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Amurica’s Nucular Situation October 20, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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‘Nuclear’ is a three-syllable, essentially phonetic word.  The listed dictionary pronunciation is n(y)oo-klee-er.  But you have undoubtedly come across people who think it is pronounced noo-kyuh-ler.  One arrives at this pronunciation through a process called metathesis, in which a speaker switches the order of sounds in a word.  Like saying pasghetti instead of spaghetti.  Metathesis is defined as a speech error, not a pronunciation choice.

Because there are plenty of people running around saying “nucular,” some argue that it is a valid alternative.  So what do the dictionaries say?  Merriam-Webster’s added the second pronunciation in 1961.  Yet the editors received so many indignant letters that since 1981 they have included a note defending its inclusion, citing “widespread usage among educated speakers.”  Today, every letter about “nucular” receives a defensive, 400-word reply explaining that they include it merely as an alternative, not as an “acceptable” alternative.  (Although I wouldn’t put it past myself, I didn’t write them a letter – I found their response online.)

Now, you may be wondering why, at the end of Bush presidency, I would decide to write about this.  My friends, we are on the verge of electing another “alternative pronouncer” into office, and that is unacceptable.

Needless to say, neither “pasghetti” nor “nucular” reflect kindly upon a speaker.  When accomplished scientists use the latter, it makes me wonder why they don’t make the effort to correct what is probably just an old habit.  But when younger people (and politicians) use it, particularly the kind of people you know haven’t been tossing the word around in casual conversation, I think less of them.  Call me judgmental, but “nucular” is not the mark of a good education.  I’m not saying that everyone should ostracize people who habitually mispronounce words, but it is cause for valid outrage when that characteristic makes a candidate more popular.

Gov. Sarah Palin is not a gifted speaker.  She frequently repeats words in the same sentence repeatedly.  She also yet but so strings together conjunctions in the middle of a thought, and appears to think that “job creation” goes at the end of every sentence right before the period.  Yet even she correctly pronounced “nuclear” during her breakout speech at the Republican National Convention.  Why?  Because it appeared on her teleprompter as “new-clear.”  I’m serious.  It was visible from some camera angles and was even in the text-version of the speech distributed to the liberal elite press.  Whether they wanted to avoid the Bush connotation or they agreed with me about the educational connotations of metathesis, somebody at the McCain Campaign wanted to make sure Palin did not say “nucular” during her national debut.   First impressions are important.  Without that extreme measure, though, she has since reverted to her normal “nucular” pronunciation.

CNN covers the RNC “new-clear” story:

“Bushisms” and simple sentence structures made George W. Bush seem more like an average Joe, and a lot of voters connected with that.  Palin strives for the same appeal (and some other appeals Bush could never hope to achieve).  As you have surely noticed, she drops the final ‘g’ off every -ing suffix when she speaks.  Does that really appeal to the American public?  As humorist Scott Blakeman wrote after the Vice Presidential debate, “That’s not endearin’, that’s insultin’.  It assumes that if you’re really a hardworking middle class American, you’re too busy to finish pronouncing your words.”

I know that speech patterns are largely a product of one’s upbringing, and that what I’m saying could be considered discriminatory if taken out of context.  But we are talking about electing the president and vice president of the United States of America.  These people are supposed to be the best we have to offer.

As I discussed in Defending Presidential Elitism, the average American is not qualified to lead the country.  Education should not be a liability on the campaign trail, it should be a prerequisite.  Our country has suffered from mismanagement for the better part of a decade, and it’s time to put our best foot forward.  Is it too much to ask that our president and vice president be able to speak properly?

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

Defending Presidential Elitism October 9, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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It’s debate season, folks, and my oh my has it been underwhelming.  Many have complained that the debates have lacked substance; the candidates aren’t answering the questions.  Personally, I am disappointed that the debates have lacked entertainment.  No gaffes, no real arguments, few jokes or memorable lines…do they really expect us to stay focused through two hours of interlocking stump speeches?  But every once in a while, the moderator asks a question for which a canned response is not prepared.  The candidates deftly pivot away from most of these situations (some more overtly than others), but you can still learn from their answers if you’re paying attention.

On Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw asked the presidential hopefuls (makes the race seem predestined, doesn’t it?) whom they would pick to be Secretary of the Treasury.  Senator John McCain seemed annoyed to be knocked off script, retorting with a grumpy “Not you, Tom” while he scrambled for an answer.  Still fumbling, McCain stalled by laying out his qualifications for a good treasury secretary: “I think the first criteria, Tom, would have to be somebody who immediately Americans identify with (video).”  Really? That’s your first priority in selecting the person to navigate our country through an economic crisis of this (or any) magnitude?  John – can I call you John? – I don’t want to be able to identify with the Secretary of the Treasury.   On any level.  This person should be so far out of my league I can’t even hold an intelligible conversation with him.  I don’t understand the economy.  Sure, I took my macro- and microeconomics.  I even turned some decent grades.  But does my winning personality qualify me to rescue our financial systems?  Hell no.  Pick someone who has the skill set and experience to get us out of this mess!

You shouldn't look at the Secretary of the Treasury (or the President) and think "man, I want to have a beer with that guy." The Secretary of the Treasury should look more like this...but, you know, be good at his job.

My friends, that Senator McCain would fall back on this line (and put it in practice with his vice presidential nomination) is symptomatic of a real problem in our country today.  Why do we so desperately want to elect leaders with whom we can identify?  The fact that I didn’t end the previous sentence with the preposition basically disqualifies me from running for office.  Senator Barack Obama is an academically accomplished man.  After graduating from Columbia University he went on to earn a law degree from Harvard.  He was even the president of the Harvard Law Review – I don’t know how to put this, but that’s kind of a big deal.  After that he became a law professor at the University of Chicago.  You may have known this, but you certainly didn’t hear it from Barack. 

Today’s candidates have to hide their education.  For those who finished in the bottom 5 of their class, that’s convenient (or would be if underachievement wasn’t so mavericky).  Yet McCain and his voluptuous veep didn’t start this trend – there’s no way you can have this discussion and not arrive at our current president.  Even George W. Bush, who actually looks good on paper with his degrees from Yale and Harvard, didn’t point to his past to placate concerns about…“mental preparedness.”  Why? Because his average guy persona appealed to voters (and he only got C’s).  If a candidate flaunts his education today, he is labeled “elitist.” 

Elitism is a strange charge to level against presidential candidates.  At the risk of quoting Jon Stewart too much: “Doesn’t ‘elite’ mean good?…I want someone who’s embarrassingly superior to me.” (Video– the entire segment is great, but the elitism bit starts at 6:50).  On a tangentially related but similarly awesome note, I present the following question courtesy of Kathleen Reardon at the Huffington Post: “Is it sexist to want the person flying the plane to be a pilot?”  Back on track, though, presidential candidates are running to be the most powerful person in the world.  Being President of the United States is like being the CEO of a global superpower (this may not be true by the time you read this, but that’s another story).  Can you imagine someone hiding her educational credentials while applying to lead a Fortune-500 company?  No.  And she wouldn’t even get a moment’s consideration without them, even if you’d want to have a beer with her.  So why are we so comfortable electing “normal” people president?

The average American is not qualified to lead the country.  This should not be debatable (although with enough preparation, one could childishly pivot to talk about job creation instead).  Nor is it contrary to the American Dream.  There are plenty of successful people who don’t live in the White House and unsuccessful ones who do.  Being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps does not mean that anyone can be president, regardless of what your mother may have told you.  I wanted to be a lion.  Life’s not fair.

Compare Bush (or Sarah Palin) to the early presidents in our nation’s history.  Picture them having a conversation.  It hurts.  I doubt Thomas Jefferson would think highly of our recent selections.  Now I’m not saying that the founding fathers got everything right – for example, I imagine they might be surprised to learn that a black man is now running for more than 3/5 of the presidency.  But they understood the value of a meritocracy.  Or at least that it takes more than an ordinary person to succeed in a decidedly extraordinary position. 

Let Average Joe enjoy his 6-pack.  I’ll drink with him (although the case is my weapon of choice).  Our president should wash down his arugula with a glass of fine wine.