gender, language, other topics, politics

Get Thee Behind Me, Donald! Or Don’t

  1. What does a woman running for president have to do to be likable?
  2. Not run for president.


And with that question answered, let us turn to the matter of the second presidential debate. What was going on? What did the media analysts opine was going on? What if anything does the answer to the first question have to do with the answer to the second?


Answer: Nothing.


Almost without exception, every media pundit has declared Trump’s recently revealed effusions “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” I agree with those assessments, but I don’t share their reasons for declaring Trump’s remarks “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” Well, yes, to an extent I agree: thinking of women as objects existing purely for the sexual gratification of men like Trump is as vile as it is antediluvian. But the media focus has been on the words themselves. Yet the words, here as elsewhere with Trump, are merely carriers of a gender message that carries far beyond Trump, and goes way outside the “locker room.” This is what the analysts cannot or will not face, for they, mostly males, are complicit in the game. Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics




The pundits have spoken, and spoken, and spoken: 2016 is an “unconventional” election: it is about “change” vs. the “status quo.” One candidate is the “change,” agent, and the other the representative of the “status quo.”


Thus far, I am in agreement.


But when they sort out which candidate is which, we part company. For the analysts, Trump is the “change” candidate, Clinton the “status quo.” But that’s backwards and upside down. If we correctly interpret “change” and “status quo,” Trump stands for the former, Clinton the latter. Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics




Look at the front page of today’s (September 13) New York Times. On the upper right, you will find two articles about Clinton’s health problems. On the inner pages where these articles are continued are three additional articles on the same topic.


Ordinarily, the placement of the first two articles, and the fact that there are five in all, might be occasioned by, say, the start of World War III or an authenticated Elvis sighting. But no: all are about one presidential candidate’s not especially serious health problem. Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics

Health Matters – and Other Matters


  1. The D’s DID


Donald J. Trump and his current favorite sidekick, the redoubtable Rudy Giuliani, have morphed into experts on Hillary Clinton’s mental and physical health. How fortunate we are that one of our presidential candidates and his new BFF have so much medical expertise! Clinton, they tell us, doesn’t have the “physical or mental stamina” to fight ISIS, and therefore is unsuitable for the presidency.


As usual contemplating the Donald’s effusions, I find myself at a loss – so much nonsense, so little time! But a few things that stand out. Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics

Who Makes Meaning?


A conversation (meaning any form of communication – private or public; written or spoken; physical or electronic) is properly constructed so as to transmit meaning between or among participants. It is often thought that a speaker is responsible for encoding meaning, and a hearer’s job is simply to understand what a speaker says. But it’s a more complicated relationship: it is the speaker’s responsibility to encode meanings in such a way that a hearer is likely to be able to understand them as the speaker intended; and it is the hearer’s responsibility to bring her experiences to bear so as to make sense of the communication: meaning is jointly constructed.


This is necessarily true because human beings are social animals. By working in this cooperative way, language (and other forms of interpersonal communication) both make the best use of our social capacities, and enhance them. Uncooperative communication does the opposite: it drives us apart.


In our current political (and specifically presidential) discourse, there are violations of those expectations and needs. Continue reading

language, other topics, politics

Open and Closed Cases


Now that the primaries are almost over, I want to say a little about them, and in particular one aspect of them that has been much discussed by one of the Democratic candidates: “open” versus “closed” primaries.


An open primary is one in which there are no constraints on who can vote for a party’s nominees: a Republican or unaffiliated voter can cast a ballot for one of the Democratic candidates, and their votes will have equal weight with those of registered Democrats. (The same of course is true on the Republican side.) In a closed primary, then, only voters registered as members of a party can vote in its primary.


Bernie Sanders and his followers wax irate at the idea of closed Democratic primaries. They argue that they are undemocratic, small “d,” because they keep some voters out of voting their preferences. They don’t mention the fact that at least some of Sanders’s victories came about because Republican voters crossed party lines to vote for him – in many if not most cases, because they believed he would be the weaker candidate in the general election. Continue reading

language, other topics, politics

The Donald Has a Dream


I know this will sound bizarre, but I’m going to say it anyway: the media are not paying enough attention to Donald Trump, or at least to one of his recent effusions.


On Saturday, May 28, Trump delivered a speech from the same spot in Washington, D.C., where, in 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This choice of venue itself suggests a peculiar kind of effrontery, or immodesty, to begin with. But it gets worse.


King’s audience is estimated to have numbered about 250,000, Trump’s about 5,000. But Trump has an explanation for the discrepancy…of course he does! It couldn’t be that MLK was HUGER than Donald J. Trump. No….


Trump claimed that “more than half a million people” attempted to attend his speech, “but,” he said, absent all evidence, “unfortunately they aren’t allowed to come in.”


Note the passive: “they aren’t allowed.” By whom? Why are there no reports of 245,000 disgruntled citizens milling around Washington, D. C.?


Actually, according to Trump, the situation was even more outrageous: not a trifling 245, 000, but 600,000 denied their right to share in the world’s greatest experience.

As usual, Trump’s aesthetic judgment is about numbers: quantity is quality. “We have the biggest rallies by far, far bigger than Bernie Sanders,” Trump told the crowd on the National Mall. “Far bigger. I mean, look at today. They say you have 600,000 people here trying to get in.”

They. You. Who?

But the most extraordinary piece of chutzpah Trump manifests here is the notion that he is in any way comparable to the Rev. Dr. King. In fact, if we compare Trump only rhetorically, not in terms of morality, accomplishment, or anything concrete, it would be hard to find two human beings who are further apart. Taking a leaf from Trump’s own playbook, one is almost forced into superlatives or superlative equivalents: Trump’s posturing can only be described as outrageous, psychotic, and/or pathetic. And maybe the most outrageous fact of all is that the media, which hang on Trump’s every syllable, has had practically nothing to say about this, although even brief consideration should tell us all something about the man who would be president.

So, Donald, you wanna compare yourself to MLK?


King’s speech was uncontroversially one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in America, remarkable not only for what it said and the courage and passion with which it was delivered, but also for its rhetorical elegance and eloquence. Let’s compare King’s speech with Trump’s typical public address:

King                                                                                        Trump


eloquent                                                                     banal

inspiring                                                                     humdrum

inclusive “we”                                                            exclusive “we”

uniting                                                                        dividing

immortal                                                                    forgettable

all-inclusive                                                                egocentric

trusting                                                                      paranoid

on topic                                                                      meta


MLK’s speeches were powerful, above all, because he explicitly and directly addressed a topic few were willing to confront head-on. Trump, in this speech as elsewhere, proffers no topic. No Trump speech is about anything other than “I am great” and “they are not.” Hence his oratory is necessarily “meta”: Trump’s effusions are about “aboutness,” not on any topics themselves. He is obsessed with numbers and polls, with other people’s responses to him (usually inadequate) and personal irrelevant insults. You will find none of the above in King’s speech. He speaks of soaring ideas.


King could have given a divisive speech about “us” versus “them,” but he did not. It is true that parts of his speech are about how whites have mistreated blacks and how the behavior of whites has to change, but especially near the end, King works to unite his audience: everyone is included in the “we” who will be the beneficiaries of full equality for all. He recites a stanza of one of America’s secular hymns, “America” (the one schoolchildren know as “My country, ‘tis of thee”). We all own this song: we are unified by singing it together.


King’s speech is not only memorable, but immortal. To this day, most of us can recite a phrase or a paragraph, or at least when we hear a line of it, we can identify the source. Can anyone reading these words recite a phrase from any of Trump’s speeches – other than for purposes of parody?


King speaks in metaphor and parable. He refers to the Bible, to the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s speeches. In doing so, not only is he building his inclusive “we” – these are words everyone listening to his speech would share with one another and with him – but he is inviting his audience to make his meaning along with him. The topic – the reality, and the evils, of American racial inequality – is divisive, but the way King brings it to his audience, black and white, is unifying. Despite the dangerousness of his message, King trusts his audience to grasp it and be changed by it.


Trump’s favorite tropes are hyperbole (those superlatives) and anaphora (repetition). He uses metaphor and parable little if at all (unless you count remarks about hand size). His choices do not gently coax the audience to participate, but beat them over the head: they must agree with Trump, or else. Trump does not trust his audience – he feels they are unworthy of trust. Like your average tinpot dictator, Trump is only comfortable wielding absolute power. But you know what Lord Acton said about absolute power.


Contrasting these two orators, separated by half a century and so much more, I am tempted to declaim with Cicero, “O tempora! O mores!” (Roughly, “We are going to hell in a handbasket.”) How could so many Americans have fallen so low as to cast their lots with such a disappointment? But perhaps there is a ray of hope. This Trump speech did not bring out the 600,000 fans he thought his eloquence merited, but a measly 5,000. Is this – dare we hope? – an augury? Was his reaction even more of one?


There is something not quite normal about someone – a candidate for president, no less – falling into a lengthy and vituperative harangue about how “they” aren’t letting 595,000 people into his presence to hear his speech. Is decompensation finally, at long last, setting in? Mother of mercy, is this the end of the Donald?


The right kind of media attention would help the process along.




gender, language, other topics, politics

The Logic of the Primary Process


Ruth Wodak has sent me a thoughtful, and disturbing, article from the Guardian. It makes perfect sense, suggesting what to say to the Sanders fans who are refusing to even consider voting for Clinton, and some of whom are declaring that they would actually prefer Trump. The writer’s arguments are thoroughly persuasive – to me.


It is disturbing on two grounds: first, that Democrats even have to worry about how to persuade presumably rational people to switch to Clinton rather than Trump (this would seem to be a no-brainer, so why isn’t it?). But more disturbing is the fear that the article’s rational arguments will be of little use in accomplishing that goal. The real reasons those voters find it easier to move from Sanders to Trump, rather than Sanders to Clinton, are not rational, and therefore logical arguments against them will fall on deaf ears. Continue reading

language, other topics, politics

Cold Comforts, or None at All


It is comforting to think that Donald Trump is a nutcase who has given his mouth over to his egomania and just opens it up and lets whatever come out, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Republican Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Republican.


It is comforting to think that Bernie Sanders is a nutcase who has let egomania triumph over reason, refusing to get out of the race for the Democratic nomination and show some support for his rival, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Democratic Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Democrat.


Those are the comforting scenarios. But they might not reflect reality. Continue reading