Monday, 15 June 2009

Mother Jones and the National Review on the dubious quality of Sotomayor’s prose: “This apple’s the worst orange I’ve ever tasted.” This past week, the attacks on Sotomayor have turned from what she’s said to how she’s said it. Conservatives began by hammering away at the “weird, unidiomatic constructions and errors of punctuation and grammar [in] her infamous 2001 ‘Wise Latina’ speech.” Now, I advocate writing conference papers that “contain few expensive words and no Faulknerian feats of subordination” on the grounds that no human being—not even the academic ones—can parse grammatically complex arrangements of jargon on the fly, so I’m more attuned than most to the fact that what passes for grammatical in English as she is spoke doesn’t pass muster in English as she is wrote. You can imagine, then, why I chafed at Heather McDonald’s criticism of Sotomayor’s unscripted speeches for containing errors endemic to spoken language. Just because an unscripted speech is transcribed after the fact doesn’t make it written; or, as per my talk, just because it can be put to paper doesn’t mean it was meant to be read there. Judging the quality of her prose from her speeches, as McDonald and fellow Bench Memos writer Ed Whelan did, is an intellectually dishonest exercise for the simple reason that nobody (outside of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) speaks in paragraphs. Not that this stops the other member of the Bench Memos team, Matthew J. Franck, from claiming Sotomayor “writes” sentences that were clearly spoken aloud; or that those sentences “begin with a thought and trail off without saying much of anything after all, or double back and contradict themselves,” i.e. that the transcription of her unscripted speech transcribed sentences that were clearly spoken aloud. When I taught literary journalism, I always included Mark Singer’s profile of Errol Morris on the syllabus because it works both as an introduction to New Yorker-style profiles and a meta-methodological essay on how to approach transcriptions critically and responsibly. Here’s Singer transcribing Florence Rasmussen’s speech in Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978): If I could only get out. Drive my car. I’d get another car. Ya . . . and my son, if he was only better to me. After I bought him that car. He’s got a nice car. I bought it myself just a short time ago. I don’t know. These kids—the more you do for them . . . He’ s my grandson, but I raised him from two years old . . . I don’t see him very often. And he just got the car. I didn’t pay for all of it. I gave him four hundred dollars. Singer responds to her outpouring by noting that [w]ith an arresting instinct for symmetry, Florence Rasmussen manages to contradict most of what she has to say. It seems that she knows certain things, but then, in the next moment, she trots out contrary information[:] I’d like to drive my car; but I might not even have a car any longer, might have to buy a new one. I bought my son—O.K., he’s not my son, he’s my grandson—a new car;...
Conservatives would respect Obama more if he took a principled stand against a corrupt Iranian regime by doing its bidding. The same conservatives who mere months ago applauded their candidate’s rendition of “Barbara Ann” are now criticizing Obama for refusing to meddle in internal Iranian affairs: “[He] has only a smidgen of a chance left to get on the right side of history—either he starts acting like the leader of the free world, or he’s a quisling of thugocracies everywhere.” To say that Obama risks putting himself on the wrong side of history suggests that you know enough about that history to distinguish between its sides, even though you don’t even know there are always more than two of them. Consider how incoherently conservatives have responded to official Iranian propaganda: Iran accused the United States on Wednesday of “intolerable” meddling in its internal affairs, alleging for the first time that Washington has fueled a bitter post-election dispute . . . The Iranian government summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran, to complain about American interference, state-run Press TV reported. The English-language channel quoted the government as calling Western interference “intolerable.” That government forces accuse America of meddling in the face of Obama’s tepid public statements is not, as conservatives would have it, evidence that because the accusation will be made, we might as well meddle. It indicates that the Iranian government recognizes how politically efficacious the accusation of American intervention in Iranian electoral politics is, which means Victor David Hanson and like-minded conservatives are urging Obama to take a principled stand by playing directly into the hands of the Iranian regime. Ahmadinejad and his supporters would love nothing more than for Obama to read the lines they scripted for him. But why are conservatives encouraging Obama to do exactly that? Because, unlike him, they are deeply and proudly ignorant of the weight of history. This ignorance is what leads Karl to complain that German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy beat Obama to the moral high ground, even though he quotes the reason the French and Germans can condemn the apparent electoral fraud and America cannot: “Either way we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States,” [Obama] added. Because Germany and France do not have a history of meddling in Iranian electoral politics, they can criticize the election results without creating the appearance that they have a vested interest in their outcome. The Wall Street Journal is similarly clueless: Yesterday he invoked the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup against Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadeq to explain his reticence. “Now, it’s not productive, given the history of the U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling—the U.S. President meddling in Iranian elections,” Mr. Obama said. As far as we can tell, the CIA or other government agencies aren’t directing the protests or bankrolling Mr. Mousavi. The issue isn’t whether America’s actually bankrolling the opposition party, but whether it appears to be; if it does, it undermines the legitimacy of the same movement the conservatives ostensibly support. The editorial...

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