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Fev at headsup: the blog on “I”-wash.

Seriously — how long did you figure it would take for the “narcissist” theme to surface in (ahem) some commentary on the recent events in Pakistan? […]

At this stage, it’s pretty fair to conclude that huffing about Obama’s alleged infatuation with first-person pronouns is the modern right-wing commentariat’s way of saying “Boy, you lookin’ at something?” […]

Using a modified Fox technique, meaning you ignore pronouns like “me” and “mine” but count assorted “I”-contractions, Obama’s late-night speech on Sunday was about 0.7% “I”: eight “I” and two “I’ve” in 1,388 words. He’s a little under Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech (May 1, 2003), which was right at 1%, though Bush was down around 0.5% for the beginning of the Afghan war (Oct. 7, 2001).

The elder Bush managed 2.2% in his Panama address (Dec. 21, 1989): 17 cases of “I” in 769 words. He had no “I” contractions, and — were you waiting for something interesting? — didn’t end by asking God to bless the United States of America. […]

Closing sermon for editors: When the Will or Krauthammer column on this theme arrives, spike it. Then call the syndicate and ask for a refund. Maybe the Washington Post will get the message that way.

But seriously, read the whole thing.

Update — since some commenters seem confused about what’s going on here, let me bring to the front my response to Hermann Burchard:

The core observation is that a surprisingly large number of pundits have seized on the idea that Obama’s frequency of first-person-singular-pronoun use is proof of (or at least evidence for) his allegedly excessive self-involvement or “narcissism”.

There are two problems with this meme. The first problem is that frequency of FPS pronoun use is not in fact correlated with the personality traits that they associate with it (and with Obama). (For discussion and references, see “What is ‘I’ saying?“, 8/9/2009.) The second problem is that Obama’s empirical frequency of FPSP use is in fact on the low side, when you compare his speeches, press conferences, interviews, etc. to similar performances by other recent presidents. (For discussion and references, see “Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time“, 10/6/2009.)

And let me add, in response to J. Lee’s complaints about “a lame liberal blogpost about a non-issue”, that this has nothing to do with political perspective — it’s about fairness and elementary rationality. These are the same motivations that led me to write dozens of posts complaining about the “Bushisms” industry during the two terms of the previous president.

In my opinion, there are two reasons why this is an “issue” rather than a “non-issue”. The first is we have a right to expect that when major national pundits make empirical claims about matters of easily checkable fact, they should not be free to Make Stuff Up without being called on it. The fact that this particular piece of nonsense has been so widespread for so long is shocking, in my opinion. If you care about the health of public discourse in our country, this should worry you, even if you think the point about pronouns is a trivial one.

And second, whatever your political perspective, you should wonder why this president’s references to himself, though fewer in number than those of his predecessors, should be so salient to pundits that they perceive them as inordinately frequent. No doubt part of the explanation is stupid herd journalism, but not every stupid idea becomes part of the Conventional Wisdom. As John McIntyre recently wrote,

I do not reflexively assert that every criticism of President Obama is based in racism, and I think that accusing anyone of racist attitudes is something not to be done casually. But I grew up hearing racist remarks and racist attitudes, and when I see complaints that President Obama uses I excessively, what I hear is “That boy is getting uppity.”



30 Comments

  1. xyzzyva said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    When did it become almost obligatory for the president to end addresses (especially the serious ones) with a form of “god bless America”? Was it at all common before 9/11?

    Also, has a US president giving a speech in a foreign country ever ended it with “god bless [country X]”? Or is this blessing requested from America’s personal god?

    [Note: a bit of research on my part could answer my question, but I prefer to be lazy and rely on the accumulated anecdotal evidence of LL commenters.]

  2. Damon said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

    This whole news theme really is pernicious. They engage in an extremely careless lexical analysis — or indeed just start on the basis of a probably inaccurate impression — and draw psychological conclusions from it. How can people think this represents serious commentary?

    I don’t understand why people accept these pieces so uncritically in the first place. It would be nice if at least their editors wouldn’t allow them to post them when the pieces — like the two linked — don’t even pretend to start from a factual premise by calculating SOMETHING. The Will piece counts something but offers no context for his number to even begin to establish that it’s somehow exceptional. The Krauthammer piece doesn’t even count anything at all.

    This kind of total lack of critical thinking is what’s really scary in our political culture — not some imagined narcissism on the part of the Obamas.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

    @xyzzyva: Apparently, we can thank the most pious of our presidents, Richard Milhous Nixon, for the “God bless America” ending of presidential speeches.

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1735972,00.html

    I think it is now obligatory. Were Obama to stop the practice or bless another country, this would just add support to the idea that he is not a “real American.”

  4. Aviatrix said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    @xyzzyva, I just watched post-election speeches from four Canadian political party leaders, and I don’t think any of them invoked divine blessings on the country. I’d consider it a little weird if any of them had.

  5. ShadowFox said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

    “When the Will or Krauthammer column on this theme arrives, spike it.”

    Well, what if “it” arrived where it cannot be spiked? In fact, the claim had already been made by Rush Limbaugh at the next available broadcast (Monday). He specifically mocked Obama for “all the I, I, I”. Of course, his point was not merely narcissism, but that Obama should not have said “I” at all–he deserved NO credit at all, so any “I” would have been superfluous.

    So anyone who picks up this meme now will only be following in Limbaugh’s malodorous footsteps.

  6. J Lee said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

    is it not enough to cast people as partisan to the point of ridiculousness, so the writer tossed in charges of racism for good measure? i do not see any connection, which is bad for a post pointing out tenuous connections.
    ‘the recent events’ in pakistan (an avoidable cliche inasmuch as it was a single 40-min event) are not at all comparable to ground invasions or other large-scale operations that presidents take responsibility for ordering, usually after a lengthy and self-serving justification. if he is not trying to take credit it is because he knows that no one believes the president can personally influence such a thing.

    the columnists are not pretending to be statisticians; the only one taking this ‘evidence’ seriously seems to be this blogger. obviously any serious case for narcissism would utilize his cult of personality, two autobiographical books, campaign slogans, or as Will points out his apparent belief that his mere physical presence to advocate chicago’s olympic bid would be decisive.
    at any rate it’s disappointing to see an explicitly political blogpost recycled at the apolitical LL.

  7. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    “the columnists are not pretending to be statisticians; the only one taking this ‘evidence’ seriously seems to be this blogger.”

    Oh, please. Almost everyone takes this “evidence” seriously, that’s why LL has blogged about this first-person-pronoun-diagnosed-narcissism nonsense (abbreviated, according to me, as FPPdN) about seven or nine bagrillion times. And rightly so.

    The linked poster speculates about the motives of the commentators because they are well-known conservatives who have never once utilized these advanced diagnostic methods in the service of reporting on narcissism in, say, GOP Presidents. Or, for that matter, their own writing. Funny, that.

    “…at any rate it’s disappointing to see an explicitly political blogpost recycled at the apolitical LL.”

    LL has never pretended to be apolitical. What you’re doing is called “concern trolling”. I’ve become accustomed to LL straying completely afield of linguistic concerns (though this seems less frequent, lately); perhaps you can manage to do the same–assuming your “disappointment” indicates your otherwise general approval of LL.

  8. Rachel said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    @J. Lee. Whether the columnists are pretending to be statisticians or not is a moot point. The fact is, the people *reading* the columns are taking it at face value either way, and that’s a big problem.

    And if you are so concerned about partisan politics leaking onto LL, why did you spend half of your last paragraph spouting conservative propaganda?

  9. J Lee said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    well, what was disappointing was myl’s endorsement of and enthusiasm for a truly shallow piece of writing. while LL has variety, the last thing one would expect is a lame liberal blogpost about a non-issue. i doubt i’m alone in thinking so.

    [(myl) Hmm. Did you have the same reaction to the dozens of LL posts excoriating the “Bushisms” industry? Were those “lame conservative blogposts about a non-issue”?]

  10. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

    Well, or not so well, after a modest effort to see what this is all about, very very modest, reading about 66% of the various posts and URLs, I give up. Cannot figure the thematic substance of this discussion.

    Here is my personalized exercise in narcissism:

    Mild suspicion: Disability I experience may be due to being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative — would that be a sufficient cause? To substantiate the dyed-wool aspects: My grandfather was mayor of Hamburg 1902-1912, his death from pneumonia which he caught during a balloon ride over the city with his friend, the Kaiser. He spoke kindly to labor demonstrators below his balcony, and they dispersed. His oldest son Wilhelm greeted the British occupying general, Brigadier Sperling, at the Rathaus gate, he is visible in the back of the contemporary (April 1945) photo. The Brits walked into town with the help from traffic directions by Hamburg police. The occupation took place without a shot against Nazi wishes, resulting from a white-flag mission arranged by my father, Hermann Sr., who was the mayor’s youngest son (with me the mayor’s youngest grandchild). My dad a pediatrician was a medic with captain’s rank in command of a Lazarett (military hospital) in Harburg, the Hamburg suburb south of the Elbe, conveniently placed on the grounds of a tire factory, which the British were shelling from the Lueneburg Heath. They also hit the Lazarett, despite a huge red cross painted on top of its roof. My father wanted to protect his patients and staff, and had the white-flag mission arranged. Cpt Lindsay received him and the Direktor (CEO) of the tire factory, who probably had plans to talk about the surrender of the city. The mission led to German guns remaining silent as the Brits moved into the city in the last minutes of the 3rd Reich. — My own age at the time was 8 years younger than Pope Benedict XVI, so I never entered the Hitler youth (there was one single gathering of the cub-scout version which I attended, but not in uniform, since those were no longer available, to my chagrin). My parents never had anybody sent to the camps or harmed anybody, they moved us children around the countryside whenever curious glances indicated people began to wonder about our racial background..

    [(myl) Interesting, but the relevance of your youthful experiences to this discussion escapes me.

    As for the “thematic substance” of the discussion here, the core observation is that a surprisingly large number of pundits, for more than two years, have featured again and again the idea that Obama’s frequency of first-singular-pronoun use is proof of (or at least evidence for) his alleged self-involvement or “narcissism” (by which they mean simply self-involvement, arrogance, ego-centricness, etc., not the DSM-IV’s “narcissistic personality disorder“.).

    There are two problems with this meme. The first is that frequency of FPS pronoun use is not in fact correlated with the personality traits that they associate with it (and with Obama). (For discussion and references, see “What is ‘I’ saying?“, 8/9/2009.) The second is that Obama’s empirical frequency of FPSP use is in fact on the low side, when you compare his speeches, press conferences, interviews, etc. to similar performances by other recent presidents. (For discussion and references, see “Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time“, 10/6/2009.)

    I’m puzzled that you find this puzzling, frankly. It’s rather as if dozens of German columnists began asserting, over and over again, that Angela Merkel’s high frequency of eye blinks is evidence that she’s a liar — without offering any evidence that eye blinks are correlated with lying, and in the face of the fact that her empirical frequency of eye blinks turned out to be somewhat lower than her three or four predecessors.]

  11. Bill Walderman said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 7:43 am

    This is completely off-topic, but here is a link to another NYT article on language–specifically, the origins of the Japanese language–that might warrant scrutiny by LL:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/world/asia/04language.html?hpw

    The article quotes Quentin Atkinson, the NZ linguist whose conclusions about the African origin of language were recently subject to criticism by myl:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3090

  12. Tom O'Brien said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    Imagine if Obama resorted to illeism to avoid the charge of narcissism.

  13. Damon said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    Imagine if Obama wandered into the comments on a random post in Language Log to deliver an irrelevant discussion about his childhood in a foreign country.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    Tom O’Brien: I think the complaint is the use of the 1st person singular rather than the plural.

    Had he said, ‘We were born in Hawaii and our birth certificate proves it,’ the same critics would have unloaded on him without mercy.

  15. Canuckistani said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    @Aviatrix – I was surprised that Harper didn’t, as he had been making something of a habit of signing off with “God bless Canada.” Perhaps he is being careful to avoid being cast as too “American” in his style (this has been a thing). Note, however, he signs off with a line from the Canadian anthem “God keep our land glorious and free” – calling on divine providence in a uniquely Canadian manner (everything remotely resembling American policy must be cast as a “uniquely Canadian” variation here).

  16. Canuckistani said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    The victory speech here: http://www.citytv.com/toronto/citynews/video/128593

  17. richard howland-bolton said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    Tom O’Brien, though the opposite of illeism is surely egotism rather than narcissism?
    (Wanders off reciting “I wandered lonely as a clod…”)

  18. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    Of course, saying the same things without use of first-person pronouns might well involve the passive voice.

  19. GeorgeW said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    Andrew (not the same one): The presidential passive is employed to avoid responsibility. This might have been useful had the Abbotabad mission gone bad.

    “Mistake were made.” (Ronald Reagan, 1986)

  20. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    “Presidential passive”?

    Pullum made fun of the Slate writer’s attempt to name this type of rhetoric as the “disembodied implied passive”. I thought it was a bit uncharitable because it does seem like there’s something to the concept and the Slate writer clearly knew that it isn’t actually “passive voice”…which is quite a bit more knowledgeable than most who write about this. Is it so wrong to attempt to put a name to it, even if what it is, exactly, is ambiguous?

    Lots of things are very difficult or impossible to define precisely and yet, for many purposes, we have a pretty good sense of what they are. IQ comes to mind–the quantitative notion itself is extremely suspect, if not downright bogus; and the qualitative idea of a general intelligence is also extremely contestable. Nevertheless, people talk about other people being more and less intelligent all the time. Well, we’re almost certainly not talking about what we think we’re talking about, but we’re talking about something. The same is true of this whole passive rhetoric thing. It’s a step in the right direction when someone who is trying to discuss it admits and makes it explicit that it’s not actually “passive voice”.

    (It would be a similar advance if people began talking about “intelligence” in a way that made clear that it’s not necessarily “general intelligence” and all attempts to quantify it are flawed.)

  21. Nelson said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

    @Keith: I think the problem isn’t just the strange term, but the use, yet again, of “passive” as a vague pejorative term rather than a name for a grammatical voice.
    But regarding “presidential passive, I think Andrew and George W were just referring to the regular passive voice, right? “Mistakes were made” is in the real passive, not just implied.

  22. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

    Ah, but that passive voice launched a thousand, er, ships.

  23. GeorgeW said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    @Nelson: Yes, I was referring to a regular passive.

  24. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

    Thanks, myl, for writing that lesson in an LL crash course on a curious issue in journalism, that to unravel would be difficult for an occasional and casual visitor (e.g., this commenter). “Bushism excoriations” for which web links are supplied above should be fun to reading for any amateur conservative linguiststs. [no FPSPPNs?]

  25. luciek said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

    @Aviatrix and Canuckistani
    Among the five leaders, Harper, the (very) Conservative Prime Minister, is the only one who invoked god on E-night. He distinctly said: “… god bless all of you, god bless our land… ” at the end of his speech last Monday. We heard it clearly at our place on E-night, and, yes, he’s the only one to use this uniquely US expression, maybe in all of Canadian history. What seems typically Canadian to me is that he’s an exception.
    Interestingly, although he begins many speeches in French, I don’t think he’s ever finished a speech in French, because…well, he can’t. He would never outlive the general hilarity that would result from his ending with the likes of: “Que dieu bénisse le Canada, que dieu vous bénisse” on the part of every French speaker in Canada, fluent or not. Just imagining it cracks me up!

  26. maidhc said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 4:16 am

    luciek: The language question in Ireland is much different than the language question in Canada, but…

    A common practice with Irish politicians is the “cúpla focal”, literally “a couple of words”. This is the beginning of an oration with a sentence or two in Irish, after which the speaker switches to English for the rest of the speech.

    Since it comes at the beginning, the Irish public are generally spared versions of “‘Twas in Canadian woods we met” as Gaeilge. (Note: “God save Ireland, Irish boys hurrah”)

  27. maidhc said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 4:20 am

    PS There seem to be a lot of different variations of that song, not all the same as I remember it from my youth.

  28. dnvo said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    In the latest episode of South Park, ‘President Obama’ delivers a speech in which it seems he uses the first person a lot.

    I thought this was funny, and a nice touch – I wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been for the recent posts here.

  29. tablogloid said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    We don’t say, “God bless Canada”, up here.
    We say, “God bless hockey.”

  30. I Meme, You Meme | The Lost Art of Mini-Grilling said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    […] enough they’d tackled a new occurrence, more accurately they’d highlighted another’s take down: Using a modified Fox […]

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