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Thursday, 19 July 2012


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The most shocking thing about this line of attack is not the vicious disregard for the truth - I'm getting used to that - but that it works: first impressions linger, even when wrong; headlines influence news readers, especially skimmers and TV watchers. The cognitive psych being deployed is damned powerful stuff.

Rich Puchalsky

Now that I'm briefly into the habit of commenting again -- what's the point of this post? I literally don't understand what the point of it is. Of course the people pushing "you didn't build that" as an attack know what was intended, of course they don't care that that they are "misinterpreting" because they are doing it on purpose; anyone who doesn't understand this already is too stupid to follow your explanation.

If this whole triviality has to be turned into something interesting, I'll point out that Obama here is echoing Elizabeth Warren, and that really in that context it's not so much of a misinterpretation to characterize the sentiment as "If you've got a business, you didn't build that business [alone]". Society, via government, built the infrastructure that your business uses, and educated your workers. Therefore you don't have a right to operate your business untaxed and unregulated, it is not your fortress that you built.

I don't particularly like or trust Obama, or Elizabeth Warren for that matter, so I'll add that what's interesting to me about this is that Obama is in various ways tacking left for the election. Why is he doing that? Probably because he's offered the people who he needs to get out the vote for him nothing over his term, and he has to try to appease them with rhetoric and executive orders now.


Actually, this post reminds me of the "scientific" chapters in Moby Dick: Rather than being serious, it illustrates seriousness; it is a voice of reason when the reader is in a maelstrom of emotion; it is irrelevant, pretentious, and true. And therefore funny.

Rich Puchalsky

I'm not sure if it's true, Ahist. Well, of course it's trivially true that antecedents can co-refer across sentence boundaries. But this is political rhetoric, and it's an echo of this quote by Elizabeth Warren:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there - good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea - God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

The logic of "keep a hunk of it" -- but the rest is society's, because after all society partly built it -- is at base the same thing that the right wing is criticizing. Yes, they are going at it with deliberate stupidity and malice, but to reduce every part of this disagreement to a lesson about antecedents and sentence boundaries isn't being truthful, not really. It's not a voice of reason that I recognize, because a voice of reason has to acknowledge actual political disagreements rather than trivializing them.


what's the point of this post?

Exasperation and mockery. The former because, well, I'd been grading all day, and reading national political commentary that was as uninformed as a college freshmen bothered me. More from the left than the right, though that's not how it ended up being distributed in the post. It bothers me when people I otherwise agree with peddle wares as cheap as "you people" is. And the latter because, well, mockery exists for its own sake.

It's not a voice of reason that I recognize, because a voice of reason has to acknowledge actual political disagreements rather than trivializing them.

It's implicit in the critique: if you understand how the pronouns work, you necessarily understand the point Obama/Warren make. Moreover, it is important to indicate why something means what you say it means, even if that meaning is merely implicit. So, it's trivial what the antecedent of "that" is, but over the next couple of months, that triviality may turn into a significant bit of political rhetoric, so having the specific knowledge required to undermine it is important. Quite a few otherwise intelligent people might want to refute it but not have the knowledge of grammar to do so -- I'm imagining, say, a liberal engineering student -- but now they do. I didn't get so technical as to make it difficult to understand, which I could've done by discussing summative pronouns and the difficulty in the exact distribution of antecedents over multiple sentences, because that's unnecessarily complex. And I probably should've given an example like:

A prosecutor is making his closing argument in a murder case and says this. He says "This person’s DNA was found at the scene. This person was captured on camera fleeing the scene. Numerous witnesses heard him say he would murder the victim earlier. That is why you must find this person guilty." What does "that" refer to?

More clear cut, but I only thought of it later.

Rich Puchalsky

Following up on this again, because I happened to see a post about it, from which is a quote:

"Here I'm not talking about the much larger, phony side of the "you didn't build that" debacle, where Republicans are pretending Obama said entrepreneurs didn't build their businesses. That's run of the mill political hackery. But many conservatives were genuinely offended by the fair reading of Obama's speech -- that successful entrepreneurs should contribute more to public works, because they've benefited the most from them -- because it clashes with their view of what's most fundamental to individual and group success."

There is a sense in which exasperation and mockery just confuses the issue even more. I don't know whether there is anyone so confused or partisan that they think that Obama was literally saying that businesspeople did not build their businesses in the generally accepted sense. If there are those people, explaining how pronouns work to them will not help at all. What the attack is about, other than general noise that means that Obama is anti-business and which can not be refuted because it is noise, is about what the quote above calls the "fair reading". That is an actual, honest fair reading of what Obama said, and Republicans are actually outraged by it. It's an actual political dispute. Treating it as a subject for mockery about pronouns seems to me to be about on the same level as taking the "you people" thing in the way that you criticize people for taking it -- as a misreading that makes people feel better for some reason.

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