Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pseudo-Intellectual Nonsense

Conservatives can’t stand the way liberals seem to think they can prove anything merely by spouting pseudo-intellectual nonsense. And maybe they (conservatives) are right. We (liberals) do, on occasion, obfuscate our arguments through superfluous verbiage, which sometimes leads to ill-supported conclusions.

The problem is, pseudo-intellectualism is difficult to criticize. There are basically two angles. Many conservatives take the classic “Hey, egghead! Yer not as smart as you think you are!” approach. Others, however, can’t seem to resist fighting fire with more of the same alluring, seductive fire. That is, armed only with an inability to understand irony and a dangerous lack of self-awareness, they attempt to expose and discredit liberal pseudo-intellectualism with equal and opposite pseudo-intellectual nonsense of their own.

And that brings me to the specific nonsense that inspired this post. It seems a handful of concerned citizens have decided that, as seen in his recent speech about the oil spill, Barack Obama uses lengthy, “professorial” sentences that most Americans apparently have trouble following.
Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," [the Global Language Monitor's Paul J.J.] Payack said.
I won’t get into the absurdity of equating sentence length with semantic density, because Mark Liberman of the Language Log already did an excellent job of it:
I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster. Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!
But this sort of “Obama uses lots o’ words; he must think he’s smarter’n me” crap is only moderately insane. What this story really needs is for some imaginative commentator to use the whole thing as an excuse to question Obama’s masculinity. Take it away, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post:
Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman.
Her basis for this? That 13% of Obama’s speech was passive-voiced. The many linguistically-dubious aspects of this are addressed, once again, by Mark Liberman, but my focus is on the political rhetoric.

First of all, is this supposed to be an insult? I think it is—not so much because Parker has any objection to the idea of a female president, but because she sees something “wrong” with a male exhibiting (what she perceives to be) female characteristics. Conservatives become confused and defensive at any indication that gender is not as binary as they like to think it is.[1]

Gender issues aside, I’m most alarmed by how eagerly conservatives embrace this kind of idiocy when it supports what they already believe. Liberals do the same thing, of course, but they’re the ones who make “unjustified claims of expertise, authority or knowledge” and “ignore any evidence that shows their position to be false.”[2] Conservatives are supposed to be better than that, right?[3]

1. How’s that for a wild generalization! Not to worry, I’ll write more on the issue in the future.
2. Have I mentioned how much I love Conservapedia as a source for hyperbolic and outlandish (and sometimes blatantly hypocritical) stereotypes?
3. Wow, is this an unfocused article. Oh well, it should be useful as a springboard for follow-up posts on a number of tangentially-related topics. By the way, this article (not counting the indented quotes) averages 17.6 words per sentence. I'm not especially good at identifying passive constructions, but I see at least three or four. I don't know what that says about my masculinity.

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