A Victory For Eloquence
Filed under: Editor at Large,Policy,Politics — Casey

President Obama

Congratulations, President-Elect Obama!

Of Course McCain Knows Who Zapatero Is…Right?
Filed under: Editor at Large,Policy,Politics — Casey

I’ve listened to the English interview that John McCain did with Yoli (Yoly, if you read the Washington Post account) Cuello of Radio Caracol. The Republican presidential candidate does do a good job of acting as if he knows exactly what he’s saying, although he does hit those talking points annoyingly hard.

It’s only if you study the transcript that McCain really does seem as if he might be mistaking Zapatero for a leader from somewhere in the southern hemisphere:

…all I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us, and standing up to those who are not, and that’s judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America, and the entire region.

The newsworthy part is that even after Cuello ensures that McCain understands that she’s talking about Spain, an issue that her director notes she was encouraged to ask about because “we’re owned by this big company in Spain,”, he repeats the same answer:

I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom, and I will stand up to those that do not.

Bush Between The Lines

George W. Bush has never met with President Zapatero personally or invited him to the White House. Zapatero’s Socialist party (PSOE) wrenched power from the conservative Popular Party (PP) after the Madrid bombings occurred just before the election. I remember the masses of people who turned out in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya to protest when they thought the PP was stonewalling the investigation. I was among them.

Once he took office, Zapi pulled Spain’s troops out of Iraq, just as he had promised. And Bush gave him the cold shoulder.

Does McCain’s canned response hide an explicit message to his supporters? Can they count on him not just to continue Bush’s grudges, but to increase them?

The Spanish Catch It

Not only is McCain being ambiguous here, he seems to be flip-flopping as well – but you wouldn’t know it unless you read the Spanish newspaper El País.

That’s why I’ve translated some relevant coverage from Spanish into English here for your enjoyment. El País is owned by the same “big company in Spain”, Grupo Prisa, that controls Radio Caracol.

These declarations from McCain contrast with the ones he made to EL PAÍS last April, when he said that, “it’s time to leave behind discrepancies with Spain.” He added, “I would like for [President Zapatero] to visit the United States.” Yesterday diplomatic media attributed the Republican candidate’s attitude to confusion, since the interview centered on relations with Latin America and the reporter had to remind him that Spain is a European country when he insisted on using Mexico as an example. In the best case it would be evidence of his ignorance with respect to Zapatero.

The emphasis on that last quote is mine, of course. As Kos says, you can’t make this stuff up.

Translation Lesson: Sometimes an Enabling Act is just an Enabling Act

Even when it seems like the silliest term you’ve ever heard.

The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz in German) was passed by the Reichstag (Germany‘s parliament) on March 23, 1933 and signed by President Paul von Hindenburg the same day. It was the second major step, after the Reichstag Fire Decree through which Adolf Hitler obtained plenary powers using legal means. The Act granted the Cabinet of Germany the authority to enact laws without the participation of the Reichstag for four years.

And I thought this choice was far too simple to be the right one…good thing I made it anyway.

Fielding Media Inquiries

This is why today’s entry is so short.

Hillary and Obama: The Importance of Being Illiterate?
Filed under: Policy,Politics,Written English — Casey

From Andrew Romano’s blog for Newsweek, Stumper:

There’s always that risk, particularly in America–the suspicion that if something looks good, it can’t possibly work. If someone’s really beautiful, they can’t be smart.

If beauty works against us generally, does the same hold for beautiful words? And if so, is Obama’s erudition hurting his electoral appeal?

Hillary: Small Words Yield Big Gains

The speech in Hillary Clinton’s latest television spot is not exactly sophisticated (key point: “something’s happening in the world”), but the fear-mongering is masterful. In a paternal and slightly threatening voiceover, Clinton’s campaign argues that she is someone who “already knows the world’s leaders” and is “tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.” The unspoken assumption here is that the articulate Obama is not.

The commercial aired last weekend, and lo and behold, Clinton won every state she needed to stay in the race with her dignity intact.

Was the groundswell for Clinton a repudiation of Obama’s slick sloganeering? Or could this comeback mean that Americans are still as motivated by fear as the Bush White House presumes us to be?

Obama: Entrapped by his own Eloquence?

The three Clinton wins last night do not negate Obama’s 11-state string of victories. But commentators over the past few weeks have latched on to whether the junior senator’s literary talent could become a liability. David Brooks of the NYT noticed early on, in April of 2007, that

You have to ask him every question twice, the first time to allow him to talk about how he would talk about the subject, and the second time so you can pin him down to the practical issues at hand.

When Brooks finally gets a direct answer on foreign policy, the columnist notes presciently that Obama’s response is “either profound or vacuous, depending on your point of view.

Monitoring the Message

I’ll keep an eye on the public reception to each candidate’s campaign rhetoric as the nomination fight continues. It will be interesting to see which tactic–diction or drama–wins out.

Bonus Post for National Grammar Day: Censor This!
Filed under: Editor at Large,Policy,Written English — Casey

Grammar is important on certain levels, because proper word choice can help the world avoid misleading headlines like this one:

Mar 4, 2008, 12:24 GMT: Western nations drop plan for IAEA resolution censoring Iran

Whew! The Europeans certainly dodged a bullet with that one. Imagine if those enlightened secular governments had actually censored Ahmadinejad in the Western press? There would be no more rambunctious debates at NYU! No more SNL Digital Shorts with Jake Gyllenhaal cameos! And, most importantly, the IAEA representatives would be stifling open, democratic debate, one of the most ballyhooed elements of the international governance system.

Obviously, Western nations aren’t really that hypocritical. Or that stupid—censoring Iran would play right into the hands of a government which holds state-sponsored symposiums for Holocaust deniers just to highlight the European limits on freedom of speech.

I’m happy to digress into politics on this blog whenever I get the chance, so thank you today to Monsters and Critics for giving me a reason to explain this completely inexcusable typo. In the words of a blogger we linked to yesterday:

Attention, everyone: C E N S O R ≠ C E N S U R E

A censure is a formal rebuke, often carried out by an institution. A censor will redact portions of your text without mercy, often in service of an overt or covert political agenda. A censure is a public action; censorship is often done behind closed doors. Get the point?

Check out this BBC link for a more well-informed and well-written report of what really went down at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Death of a Logophile: William F. Buckley, Jr.
Filed under: Policy,Written English — Casey

I do not share William F. Buckley’s political opinions. But I still celebrate his idiosyncratic respect for the written and spoken word and his superhuman facility for the English language. His vocabulary seemed ripped straight from the OED, and when I read his columns I think not of his 21st-century torchbearers in the Reaganite conservative movement but of Vladimir Nabokov, a writer who shared Buckley’s linguistic fortitude.

Both men took on the role of commentator and critic rather than of firebrand revolutionary. Neither shied away from controversial topics for the sake of decency (pedophilia for Nabokov, as the entire world knows, and racism for Buckley, as survivors of the ’60s will remember).

The difference is that Nabokov disavowed the unsavoriness of his characters. His fictional academics and chess champions were his creation, and it was his right to distance his own views—on literature, politics, or entomology—from theirs. He gently insisted upon this authorial privilege.

Buckley, on the other hand, hewed to eccentric erudition in every debate and column. He built a new conservatism while playing a character, and never owned up to being anything different. It is this flawless portrayal for which many grieve today: an American dandy with the untroubled affect befitting an East Coast oilman’s son, outclassing his detractors with “a piquant blend of British intonation and Southern drawl.”

Had William F. Buckley not written his way into the public eye through the National Review, he might well have found his way there in a Nabokov novel.

I’ll leave you with a link to an essay from Buckley, in which he compares his use of highfalutin words in composition to the choice by a musician to use a more complicated chord. As a jazz singer myself, I can particularly appreciate this analogy.

I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words,” by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Yea and Yay Mean More than you Think
Filed under: Editor at Large,Policy,Written English — Casey

The L.A. Times is pushing a new debate feature called “Dust-Ups,” in which two sides of an issue are presented in a neutral forum. But the choice of spelling in the headline for this week’s dust-up could leave readers prejudiced from the outset.

The dust-up is entitled, Nanotechnology: Yay or Nay?” One hopes that the headline is an in-joke on the traditional voting method still used in the U.S. Congress and the Canadian House of Commons: an up-down survey of “yea” (from 12th century Middle English, meaning yes) or “nay” (similarly dated, meaning no).

The value difference in opting for the enthusiastic interjection “yay” over the vote-specific “yes,” however, might here indicate an editorial slant against nanotechnology. In a column that is supposed to display both sides in a neutral forum, the title could already prejudice the reader: either you’re absolutely over the moon for these tiny innovations, or you’re not. It’s much easier to choose a noncommittal “nay” than an ecstatic yay, the literary equivalent of jumping up and down.

But “yea” is a tricky creature, and has been perplexing American English speakers since at least the mid-twentieth century. Was this just a copy editor’s error, then? Was the use of “yay” a conscious choice at all, in these times when the older variant sees so little use outside of government? A Google search of “yea or nay” versus “yay or nay” brings up far more results for the more recent coinage–a difference of over 280,000. If this was a deliberate choice by L.A. Times editors, perhaps they did so out of fear that readers would not recognize the older term.

Depends which readers they’re targeting. I have a clear memory of dancing behind Morgan Webb in my junior high school production of Once Upon A Mattress, singing along with a loud cast of twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds as they cheered on her tomboy princess Winifred:

With an F and an R and an E and a D and an F-R-E-D Fred, YEAH !

The lyrics, written in 1959, read Y E A.

Economic Mobility: So Much For Horatio Alger
Filed under: Economy,Policy,Subject-Specific — Casey

The Brookings Institution has just released a new book-length study on economic mobility in the United States, and the findings are pretty depressing. Even Stuart Butler, a Heritage Institute scholar I worked with as editor of the Atlantic Community, has difficulty putting a positive spin on the situation when asked to comment on the Brookings study:

“It does seem in America now that for people at very bottom it’s more difficult to move up than we might have thought or might have been true in the past.”

No kidding. I wrote about this subject back in November:

A seemingly high level of income mobility supports the argument that America is still the land of opportunity, to the exclusion of all others: that there is something unique about this country that rewards entrepreneurship and risk-taking. But is that mythical America still around, if it ever was? …If the U.S. economy is so excitingly dynamic, why do children in Canada and Europe have a better chance of surpassing their parents’ incomes?

At the time of writing, there was still resistance to the idea that the U.S. was entering a recession. Now that the economy is looking bleaker, major media outlets are pulling fewer punches, and covering more bad news. The New York Times headline for the Brookings news, “Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility,” is shown next to a graphic showing that “a person born into a poor family who graduates from college has a 19 percent chance of entering the top fifth of earners in adulthood.”

The fight now will be over the reasons that this is happening. But at least we’re starting to see agreement that economic mobility is declining, and the left and right can argue over how best to fix it.

More recent studies on economic mobility in the U.S. and elsewhere: