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Talking the code

On Thursday, Professor Mark Liberman did me the honor of quoting me in a post at Language Log. Please excuse the exposition that must follow before I can get to the point.

He was demolishing the latest article on the recurring theme that President Barack Obama’s use of first-person pronouns indicates that he is a narcissist. This time, to the standard cautions—that there is no foundation for the premise, that a raw count of pronouns out of context is meaningless, that Obama in fact uses first-person pronouns less frequently than his immediate predecessors—Professor Liberman pointed out that the author hadn’t even counted the pronouns in the text accurately.

He then speculated on the popularity of this meme, quoting one of my blog posts: “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.' ”

His gloss on my comment: “John McIntyre's point is ... that there's a specific and well-known traditional response to members of low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations of self-effacement (and, for that matter, to caste-related expectations about speech patterns).” And further, “When a meme like this one takes hold of the punditocracy's imagination, without any rational basis in fact, it's natural to look for an explanation in irrational areas.”

In response, for the past three days, one Alan Gunn has been commenting, with vehemence, that my hearing racist overtones is without foundation and without “evidence,” is a slur, and is a symptom of the universal practice among journalists of making statements of fact without any substantiation.

So let me say a few things further.

The first is that I did not accuse anyone of being racist. I said that that argument about Obama sounds racist. People can make racist statements without realizing it. It is also possible for people who are not racist to make racist statements in a cynical maneuver for political gain. I’m not peering into people’s hearts; I’m listening to their words.

Second, I want to talk about “evidence.” Mr. Gunn seems to expect me to produce a videotape of authors saying. “I think black people are inferior,” or brandishing one of those cartoons depicting the president and first lady as monkeys dressed in human clothing. Surely he must be aware how much expression of attitudes about race is in code words.

In 1966, the Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, George P. Mahoney, ran on the campaign slogan “Your home is your castle.” Mr. Mahoney was no James Otis; he was universally understood to indicate that he would protect white people from encroaching black people, and it was nakedly enough racist that Marylanders elected Spiro Agnew, because he looked more like a moderate(!). This is a specimen. If Mr. Gunn demands more, more can be furnished.

Third, that reaction to “low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations”—read black people who give themselves airs above their station—is so commonplace as to be a theme in literature and popular entertainment. Think of the reaction to Sidney Poitier as a Harvard-educated black man in a suit, speaking standard “white” English in In the Heat of the Night.

And last, the main point. Racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia continue. But they are, to varying degrees, no longer respectable, so expression of these sentiments has become covert, coded. Thoughtful people recognize those codes by inference and take care to avoid them.

The sneers at President Obama’s imagined fondness for the first person are, as Professor Liberman has repeatedly demonstrated, based on an undemonstrated premise, methodologically flawed, and historically inaccurate—and in some cases evidence of an alarming incapacity to identify parts of speech and perform simple arithmetical calculations. And because they single out our first African-American president for a kind of criticism leveled at no previous chief magistrate, they also sound racist.

Lord knows there is plenty to criticize about President Obama’s policies and decisions, and neither I, nor Professor Liberman, nor anyone else I know who hears these overtones has attempted to muzzle the president’s critics or shout them down. But if they want their criticisms to be respectable, they should endeavor not to appear bigoted.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:09 PM | | Comments (12)


John, in this blog post there are 22 instances of a first-person singular pronoun. Per my calculations, that's "about 3 dozen times." Obviously, the only possible conclusion is that you're about as big a narcissist as Obama.

Hahaha. :-)

This might be a typo, but the Mahoney election campaign was 1966...Agnew won, putting him in place as governor in '68 when the riots took place, and his heavy-handed response won him a seat on the Nixon train that fall.

A typo indeed. Many thanks for pointing it out.

John, the problem here is that if your point is granted, there is literally no end to what you can claim is racist. James Taranto used to have a recurring feature in his column pointing out words that had been bizarrely rendered racist, like "skinny."

Plus, "evidence" is generally held in high regard by journalists.

You know, I have given a set of reasons for my conclusions, and Mark Liberman has given an extensive set of reasons for his similar conclusions, and much of the extended commentary declines to address those reasons directly. Instead, there is a straw man argument that to agree on this point means that everyone can use racism as a reason for everything, though both Prefessor Liberman and I have taken some pains to limit our claims.

So if that's the way we're to play it, let me set up a straw man argument. Your basic contention, then, is that it is impermissible to draw inferences from people's behavior.

I've had my say at Language Log and don't intend to go through the whole thing again here. Two points seem worth noting, though. Mr. McIntyre says, among other things, that my criticisms of his position included calling it "a symptom of the universal practice among journalists of making statements of fact without any substantiation." I never said that. I said that Lifson's repetition, without checking, of the claim that President Obama uses "I" and "me" much more often than most people do might be an example of that journalistic tendency. ("Universal" is Mr. McIntyre's word, not mine; it's not universal, but it is common.)Journalists say dopey things all the time, so one instance of a dopey thing said by a journalist about the President is hardly evidence of racism. Nowhere did I suggest that Mr. McIntyre's position was a symptom of that tendency. I criticized it only on the ground that one should not accuse people of racism without good evidence, and that, as there are several other plausible explanations for Lifson's saying what he did, suggesting that he is a racist on the basis of this one mistake was indecent.

Second, as one of the commenters in the Language Log thread showed, several other presidents have been accused of overusing "I" and "me," so it is not true that "no previous chief magistrate" has been subjected to this particular criticism. It is true that President Obama has been accused of this "failing" more than some of his predecessors, but as no previous chief magistrate has published two autobiographies before being elected president, it is understandable that this one may seem to some people to have an unusually high level of self-esteem, even for a politician.

John, I'll try to give some detail.

First, on the general phenomenon of criticizing Obama's use of the first person. This is foolish, as you and Liberman (and many others) have noted. However, the "egotistical Obama" theme has long roots in his campaign, perhaps highlighted by "I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that ... this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." As best I can tell, this meme predates the first-person meme. You may argue this is just splitting hairs and the real issue is that people are secretly calling Obama uppity. I'd refer you to Dana Milbank's Washington Post column on 7/30/08; it wasn't just the right saying this (and he gives more examples).

On your experience with coded racist language: It is appropriate to say that this person or that comment reminds you of something you're very familiar with. Your specific point, and please correct me if I'm wrong, was applied to the general class of Obama-first-person criticism: "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.'" Do you believe this in general, or do you think some of those critics believe Obama is getting uppity and some don't?

George Mahoney: Point taken. But I come from a state north of the Mason-Dixon line and didn't grow up in a climate of racial tension, veiled or otherwise. When someone says they hear a racist undertone in this comment or that one, I have no ear for that and have to take everything at face value, both the original comment and the criticism of it. Hence my remark about "evidence" -- I see now that what I wrote was snotty, and I apologize for that, but evidence is all I have to go on here. And it would be more persuasive to me if the example wasn't from 45 years ago.

Failing to perform to caste expectations: I take it for granted and assume it manifests itself just as you say. But again, my interest is in separating those instances from the "clean" ones.

Your final point: I've tried to see how this doesn't implicate all first-person criticism of Obama as bigoted, and I just don't. Call it foolish, stupid, wrong-headed, blinkered, anything else, but I honestly don't see how a fine line is drawn here.

Given that the president is one of very few Americans who can legitimately speak of the nation in the first person plural, couldn't this president's use of the first person singular just as easily be construed as a sign of humility and rhetorical restraint? (I am not suggesting that President Obama is, in fact, humble or rhetorically restrained. I'm suggesting that any inference of a speaker's character is one of those eye-of-the-beholder things.)

@Tom: of course, it ain't no racism up north. That's why Malcom was from Atlanta and the Panthers were a down south movement. MOVE and Mumia can't have been from Philly, weren't no race riots in L.A., there's no racist cops in Oakland naming themselves after the Klan, Chicago is an integrated paradise, Flint must be down south, there weren't any 41 shots and Amadou is doing fine. No sir, ain't no race catses up norh, we don't know nothing about that.


I think the Mahoney example was given because it was incontrovertible and wouldn't derail the conversation into more contentious territory. I'm not so circumspect. If you want modern examples of veiled language, they aren't hard to find. Trent Lott's remarks about how if Strom Thurmond had been elected president "we wouldn't have had all these problems" is one. So are many (most) people who fly the Confederate flag while claiming it is about heritage, etc. Concerning Obama, it is hard not to think that racism doesn't motivate claims about his nationality or talent (e.g. calling him an "affirmative action president" or his use of the teleprompter [which reminds one of Hume's claim in "On National Character" that a black man who seemed to be intelligent was simply a parrot]).

And if you honestly think there is no racist tension where you live, then you are either very naive or very lucky. You also might profit from listening to Randy Newman's "Rednecks".

Whether 'tis better to endeavor not to be bigoted or to actually BE bigoted, is that the question? If it is, it sounds rather useless to me. People's opinions are generally not changed by what newspapers tell them they ought to be. And what is a newspaper if not a collection of opinionated people writing for the public and often telling them, through editorials, what to think? I've still never understood why some editor's opinion should have any influence on how I vote, or think or behave, but they will persist anyway. Perhaps no one else will listen to them. Anyway, I thought "journalists" were actual reporters, and not members of the staff who kept their "journals" neat and tidy?

Somehow, I am not surprised that "to endeavor not to be bigoted" would sound "rather useless" to Ms. the Terse.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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