Flaming Napalmed Knickers

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Or maybe it should be "Pantaloons in the Plasma State". Anyhow, we need a category of reckless mendacity beyond PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" stage, to deal with Jim Meyers and Ashley Martella, "George Marlin: Obama Is ‘Narcissist, Classic Elitist’", NewsMax 9/14/2011. More specifically, to deal with their interviewee, George Marlin, who asserts that

Obama … uses the I word more than I think all presidents have used it collectively in the two hundred and some odd years of our nation.

As I've tediously explained tediously many times via tediously many actual tedious counts, President Obama actually uses "I" (and other first-person singular pronouns, like "me", "my", "myself", etc.) at a slightly lower rate, in a tediously wide variety of comparable circumstances, than other recent presidents. Nor, of course, would a slightly higher rate of FPSP use be a reliable indication of greater self-involvement. (See the bottom of this post for the tedious list of links…)

But here's one more tedious bit of fact-checking, based on a nearly-complete sample of the texts of weekly radio addresses delivered by Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and a newly collected sample of about 10% of Ronald Reagan's weekly radio addresses. (I didn't have time to clean up a more complete set for Reagan, but this temporally-random sample should generalize fairly well.)

As expected, Obama's rates of "I" and of FPSPs in general are slightly lower than the other two presidents — and in fact George W. Bush alone has almost three times more I's in total than Obama, since his higher rate was maintained for two full terms rather than for 3/4 of one term. Similarly, if we project Reagan's rate to his full set of radio addresses (which tend to run longer in terms of word count as well), we expect his total I-word count in weekly radio addresses to be more than three and a half times greater than Obama's:

# of addresses Total words "I" (%) Total 1st pers. sing. pro. (%)
Obama 99 77,555 704 (0.91%) 834 (1.08%)
Bush 2 230 223,305 2095 (0.94%) 2686 (1.20%)
Reagan 23 26,125 258 (0.99%) 340 (1.30%)

So the idea that Barack Obama "uses the I word more than … all presidents have used it collectively in the two hundred and some odd years of our nation" is a preposterous fabrication. But it's only the most extreme version (so far) of a meme that has spread like pond scum through the stagnant waters of wingnut punditry since George Will popularized it in 2009.

Frankly, I'm disappointed in these people. Can't they invent new fabrications instead of tediously repeating old ones?

Lest you think that I've taken Mr. Marlin's remarks out of context, here's a transcript of the whole Q & A, and full audio of his answer:

Q: The book has a caricature of President Obama staring at his own reflection lovingly in a pool of water below the Lincoln Memorial. While it's probably self-explanatory, please let's hear your description of what that cover is intended to convey.

A: Well the title itself is Narcissist Nation and I believe the- this- this has been a nation that has had elites
for its entire history who believe they are superior to the rest
and should be running things, they should be the collective managers of America.
And we've seen it with the Federalists, with Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, historically we've seen this go on, but
I think this generation of-
of elitists I define as narcissists,
and I think the narcissist-in-chief is the president of the United States.
He's the classic example
of narcissism running a nation, and a nation he's running into the ground at the moment, so
a picture of Obama, who uses the I word more than I think all presidents have used in collectively in the two hundred and some odd years of our nation
uh I think having him gazing a pool of water of himself
uh outside the Lincoln Memorial is quite appropriate; I think it's a very fine jacket cover and the artist did a terrific job.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I note in passing that Mr. Marlin himself uses the "I word" 8 times in the 175 words of his answer, for a rate of 4.6%.

The promised tedious list of tedious refutations:

"Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009
"Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme", 6/8/2009
"Inaugural pronouns", 6/8/2009
"Royal Baloney", 6/9/2009
"Another pack member heard from", 6/9/2009
"I again", 7/13/2009
"'I' is a camera", 7/18/2009
"What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", 10/6/2010
"Them there I's", 2/11/2010
"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse", 7/10/2010
""A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator"", 8/9/2010
"Recommended reading", 5/3/2011
"Let me count the ways", 5/9/2011
"Two more pundits who don't count", 6/21/2011
"Presidential pronouns, one more time", 6/22/2011
"Another pundit who can't (or won't) count",  6/23/2011

And getting back to PolitiFact: Given the large number of pundits who have pushed this meme, and the importance that  the current wingnut narrative seems to give to it, and the straightforwardly false quantitative claims involved, why haven't they bothered to fact-check it?

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39 Comments »

  1. John said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    Clearly, Mark, you have succumbed to the siren call of the reality-based community.

    [(myl) It's worse. I'm a factual fundamentalist.]

  2. MattF said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    My diagnosis is that when Obama uses the word 'I', wingers say to tnemselves "Who is this 'I'-person?", and then it hits them, all over again. The President. 'That one,' as John McCain once put it.

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

    It's subtle, but I believe I can almost detect a hint of exasperation here.

  4. Uly said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

    You know what? If they can't be bothered to get their facts right, and can't be bothered to get their facts right, and insist on being wrong (or outright lying) all the time? I don't THINK I'm better than them, I simply AM better than them. Clearly, that's not hard.

  5. Kylopod said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

    The fact that George Will started this meme, and has yet to retract it, bothers me a lot more than the fact that Newsmax is repeating it.

    [(myl) Has George Will ever retracted anything? Overall, it's pretty rare for a pundit to apologize for getting something wrong, or even to admit having done so.

    As for the lower-tier outlets like NewsMax, you shouldn't underestimate how many people they influence. Their influence is especially potent when the whole Noise Machine is singing the same refrain, from George Will in the Washington Post and Stanley Fish in the New York TImes through U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, talk radio, and on down to lower-level sources like The Daily Caller, and American Thinker.]

  6. Kylopod said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 12:57 am

    @myl

    It wasn't influence I was thinking about but expectations. Will has long held a status in American political culture as one of the premier intellectual, respectable conservatives, the guy who's supposed to take the high road and avoid the crude excesses of Limbaugh and company. I'm not arguing that he deserves that reputation–as a matter of fact, I didn't think he did even before this incident. But a lot of people who wouldn't blink before describing Newsmax as a partisan rag continue to treat Will as an honorable, dignified voice of the right, and he writes for what's supposed to be one of America's highest-quality newspapers. It's disturbing to me how hard it is nowadays to find a conservative commentator who isn't rolling around in the muck. The fact that a guy of Will's supposed stature is doing this is a very damning indictment of the state of punditry in this country.

  7. David said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 3:33 am

    While I agree that Will has developed a reputation as a serious conservative voice, I can't for the the life of me see how he has earned it. For his whole career he has consistently and steadily ignored evidence that doesn't conform with his preconceived conclusions.

  8. GWS said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 4:15 am

    I once read somewhere that Obama has more ways of saying I than Eskimos have words for snow.

  9. scav said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 6:27 am

    @David. Isn't that one definition of a conservative?

    [(myl) No, it's a definition of a bigot (in the sense of "a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs"), of whom there are plenty all across the political spectrum. Alternatively, you could see it as a definition of a bullshitter (in the sense of someone who is simply uninterested in the truth value of his statements), of whom again there are plenty in all political categories. The term "idiotarian" was briefly fashionable as a way to denote such people, but I feel that it was never really appropriate, since they are not necessarily stupid -- and in fact may be quite intelligent -- but simply suffer from an inbalance between their prejudices, which are typically strong, and their interest in the truth, which is much weaker.]

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 6:59 am

    Don't mean to be tedious, but there was also 'Republican self-referentiality' from June this year, about the Ifulness of Jon Huntsman relative to Obama and the rest of the Republican field.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3224

    [(myl) And Peggy Noonan tried out the same argument against Sarah Palin. In neither case did the attack catch on. So what's different about Obama? The most obvious answer is the one that John McIntyre suggested:

    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.”

    ]

  11. J Lee said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    if obama used the colloquial AAVE FPSP 'yo boy' he could gain street cred and counter these criticisms by adopting a second-person viewpoint, a twofer.

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    Counting pronouns and refuting bald-face lies is one approach, but this seems weak. Granted, the president's critics are motivated by political animus, yet what is it that Marlin, Will, et al. are actually picking up on in Obama's use of I (or other language) that they are interpreting as narcissism? Discovering that seems to me to be where the linguistic value lies.

    [(myl) In my opinion, John McIntyre nailed it.]

  13. peterv said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 7:17 am

    J Lee: If Obama used "yo boy", I would bet the Right would attack him once again for using the first-person singular, and now doing so in Spanish.

  14. [links] Link salad dances the cotton-eyed joe | jlake.com said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    [...] Flaming Napalmed Knickers — Language Log (again) on the completely and objectively false conservative meme that Obama uses "I" more often than other presidents, and is therefore a narcissist. I especially like this comment, which could apply to virtually all conservative allegations about Obama: Frankly, I'm disappointed in these people. Can't they invent new fabrications instead of tediously repeating old ones? [...]

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    @myl, thanks for the links. It would seem that the president's critics are sensitized to his use of I to the extent that each utterance provokes "Aha, there's another one!", which is undoubtedly full-on confirmation bias at work. How this sensitivity arose is another matter, and probably varies widely from one individual to another.

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Your pundits could expand their minds a little by reading Audre Lorde's short, great poem, Coal, which is about "I", words and blackness, among other things.

  17. J Lee said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    i remember reading before the 2008 election in a british outlet that obama had scored points with the hispanic advocacy group La Raza for doing what mccain had failed to do when he addressed the same group: pronouncing the group's name using a sound 'difficult for english speakers to pronounce'. although the sound is virtually identical to the AmE flap the writer and the hispanic audience apparently appreciated the effort. clearly we cannot underestimate how ignorance of this kind will influence public perception.

  18. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    What is the evidence that this meme is motivated by racism other than John McIntyre's nebulous intuition?

  19. Gene Callahan said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    Did you notice Marlin can't even pronounce the word "narcissist"? (He says "narsist.")

  20. Lance said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    Really, Gene Callahan? Because if you listen to the whole clip, he says "narcissist" or "narcissism" four times, and only the first one is syncopated to "narsist". I think there's a world of difference between "can't even pronounce" and "occasionally slurs a syllable".

  21. The Ridger said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright: What is the evidence? How about the fact that there is nothing else IN evidence? It's clearly false. Why do they make this claim about him, and not, say, Clinton, whom they also hate?

    Maybe it's not true. But it's a good working hypothesis.

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    While I agree that Will has developed a reputation as a serious conservative voice, I can't for the the life of me see how he has earned it.

    Probably by looking and sounding like an old-fashioned intellectual: wire-rimmed glasses, fancy words, an occasional penchant for bowties.

    He's also willing to criticize his own party on occasion, which gets you points for balance no matter how dishonest a hack you are. Apparently he criticized Nixon during the Watergate fiasco, which may have been the original source of his sane-conservative reputation.

  23. D.O. said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    Well, Mr. Marlin is describing a caricature (graphical) with a caricature (verbal).

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    Is there any significant number of actual left-of-center pro-Obama professional pundits and flacks out there who are actively combatting this particular false empirical claim and making fun of those who promulgate it? If not, one reason it may continue to propagate is simple lack of pushback from quarters from which pushback would be relevant in terms of the incentive structure within which the propagators operate. If the President's would-be defenders in less marginal channels of public discourse than linguistics-enthusiast blogs can't or won't pick up the ball from Language Log on this one, another ten outraged posts from myl aren't going to have any effect. I mean, you can't even properly call people liars if they don't actually know what they're saying is false and even if you can call someone a liar for recklessly failing to check the veracity of some factoid they heard from somewhere else before passing it on, you need a cultural norm supporting some obligation fact-checking language-based claims before failure to do so is reckless. And, um, there's substantial evidence we don't have that culture. See the Language Log archives, passim.

  25. Kylopod said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    I'm reiterating something I wrote in a previous thread on this topic, but one commenter pointed to a Daily Kos entry from 2005 citing Bush's heavy use of "I" in an announcement of his intention to seek a new Supreme Court justice:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/07/03/127543/-Frameshop-|Me,-Myself-and-I

    The Kos writer used this example to argue not that Bush was a narcissist but that he was an autocrat. When people play this kind of game, regardless of their political perspective, it's simply a cheap way for the president's critics to claim proof of a characterization they had of him from the start. Bush was attacked as having autocratic tendencies long before this Kos entry, and Obama was attacked as a narcissist long before George Will invented the "I"-counting meme. It's almost like the political equivalent of numerology.

  26. Tom said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    Since presidential speeches are generally written by speech writers and vetted by various executive office functionaries, can they ever be said to reveal anything about the president's narcissism, or lack thereof? Even "extemporaneous" remarks by presidents tend to be expressions of dogma rehearsed and repeated and carefully tuned for political effect. I'd guess such carefully controlled speech is inherently un-revealing of the speaker's character. Maybe if you could secretly tape Obama during a dinner-table conversation or talking to friends during a basketball game you might have something that gives some clues to his character.

  27. haamu said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    We consider classifying these folks as liars (who knowingly emit falsehoods) or bullshitters (who don't care about the truth value of their statements), but it feels like there's room for a third category here. What about someone who cares about "truth," and thinks he's uttering "truth," but simply doesn't ground "truth" in the same factual/quantitative bedrock that seems so right and natural to us?

    When Marlin says Obama uses FPSP "more" than all previous Presidents combined, we immediately assume he means quantitatively more, and that we can therefore counter the claim with quantitative, objective evidence. But he may means something else — something more qualitative, subjective, or conceptual.

    I don't mean to defend Marlin's statement, because I too am firmly in the factual/qualitative camp. But we're encountering a lot of faith-based and gut-based statements in modern public discourse from people who aren't "bullshitting" us (in the sense that they really seem to believe there is truth value in what they are asserting). We may mislead ourselves if we assume in every case that we're being manipulated. We may instead be miscommunicating with someone who has adopted an entirely different epistemological framework, albeit one that's very hard to respect.

    Stephen Colbert famously said it best.

  28. haamu said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    (Typo, sorry — I'm firmly in the factual/quantitative camp.)

  29. Rod Johnson said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    @Tom–I guess that would mean this is institutional narcissism.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

    @J Lee: Raza has a trill at the beginning, not a flap. It's certainly hard for some people, including some native speakers of Spanish.

  31. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

    @Kylopod:

    Thanks for answering Ridger's assertions better than I could. The best working hypothesis for this kind of bullshitting is that pundits care more about scoring points than about facts. I don't see any evidence for racism in these false claims other than the fact that Obama is black and that in the minds of certain liberals all conservatives are secretly racist.

  32. Kylopod said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright

    I actually wasn't taking a position on whether the "I-counting" business has a racial component to it. I was simply pointing out that people who engage in this kind of tactic are using it to support an image they already hold of whoever they're criticizing. Racism is an explosive topic with opinions that are very hard to prove or disprove, and I am not eager to see this primarily linguistic discussion derailed in that direction.

  33. Trimegistus said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    Anybody care to comment on this bit of language use?

    http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/132607/

    [(myl) You must have us confused with Jacob Weisberg over at Slate, who turned the Bushisms business into a nice little source of extra income for most of W's two terms in office, while we relentlessly defended W against these stereotyped and often ridiculous attacks.

    In the post that you link to, Glenn Reynolds writes about the "howls of derision that would greet any presidential contender if that kind of basic error were made before, say, the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel". But LL is not in the derisive howls business, at least not with respect to simple word-substitution errors. On the contrary, our stance is typically to examine the speech error (or conceptual error, if that's what it is in a particular case) and relate it to the common circumstances that lead all of us to make similar mistakes from time to time (such as the mistake in your own pen name). If it's not a mistake at all (as in this example of an alleged mistake by Sarah Palin), I explain what (I think) is really going on. In many cases, if the accusations are really unfair, the only things approximating "howls of derision" are directed at the hypocritical accusers, as in this case of an alleged mistake by George W. Bush.

    My impression is that there are plenty of derisive howls directed at Obama by the mainstream media as well as ring-wing bloggers and the great herds of active web commenters at Fox Nation and Free Republic -- the "me-myself-and-I" nonsense has been promulgated by the Washington Post and the New York Times as well as by Fox News and on down the media food chain. So I'm not impressed by Reynolds' implication of general media bias.

    As for you, I'm getting quite weary of your constant assertions (or insinuations, in this case) that our posts are motivated by the partisan rancor that so clearly motivates your own (generally otherwise contentless) contributions. Please take advantage of our double-your-money-back guarantee, and spray your uninformed bitterness somewhere else.]

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    If the President's defenders were linguistically sophisticated, which it seems they are not, they could spend a moment or two at google books and come up with lots and lots of prior uses of "English" rather than "British" to describe embassies, diplomats, etc. in post-1707 contexts. Admittedly, the first few good examples I found were from the 19th century. The n-gram viewer shows "English embassy" as more common than "British embassy" in the latter part of that century, with the trendlines finally decisively diverging in favor of "British embassy" only around 1925. Let me congratulate our President on his refusal to bow to modern PC trends or pander to the thin-skinned Scottish vote. Now he just needs to refer to those who attacked the English embassy in Persia as "Mahometan extremists."

  35. Janelle B. said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    I believe these people would like our president to take on a diction much like Dobby the House Elf. Instead of voting him out of office, they would give him a sock instead.

  36. Kylopod said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Americans, as a rule, don't pay much attention to the distinction between "English" and "British." The president's error might even be hyper-correction, since the usual error is to use "British" when "English" is needed, rather than the other way around. Perhaps he got into the habit of saying "English" when his first instinct was to say "British," leading to this mistake.

  37. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    I love the use of the phrase "the 'I' word" to refer to the word "I". I'll have to start using it.

    On the other hand, it's ripe for one-upping: "Dr. Liberman has shown conclusively that President Obama does not drop the 'I'-bomb more than other presidents."

  38. Jason Cullen said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    Bill asks "has George Will ever retracted anything?"

    From the Wikipedia article on Will: "In a Washington Post column on June 5, 2008, Will stated that "Drilling is underway 60 miles (97 km) off Florida. The drilling is being done by China, in cooperation with Cuba, which is drilling closer to South Florida than U.S. companies are". This statement was incorrect. It was later quoted and subsequently withdrawn by Dick Cheney after Congressional Democrats, backed by energy experts, pointed out the error. House Leader John Boehner also cited the incorrect statement: "Right at this moment some 60 miles (97 km) or less off the coast of Key West, Fla., China has the green light to drill for oil."[27][28][29]

    In a June 17, 2008 column, George Will issued a correction: "In a previous column, I stated that China, in partnership with Cuba, is drilling for oil 60 miles (97 km) from the Florida coast. While Cuba has partnered with Chinese companies to drill in the Florida Straits, no Chinese company has been involved in Cuba's oil exploration that close to the United States.""

  39. Bloix said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    Trigemistus – yeah, I'd care to comment. Here's what Obama said, from the Daily Mail (an enemy of Obama from the very first):

    'All of us are deeply disturbed by the, err, crashing of, err, the English Embassy, err, the embassy of the United Kingdom.'

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2068137/President-Obama-blunders-condemns-attack-English-Embassy-Tehran.html

    "Err" is how the non-rhotic Mail transcribes "uh," and the only time they do it is when they want to insult the person they're quoting.

    Now, this is about as trivial an error as you are ever going to find, and he corrected it in the very next breath. But you can read the 5,000 right-wing loonie sites that are spreading this story and you won't find the full quote.

    The Mail, however, goes on to double down in a way that is far too provincial for Americans, and says that "embassy of the United Kingdom" is also wrong. It's the British Embassy, you see. Apparently the adjective that corresponds to "United Kingdom" is "British." Now, it's beyond me how it can be wrong to refer to the embassy that represents the United Kingdom as the embassy of the United Kingdom, but apparently the approved way to refer to the embassy is to leave out one of the four "countries" of the UK. Obama initially left out three,and then he included them all – so he was wrong twice!

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