Dick Cavett has had some jolly fun in The New York Times with Sarah Palin’s improbable syntax, zinging her, in part, as “one who seems to have no first language.”
One may feel less sympathy for the governor than for, say, the interviewers desperately trying to grapple her unanchored prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses before the swift-moving current carries them out to sea. Or for the poor devil commenting on Cavett’s essay who as an American in Brittany was asked to translate Palin into French for the neighbors.
Palin is far from the first elected official to be mocked for getting ensnared in syntax. You may recall Dan Quayle’s mangling of the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” as “What a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.” You may also recall — balanced treatment here — Richard Daley pere saying, “The police are not here to create disorder. They are here to preserve disorder.”
But I think that indulging in extensive ridicule, including attempts to diagram her sentences, may go a little far. We may be seeing evidence of her getting this treatment because she is a woman.
Why, you wonder, do I think so?
Consider this sentence: “Any onset of increased investor caution elevates risk premiums and, as a consequence, lowers asset values and promotes the liquidation of the debt that supported higher asset prices. … This is the reason that history has not dealt kindly with the aftermath of protracted periods of low risk premiums.”
It was uttered by Alan Greenspan, who, during nearly 19 years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, regularly produced utterances that were treated as reverently by the news media as if they were Sibylline oracles. The very opacity of his remarks was received and noted with something like awe. Then, in his testimony before Congress last month, we discovered that he was, um, mistaken.
We lampoon Governor Palin as a latter-day Lucy Ricardo (not entirely fair, since Lucy’s illogic always made a zany sense, while Governor Palin’s non-logic merely baffles). Male figures in government whose jargon defies paraphrase command respect. This cannot be right.
You Don’t Say stands forthrightly in favor of equal ridicule for all.