The word-cloud was generated from a transcript of Saturday’s debate in Des Moines.
The “debate” was originally intended to focus on the economy. Given Friday night’s attack in Paris, the first twenty-five minutes were focused on the implications of that attack. The word-cloud pulled only from this initial portion. I also excised participant names and prepositions to highlight substance.
A contemporary political debate is not a graduate seminar. It is not even a blog that can, if it decides, allow a couple of days for review, reflection, and revision.
But given the importance of this issue, with barely 24 hours elapsed between attacking and talking, the experience and aspirations of the three candidates, and the chance for an authentic exchange of views among them, Saturday night may be the best we get to assess how a large slice of the American political class frames the challenge.
What issue? What challenge? This remains unclear.
ISIS (not ISIL, btw) was the specific concern on Saturday. Secretary Clinton said, “we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network.” Senator Sanders said, “Together, leading the world this country will rid our planet of… ISIS.”
Governor O’Malley did not disagree and emphasized, “ISIS, make no mistake about it, is an evil in this world.” Mrs. Clinton was a bit more programmatic in her characterization, referring to “radical jihadist ideology.” Mr. Sanders offered, “I agree with much of what the secretary and the governor have said.” He added (and then Mr. O’Malley piled on) that ISIS is the bastard child of the US invasion of Iraq. Well, actually he said, “I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now.”
I’m not sure that Mrs. Clinton disagrees, but she was keen to point to other contributing factors: “The Shia– Sunni split, the dictatorships that have suppressed people’s aspirations, the increasing globalization without any real safety valve for people to have a better life. We saw that in Egypt. We saw a dictator overthrown, we saw Muslim Brotherhood president installed and then we saw him ousted and the army back. So I think we’ve got to understand the complexity of the world that we are facing and no places more so than in the Middle East.” There was even a point where the former Secretary of State may have been about to diagnose the origins of “jihadi extreme terrorism”, but I perceive she thought better of it and rather awkwardly turned another way.
This admittedly apophatic analysis is reinforced by a question the moderator, John Dickerson, posed to Mrs. Clinton a few minutes later: “You gave a speech at Georgetown University in which you said that it was important to show– quote– respect even for one’s enemy. Trying to understand and in so far as psychologically possible empathize with their perspective and point of view. Can you explain what that means in the context of this kind of barbarism?”
Given the context, I do not blame the candidate for choosing to emphasize, “… it’s very difficult when you deal with– ISIS and organizations like that whose–whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious–that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power.” Indeed, given the context, I have some reluctant respect for her use of lawyerly qualifiers.
I could continue. Linguistic analysis is a weird personal pleasure. But if you did not inherit the gene, I recognize it soon becomes tedious. So some resulting judgments:
- My initial impression of the Saturday performance was deep disappointment, almost disgust.
- But careful sifting and reading exposed more coherence than a first hearing found.
- In reading what was said it is possible to conceive — though seldom to confirm — presuppositions and predispositions that enlarge what was said. In these between-the-line harmonies I encountered something much more complicated than the bombastic melody.
- Nonetheless it remains a war march. Whether the United States is leading or supporting and how differs with the specific composer. But — as we see in the word-cloud — the consistent theme is: The World is at War with ISIS.
- Moreover, this is — it seems to me — a rather old-fashioned composition: Good versus Evil, us versus them, unconditional surrender, total victory, the score reaching a satisfying C major climax. As Senator Sanders said, “they are a danger to modern society. And that this world with American leadership can and must come together to destroy them.”
I perceive this statement — which many other candidates Republican and Democrat echo — demonstrates a dangerous lack of understanding regarding the plural pronoun; something I have found treacherous in every language I have ever attempted. On Thursday I will try to make better sense of this indefinite.
On Monday at Versailles President Hollande sang a song very similar to Senator Sanders’. After which the French Parliamentarians also sang. A less than stirring chorus, to my ear.