, I or me

File this one under, “Are You Kidding Me With This?”

I didn’t see this one coming, but apparently grammarians have pounced on Obama already, just one month into his presidency.

WHEN President Obama speaks before Congress and the nation tonight, he will be facing some of his toughest critics.

Grammar junkies.

Since his election, the president has been roundly criticized by bloggers for using "I" instead of "me" in phrases like "a very personal decision for Michelle and I" or "the main disagreement with John and I" or "graciously invited Michelle and I."

The rule here, according to conventional wisdom, is that we use "I" as a subject and "me" as an object, whether the pronoun appears by itself or in a twosome. Thus every "I" in those quotes ought to be a "me."

Let’s keep in mind that, just a few months ago, Obama was a bit too well spoken.

According to presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, some Americans might find it "alienating" to have a president who speaks English as if it were his first language.

"Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement," says Mr. Logsdon. "If he keeps it up, he is running the risk of sounding like an elitist."

The historian said that if Mr. Obama insists on using complete sentences in his speeches, the public may find itself saying, "OK, subject, predicate, subject, predicate--we get it, stop showing off."

The president-elect's stubborn insistence on using complete sentences has already attracted a rebuke from one of his harshest critics, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

OK. that one was probably a parody, but the blogger whose post led me to it has a point.

Black folks will never catch a break. If we use poor grammar, people complain and call us ghetto and uneducated. If we use proper grammar, we’re called elitists - or sadity as my family members used to call me.

The real problem here is that no one expects to hear Black people using proper grammar. In high school, I edited my white friends’ English papers for them only to have them receive higher grades than I did. It seems Mrs. Dunaway approached my paper with a much more critical eye than the one she used when she graded her white students’ papers.

Classist Americans of all races want Black Americans to remain in “their place.” Educated Black Americans scare the hell out of people who have to step outside their comfort zone - a zone they live in when they deal with people they assume are less educated than they are.

I have to be honest with my readers and state that I’ve read emails, letters and blog posts written by people who have an advanced degree and I’m shocked by the plethora of grammatical errors I see. I see “your” instead of “you’re” a lot. I see “alot” instead of “a lot” quite often. I see “their” instead of “they’re” or “there” way more than I should. Just how many Americans will really notice that Obama’s grammar is impeccable?

On the other hand Given the -- albeit limited -- success of George W. Bush, his language problems seem to endear him to to his base. In fact, it was his apparently chosen stupidity that wooed them.

In reality, however, there’s more to it. Bush’s assorted malapropisms, solecisms, gaffes, spoonerisms, and truisms tend to imply that his lack of fluency in English is tantamount to an absence of intelligence. But as we all know, the inarticulate can be shrewd, the fluent fatuous. In Bush’s case, the symptoms point to a specific malady--some kind of linguistic deficit akin to dyslexia--that does not indicate a lack of mental capacity per se.

…But if “numskull” is an imprecise description of the president, it is not altogether inaccurate. Bush may not have been born stupid, but he has achieved stupidity, and now he wears it as a badge of honor. What makes mocking this president fair as well as funny is that Bush is, or at least once was, capable of learning, reading, and thinking. We know he has discipline and can work hard (at least when the goal is reducing his time for a three-mile run). Instead he chose to coast, for most of his life, on name, charm, good looks, and the easy access to capital afforded by family connections.

The most obvious expression of Bush’s choice of ignorance is that, at the age of 57, he knows nothing about policy or history. After years of working as his dad’s spear-chucker in Washington, he didn’t understand the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, the second- and third-largest federal programs. Well into his plans for invading Iraq, Bush still couldn’t get down the distinction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the key religious divide in a country he was about to occupy. Though he sometimes carries books for show, he either does not read them or doesn’t absorb anything from them. Bush’s ignorance is so transparent that many of his intimates do not bother to dispute it even in public. Consider the testimony of several who know him well.

He appealed to a swath of the voting public to whom what one believes is more important than what one knows, and who reveled in what Eric Alterman called “The New Know-Nothingism” in 2003.

Conservatives, and some not so conservatives, are testing out a new thesis in their effort to shut out ideas that make them uncomfortable: Any attempt to analyze the origins of a distasteful phenomenon is tantamount to endorsing it. Whether the problem is global terrorism or anti-Semitism, the message is the same. “It’s bad. It must be condemned. That’s all we need to know.”

The new Know-Nothings’ target is the pugnacious economist/New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman. In a piece exploring the political roots of recent anti-Semitic remarks by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Krugman noted that Bush Administration policies had helped provide grist for Mahathir’s scapegoating tactics, which derive from the complicated ethnic balancing act he must perform to stay in power and promote his nation’s fragile prosperity. Nowhere in the column did Krugman, a Jew, even hint that Mahathir’s words were remotely justified. Indeed, he called them “inexcusable” and has written quite critically of Mahathir in the past. But the mere idea that he thought it worthwhile to look into what might have caused such an outburst led immediately to hysterical calls for Krugman’s head.

Krugman, head still intact, further defined it in 2008.

Now, I don't mean that G.O.P. politicians are, on average, any dumber than their Democratic counterparts. And I certainly don't mean to question the often frightening smarts of Republican political operatives.

What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism -- the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there's something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise -- has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party's de facto slogan has become: "Real men don't think things through."

…Let's also not forget that for years President Bush was the center of a cult of personality that lionized him as a real-world Forrest Gump, a simple man who prevails through his gut instincts and moral superiority. "Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man," declared Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2004. "He's not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world."

It wasn't until Hurricane Katrina -- when the heckuva job done by the man of whom Ms. Noonan said, "if there's a fire on the block, he'll run out and help" revealed the true costs of obliviousness -- that the cult began to fade.

What's more, the politics of stupidity didn't just appeal to the poorly informed. Bear in mind that members of the political and media elites were more pro-war than the public at large in the fall of 2002, even though the flimsiness of the case for invading Iraq should have been even more obvious to those paying close attention to the issue than it was to the average voter.

That cult of obliviousness reached its peach during the election when it morphed into a “cult of mediocrity.”

Does what we've thus far applied to intellect in political hopefuls now apply to pounds and pulse rates? I hope not. I hope we're smarter than that, still. Or maybe we resent being told we are smarter than that, should be smarter than that, or can be smarter than that. Maybe we resent being told we can do better, because the implication is that we should be doing better, which forces us to think about why we're not. That means thinking about what we're not doing, and why we're not doing it.

I call it the "Oprah factor." Legend has it, her popularity increases as her weight does (comedian Kathy Griffith compares it to "a hug from Jesus"), because she seems "more like us." On the other hand, her popularity goes down when she's on one of her "live your best life kicks." (Unless she punctuates it with another spectacular "giveaway" show.) Never mind that it's coming from someone who knows from experience a thing or two about improving his or her station in life, because he or she started in a place not too far from where we are.

Maybe that's what we resent.

Or do we really believe that the most fit candidate -- the one most likely to know something about the country's we have dealings with, to keep up with current events, and perhaps even take in new information and think critically about his own position, as well as being healthy enough for the stresses of the job -- is actually the least fit for office?

Just in case, maybe the Obama campaign should keep him off the basketball court, and make sure he puts on a few pounds before the debates. Just to be safe.

After all, talking heads were reduced to asking out loud: “Do we really need the president to be smart?”

It should have flamed out in the know-nothing candidacy of Sarah Palin, but conservative pundits -- with straight faces -- actually called her ignorance an asset.

Where to begin? I'm only sorry that clip didn't include the "We will not have another cold war," quote. With the "Bush Doctrine" question still ringing in the air, it's suddenly unacceptable to invade to sovereign nation, unprovoked? Isn't the Georgia/Ossetia dust-up the Bush Doctrine in action?

Again, it's the kind of question that any smart politician who knew anything about foreign policy would find a way to answer without even remotely alluding to the possibility of going to war with Russia. (In that sense, the Bush administration has even backed off the Bush Doctrine, in a fashion, suddenly preferring diplomacy.)

But Palin isn't a smart politician who knows anything about foreign policy. And that ignorance is an asset, according to some Republicans.

Robert Kagan says it's elitist to expect a President of the United States to be knowledgeable about national security issues:

Robert Kagan, a foreign policy advisor to McCain, derided criticisms of Palin as elitist.

"I don't take this elite foreign policy view that only this anointed class knows everything about the world," he said. "I'm not generally impressed that they are better judges of American foreign policy experience than those who have Palin's experience."

Based on the structure of the situation, it's plausible that Kagan is just being opportunistically dishonest here and trying to say something useful to the Republican ticket. But based on having read Kagan's work over the years, I think that's wrong and he's absolutely being honest. Kagan, like most neoconservatives, thinks that in-depth knowledge of foreign countries and the politics and culture of foreign societies isn't helpful in thinking about foreign policy questions. Similarly, they believe that in-depth knowledge of theoretical and empirical work in the field of international relations isn't helpful. Indeed, they think that this kind of in-depth knowledge is actually harmful. They prefer the judgment of people who have little knowledge of the outside world but do possess a degree of gut-level nationalism.

It worked well enough that some Democrats and progressives were worried Obama might lose by sounding too smart.

Before long, Obama and Biden will have to defend themselves against accusations that they’re smart. They’ll start claiming that they not only didn’t know what the Bush Doctrine is but that they were unaware that Bush was even president. “We thought we were running against his father,” they’ll say. “We were too busy going to church and shooting animals and saying ‘No’ to lobbyists to pay attention to any of that Washington election nonsense. Hell, we don’t even know how to read.”

And the election will become about who’s dumber and more ignorant.

And you know which party’s going to win that one.

Because that wasn’t what America wanted.

The defining moment for me came shortly after Palin and her family stepped down from the stage to uproarious applause, looking happy enough to throw a whole library full of books into a sewer. In the crush to exit the stadium, a middle-aged woman wearing a cowboy hat, a red-white-and-blue shirt and an obvious eye job gushed to a male colleague they were both wearing badges identifying them as members of the Colorado delegation at the Xcel gates.

“She totally reminds me of my cousin!” the delegate screeched. “She’s a real woman! The real thing!”

I stared at her open-mouthed. In that moment, the rank cynicism of the whole sorry deal was laid bare. Here’s the thing about Americans. You can send their kids off by the thousands to get their balls blown off in foreign lands for no reason at all, saddle them with billions in debt year after congressional year while they spend their winters cheerfully watching game shows and football, pull the rug out from under their mortgages, and leave them living off their credit cards and their Wal-Mart salaries while you move their jobs to China and Bangalore.

And none of it matters, so long as you remember a few months before Election Day to offer them a two-bit caricature culled from some cutting-room-floor episode of Roseanne as part of your presidential ticket. And if she’s a good enough likeness of a loudmouthed middle-American archetype, as Sarah Palin is, John Q. Public will drop his giant-size bag of Doritos in gratitude, wipe the Sizzlin’ Picante dust from his lips and rush to the booth to vote for her. Not because it makes sense, or because it has a chance of improving his life or anyone else’s, but simply because it appeals to the low-humming narcissism that substitutes for his personality, because the image on TV reminds him of the mean, brainless slob he sees in the mirror every morning.

…The great insight of the Palin VP choice is that huge chunks of American voters no longer even demand that their candidates actually have policy positions; they simply consume them as media entertainment, rooting for or against them according to the reflexive prejudices of their demographic, as they would for reality-show contestants or sitcom characters. Hicks root for hicks, moms for moms, born-agains for born-agains. Sure, there was politics in the Palin speech, but it was all either silly lies or merely incidental fluffery buttressing the theatrical performance. A classic example of what was at work here came when Palin proudly introduced her Down syndrome baby, Trig, then stared into the camera and somberly promised parents of special-needs kids that they would “have a friend and advocate in the White House.” This was about a half-hour before she raised her hands in triumph with McCain, a man who voted against increasing funding for special-needs education.

And it lives on, as conservatives like Michael Steele spout that “Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job,” and conservatives like Michelle Bachman reveal that we’re “running out of rich people in this country.”

But there is hope that its on its way to the endangered species list, because after eight years of this:

And this:

And after being offered this:

Build your own custom video playlist at embedr.com

Americans chose differently.

Build your own custom video playlist at embedr.com

Between you and I/me, that’s far more important.


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I think people are just trying to find a reason to try and bring Obama down bit by bit, piece by piece.

Dave in Northridge | March 3, 2009 1:17 AM

I don't think that pointing out a grammatical mistake is bringing him down at all. Mistakes like that don't humanize him, they make him look as if he's trying too hard NOT to misspeak.

If I may quote from Lerner and Loewe,

"Her English is too good, he said . . . I can tell that she was born Hungarian, but of royal blood"

It's a VERY far cry from "nucular." We must develop thicker skins about criticism of the president, at least until he actually does something for the GLBT community.

Just who are these grammarians? I know that a lot of people are pretty perfectionist about those issues with everyone, not just Obama. It's more of an obsession for them - they can't really control it.

I remember when I lived in Walla Walla, there was a group that met daily in that town to grammar-check the local paper (which wasn't that good, but then again it was a small town and the paper had limited resources). They'd send it back every day with red ink all over it.

I'd imagine that anyone paying that close attention to Obama's speech patterns would probably be one of those folks.