Of all the things one might observe about last night's VP debate, the most striking to me was the total breakdown of language. When Sarah Palin told the moderator and her opponent that she didn't intend to answer their questions, she meant it on such a deep, structural level that even her grammar complied. Many of Palin's sentences failed to answer the fundamental question that language serves to answer: who is doing what to whom?
In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker says that language is fundamentally gossipy. Think about the most common pattern of an English sentence: subject, verb, object. He kissed her. She hung up the phone. Even as a sentence becomes more complex and embellished--In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child in a princedom by the sea--it is fundamentally telling a story about a character doing something to someone else ("I loved a girl-child").
As English speakers, we have ways of getting around this--notably, the passive voice. Consider one of my favorite lines of political discourse: Mistakes were made. Who is doing what to whom? Well, we don't really know. That's the whole point--no one is responsible and nothing was affected. As readers and listeners, we intuitively understand that the speaker is using language to obfuscate information rather than clarify it.
But Sarah Palin's language is a whole order of magnitude beyond usual political discourse. Consider this:
There have been so many changes in the conditions of our economy in just even these past weeks that there has been more and more revelation made aware now to Americans about the corruption and the greed on Wall Street.
Okay, so we know there have been changes in the economy. We don't know exactly who made them, but that's understandable--a lot of people and factors made them.
"There has been more and more revelation..." Now we're getting fuzzy. Revelation pretty much requires someone to reveal something--that's the point of revelation--but we have neither a character nor an object.
"...made aware now to Americans..." Whoa. What? It sounds like Americans are being made aware of something, but we don't know who or what, and the sentence pattern is reversed.
"...about the corruption and the greed on Wall Street." Aha! So that's it! Someone is doing something about these vices. But we don't know who. And we don't know what.
Now, I admit it can be mean to pick apart someone's sentences--God forbid any of us should have a transcript of our words published on the New York Times--and we are much looser in our speech than we are in our written language. However, paying close attention to someone's syntax can tell you a lot about the shape of their thoughts. When I hear Sarah Palin consistently fail to answer who is doing what to whom, it makes me suspicious that a) she doesn't know; b) she doesn't want to say; or c), the most terrifying option given that her finger may be very close to the button, she simply doesn't think in terms of cause and effect.
Let's look at two examples that would seem to be innocuous, at least in their content. To Joe Biden, she said, "I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you."
I think we can intuit her meaning to be, "I take issue with the redistribution of wealth principle you seem to espouse." That would seem to be a point of fair disagreement and a slight jab at her opponent, but the words are tossed and jumbled like a salad. It can't be because Sarah Palin is afraid to take a swing--it seems just to take her a long time to figure out who is actually responsible. The last word in the sentence, "you," is the most important one, and a cause-and-effect thinker would likely put it first.
How about this. In speaking about herself, she said,
"My experience as an executive will be put to good use [BY WHOM?] as a mayor and business owner and oil and gas regulator [WAIT, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? WE HAVE NOT YET SEEN A CHARACTER IN THIS SENTENCE] and then as governor of a huge state, an energy producing state that is accounting ["THAT IS ACCOUNTING FOR" SERVES AS A VERB, BUT IT'S NOT REALLY AN ACTION] for much progress towards getting our nation energy independence, and that's [WHAT'S?] extremely important. "
A fifty-word sentence without a single clear agent or action. For a politician, whose job it is to communicate, such a failure to meet the basic requirements of language would seem to be reason enough to be barred from the profession. Alas, our current president shows this to not to be true--after the last eight years, we may even have come to expect that mangled syntax and meaningless phrases are a prerequisite for the executive office.
But the example of George W. Bush is pertinent here for another reason, too. This administration has been consistently disingenuous or dangerously ignorant on who was doing what to whom on 9/11, in Iraq, in New Orleans, and on Wall Street.
Make no mistake. Language is political, and if one's sentences lack transparency, accountability, and inclination to acknowledge the consequences of one's actions, then one's policies and governance are likely to be characterized by the same.