Obama’s Rhetoric Continues to Lose Altitude

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Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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66 Responses

  1. Avatar Fnord says:

    Ah, the continued abuse of the Flesch-Kincaid and similar “grade-level” readability tools to do the exact opposite of what they were designed to do.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      And they were designed to…?Report

      • Avatar Fnord says:

        Measure readability. A low grade-level is a sign of a good writer: one who uses clear and understandable language. A higher grade level doesn’t indicate better writing, it indicates writing that is harder to understand. Ceteris paribus, worse writing.

        Now, it’s true that complex ideas can be difficult to convey in simple writing (at least arguably). But using the clearest writing possible to convey your ideas is no vice (and it’s certainly not true that it’s difficult to convey simple ideas in complex writing).

        If Mr. Henwood thinks that the ideas expressed in public discourse are increasingly simplistic, that’s a valid criticism. But then he should, you know, identify and criticize the ideas that he thinks are oversimplified. Rather than making an argument that amounts to “presidential speeches these days use clearer language.”Report

    • Aye – that the speech is “down” to a 10th grade level of readability is actually good thing, at least if Obama’s goal was for people to understand what he was saying. Just because the average person can understand things written at a 12th grade level doesn’t mean they’re going to be willing to expend the kind of effort required to do so. I, personally, always did quite well on reading comprehension tests….but the easier ones were always way less dull.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      But if it’s not in Latin, then any dumb schmo can understand what’s going on during Mass.Report

      • Avatar smarx says:

        “Oh Lord, ooh you are so big! So absolutely huge! Gosh! We’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you! forgive us, oh Lord, for this our dreadful toadying!… and, endless flattering… But, you’re so strong, and, well, just so super!… fantastic… Amen!”Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    That an idea is expressed in simple, direct, readily-understandable terms is not the same thing as expressing a simple idea, or a dumb one.

    My own last post here on these very pages (expressing frustration at an inability to address North Korea) comes out with a Flesch-Kincaid of 9.47. I think that’s doing pretty well because a large number of people could readily understand it. Whether you agreed with me or not, whether you thought I had a good point or not, chances are good that you understood me.

    Chances are pretty good that you understood President Obama, too. That’s why the speech was written the way it is. He wasn’t addressing the Algonquin Round Table or the American Association of University Women. He was only ostensibly addressing Congress; in fact, he was addressing the citizenry as a whole. So if it sounded like a campaign speech, well, there’s a reason for that.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      I’ve been running readability scores on my posts and I’m starting to wonder if I need to reread them better.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I just checked two of my longer comments. Grade level 6.9 and 10.6. The 6.9 was actually the better comment (clearer, conciser, more better) but I’m pretty sure that a tenth grader couldn’t have understood the content of the 10.6 ranked comment.

        Do you know what the criteria they base the test on? Sentence structure? Use of embiggened words? Logical complexity?? Burt, for example, has a very sophisticated sentence structure, a level which a ninth grade writer surely could not attain unless he/she was exceptionally talented, and his recent post scored a 9.47. Weird.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I reckon it’s little more than vocabulary… perhaps also phrases (like “in so far as”).Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            I’m thinking it’s the correct use of semi-colons, myself. Long sentences = smart! for F-K. It says something about my writing ability that I’ve never figured out how to use those little hybrid symbols.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Also, the smartest person I’ve ever read/heard speak is Saul Kripke, and part of his genius is to convey incredibly subtle concepts in language that just about anyone could understand. So there’s clearly a disconnect between the grade level of the content being conveyed and the grade level of the language used to convey it.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Or a more familiar example of that disconnect: Pat Cahalan.Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

          My readability scores tend to be a lot lower than average, even after substantial revision. The average somewhere in the 35-50 range which works out to about a 11-12.5 grade.

          I’m not sure if it has to do with sentence structure or if it’s the nature of the topics themselves.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Lower than average is a good thing. I think you should feel proud of that, myself. We all should strive to convey our thoughts in the most basic, stripped down language possible. Sometimes that’s not possible, of course, because using technical terms is part and parcel of communicating technical concepts. But even those concepts could be conveyed in natural language.

            The goal should be to convey high level content using basic, low level language. If you’re doing that, count it as a success. (Academic journal standards notwithstanding.)Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    It’s hard to express complex ideas in simple language. Maybe this is why.

    From the academic writing put out by grad school students that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of it,) writing above a high-school level is not evidence of clear communication; and that’s a President’s job — communicate clearly to the people.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      And this is a follow-on piece; it includes a link back to the primary; both worth reading.Report

    • Avatar dhex says:

      one thing i think folk tend to gloss over with academese – and lord knows i often hate reading me some academese – is that it’s specialist writing for other specialists.

      all this “people in 1863 were so much smarter” gunk ignores 3 years of college meant latin and chopping down trees and a minor in phrenology.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Lord knows that’s right. Jargon develops for a reason — and that includes the jargon of engineers and scientists in any field.

        Of course, trends in science and journal writing come and go, but any paper written by and for a specialist group is gonna take a dictionary or some puzzling to figure out by laymen, and they’ll probably miss a lot of nuance.

        And that doesn’t matter whether the speciality is the repair of a Ford transmission, the most esoteric of particle physicsists, or the local Boggle club’s newsletter. 🙂Report

    • Avatar ktward says:

      writing above a high-school level is not evidence of clear communication; and that’s a President’s job — communicate clearly to the people.

      Clear communication, that.Report

  4. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Remember, 87% of Americans over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or more, and over 30% have college degrees (Census source), so the president isn’t addressing a nation of dropouts.

    Lowest common denominator. If 87% have high school diplomas, 13% don’t. And having a high school diploma doesn’t necessarily mean that someone can read at a 12th-grade level. Furthermore, people who score low on the standardized tests that measure reading level are a big part of the Democratic constituency.

    As for content, a devolution there as well. Imagine a modern president saying this, as Lincoln did in his 1861 address: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

    While expressed in erudite language, the quality of the argument is every bit as deplorable as what we’ve come to expect from modern politicians.Report

  5. Avatar zic says:

    Essential reading — James Fallows annotated SOTU — an actual analysis that goes beyond the silly metric of reading level, which only looks at grammatical construction.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/the-annotated-2013-state-of-the-union/273176/Report

  6. Avatar M.A. says:

    Anyone else remember how a couple years ago the right wingers were ridiculing “professor Obama” and claiming he was an “ivory tower egghead” who “doesn’t know how to talk to Real Murkins”?

    So he brings it down a notch, to talk on a level the Real Murkins might understand without having to dust off their dictionary, and now the right wingers are after him for supposedly dumbing down the speeches.

    I don’t think this proves much beyond the fact that the right wingers are always looking for something to criticize and don’t really care much what it is.Report

  7. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    actual thoughts on the speech itself from me and others can be found here (via Elias) http://jubileeblog.com/Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      After reading the responses at Jubilee and contrasting them to Tim’s response at Dutch Courage, I start to wonder if dialogue really is possible on these subjects when it seems like there’s different epistemic universes at play here.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I am going to vote no.

        The issue is more that there are several epistemic universes at play at least three or four, probably many more. The minimum version is: Far-right, center-right, center-left, far-left. You can also probably throw in libertarian. Center-left can be split between neo-liberals and old-school liberals (hence my name).

        We all have different universes. I understand the New Republic, the Nation, The American Prospect, Paul Waldman, Kevin Drum, N plus One. I don’t understand much of the language used by the far left and Occupy. Most of it seems like overly-indulgent bad grad school writing to me.

        To me radical writing against electoral politics and gradual reform can be just as reality free as anything that comes from the fever dreams of the Tea Party.

        I imagine that the radical left would just see me as a wet who does not want to give up my middle-class comforts and my refusal to do so is a poison to the left and ending poverty.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I suppose the basic division is between wet and hard. Or it depends on how you see politics.

        The phrase that struck me the most from Shawn’s post above was his admission of “our aversion to electoral politics.”

        My only response to that is Good god, what do you want instead? Constant revolution? Rule through fiat? Electoral politics might not always be great but it sure as hell beats the Politburo.

        A belief in electoral politics requires admission that there is always going to be an opposing faction and that on many issues 50 percent of the world might think differently than me. Maybe on some issues, I am in a minority. Gradualism and social democracy are often a long game. And my belief in democracy means that sometimes or often I don’t get my way because majority rule has to mean something. It seems that there is a certain kind of person (on both the left and the right) who can’t abide by the concept of majority rule. They are so convinced of their morality that they can’t possibly be wrong about anything.

        Politics is still the art of the possible. We don’t need more hards on the left or the right. We need more doubters. People who are not always convinced that they are right and are willing to work towards a consensus solution. That is reality. Anything else are still people fighting for utopia. Utopia is a myth. Fight for a better world but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It is hubris to think you can create a world where your politics are the only beliefs.Report

  8. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Clearly Obama should be tapping Entertainment Weekly writers to work on his speeches.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      Or Comedy Central.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

        Perhaps he can crib from Dr. Seuss.Report

        • Avatar zic says:

          The Master.

          It’s about time
          Obama made a rhyme.

          To plaster
          points faster

          For all the little minds.Report

          • Avatar zic says:

            Obama hears who?

            On the 12th of Feb.
            In Congress’s tomb
            In the heat of debate
            In the cool of the room
            Obama the President
            looked around
            When Obama the President
            Heard a small sound.

            From a small speck of dust
            a mote in the air
            The people were calling
            for leaders who care.
            Obama, he listened
            placed their cares on a clover
            But along came Boehner Bird
            Driving a Range Rover.

            Boehner Bird lauged
            “’bama’s imaginary friends
            mean we’ll soon have
            to put him to an end
            or they’ll vote and they’ll vote
            and they’ll vote and they’ll vote
            and with each of those votes
            tax cuts get revoked.”

            So Boehner took aim
            with a giant sequester
            hoping the clover of cares
            would soon fester.

            “But I said what I meant
            And I meant what I said
            At the state of the union,”
            The President said.

            Will the Boehner Bird buckle
            Will Obama catch the clover
            Can someone please tell me
            When the whole thing is over?
            Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:


          I do not like the heath care plan.
          I do not like it, Kenyan man.
          I do not like it when I sneeze.
          I do not like it when I freeze.
          I do not like it when I cough.
          The whole idea makes me pissed off.
          I think it’s un-American.
          I do not like the heath care plan.
          Report

  9. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Some push back against the “simpler is better” motto (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/02/don%E2%80%99t-be-beguiled-orwell-using-plain-and-clear-language-not-always-moral-virtue):

    “I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

    We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.”Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      Talking point writing is a bit of an art. I think in trying to consider it an artifice, Smith does a disservice to the difficult reality that public policy ideas, whatever their complexity, need to eventually be distilled to one page summaries and bullet-point lists.

      Rather the elevation of tortured language into an equivalence of complexity allows for rhetorical sleight of hand that the likes of faux experts like Paul Ryan use. They cloak their gabble in meaningless numbers, as numerology replaces mathematics. Maybe the simplicity of talking points language is always going to allow these new astrologers a place at the table.

      That said, let’s also keep in mind that the “political class” is as much a victim in today’s policy debates as anyone else. Politicians are increasingly asked to keep tabs on a truly stupendous number of topics and developments, all the while retaining the trappings of office that were designed for a slower, less interconnected time. Political staffs are almost always undermanned and overworked, and the breadth of expertise that needs to be condensed into form that can be debated within a legislative session can be staggering. Under those circumstances, trying to simplify and make plain is as noted, an art.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        There’s the numerology obfuscation to be sure. I think both Ryan’s and Romney’s economic proposals were exposed as entirely inconsistent – Romney’s in particular. That didn’t prevent people from continually denying the basic fact that the math didn’t add up or that claims about the math were false. TVD’s heroic attempts are evidence of that.

        Also too: simply stuff. The GOP called the Medicare saving entailed by the PPACA a “cut” in the programs funding. That’s just an outright and intentional lie, I think, and only passes for truth in certain circles by a invoking a politically motivated meaning of the word “cut”, even tho the word “cut” isn’t consistent with paradigmatic Orwellian language.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Hmmm. I’m not so sure. I think what the author of the linked post is calling “spin” I’d be inclined to call “lies” without any hesitation. At least, when those statements are uttered by politicians and pundits. In fact, I think it’s impossible to use simple language to mislead precisely because simple language doesn’t permit obfuscation. It can be used to present an incomplete picture of things, of course (and that is spin, of course). Personally, I’d account for the dynamic he’s perceiving as the result of two ideological camps with such radically different world views that even simple sentences are interpreted as expressing – either literally or by implication – completely different content. Politicians know this and construct their language with that fact in mind. Consider: liberals and conservatives disagree to a very great extent and at a fundamental level on basic – sometimes even trivial – descriptions of reality. There’s no agreement on the facts (Rove’s famous “You have your facts I have mine” comment comes to mind). So I don’t think the linked argument refudiates Orwell’s thesis straight up. But it does present another problem, a deeper one, in political discourse.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        But it does present another problem, a deeper one, in political discourse.

        And the problem might be this: ideologically motivated Orwellian language has so corrupted our political discourse that Orwellian language itself is no longer necessary to obfuscate. IT can now be accomplished in more or less normal language because even basic terms have taken on Orwellian meanings.Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

          I think it’s simpler still.

          Specifically:
          Lying works better than spin. So why bother?Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Well, there’s always that…

            And I agree. But it’s difficult to establish what constitutes a lie without begging some questions. In particular, what language ought to be used to express a basic truth (a fact, say). Conservatives and liberals appear to disagree on the meanings of basic terms.Report