George Will’s Deceptive Writing

I recall a fellow graduate student long ago admitting that she thought George Will was a terrific writer, even though she disagreed with him on most things.  I remember thinking then that Will was an adept craftsman–who often masked logical fallacies or slippery arguments with that craft–and with a nicely blended public persona of a journalist who had come from academia. For years, the biographical note appended to his columns mentioned his PH.D. from Oxford.

Let’s take a look at just a few paragraphs from a column by Will about (seemingly) Sarah Palin.  The column is from February 18th; it displays Will’s ability to mask slipperiness with crisp, authoritative phrasing.   As a stylist, Will would no doubt please Orwell. The bolding is mine.

“Conservatives, who rightly respect markets as generally reliable gauges of consumer preferences, should notice that the political market is speaking clearly: The more attention Palin receives, the fewer Americans consider her presidential timber. The latest Post-ABC News poll shows that 71 percent of Americans — including 52 percent of Republicans — think she is not qualified to be president.

This is not her fault. She is what she is, and what she is merits no disdain. She is feisty and public-spirited, and millions of people vibrate like tuning forks to her rhetoric. When she was suddenly forced to take a walk on the highest wire in America’s political circus, she showed grit.

She also showed that grit is no substitute for seasoning. She has been subjected to such irrational vituperation — loathing largely born of snobbery — that she can be forgiven for seeking the balm of adulation from friendly audiences.

America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism. But the reaction against this must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness. This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican Party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites. Besides, full-throated populism has not won a national election in 178 years, since Andrew Jackson was reelected in 1832.

After William Jennings Bryan’s defeat in 1908, his third as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, this prototypical populist said he felt like the man who, thrown out of a bar for a third time, dusted himself off and said, “I’m beginning to think those fellows don’t want me in there.” In 1992, Ross Perot, an only-in-America phenomenon — a billionaire populist — won 19 percent of the popular vote. But because of the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes, he won none of those. In 1976, Jimmy Carter — peanut farmer; carried his own suitcase, imagine that — somewhat tapped America’s durable but shallow reservoir of populism. By 1980, ordinariness in high office had lost its allure.”

Some observations about slipperiness:

1.  Conservatives pay attention to markets; the intended implication is that liberals don’t.  That is nonsense, especially when we see that Will means “polls,” something all professional politicians (regardless of their alleged place on the spectrum) pay attention to.  But in a slippery way, Will is alluding to a tired falsehood: liberals don’t like “the free market,” conservatives love it: whatever.  We won’t get into what the term “the free market” actually means; that is another area of slipperiness entirely.  And everybody knows corporate money funds both major political parties.  One party is not less corporate than the other.

2. See “This” in the second paragraph quoted.  It’s unaccompanied by a noun and is thus slippery.  What isn’t Palin’s fault? Her lack of qualification (so asserts Will) to be president?  If she’s not qualified, then whose fault is it?

3.   “She is what she is.”  That sentence applies to all persons, so it is effectively meaningless, but it may sound good enough to make someone think that Will is saying Palin is what she seems to be–that he’s claiming she is authentic. But Will deliberately didn’t write that.  He continues the sleight of hand by saying Palin is feisty and public spirited.  “Feisty”: okay.  More of a human trait than a Palin one.  “Public spirited”: that really doesn’t mean much. If the implication is that Palin selflessly gives her time to public and political projects, then Will is not implying the truth.  Everyone knows Palin is on the tour chiefly for money.  And if she were “public spirited,” why not remain governor?  Palin’s a crass manipulator of Tea Party crowds.  She’s about as genuinely populist as Jimmy Swaggart.

4.  Forced to walk a high wire?  How was she forced?  She showed grit. Fair enough.  So did every other candidate.  At the same time, like every other candidate, she also had an entourage and handlers to help her “walk the wire.”  In a slippery way, Will is trying to portray Palin as a victim.  “Balm of adulation?”  Please.  “Balm of greenbacks.”  She’s cashing; nothing wrong with that; but let’s not pretend she makes highly remunerated appearances for the “balm of adulation.”

5. “Irrational vituperation.”  Who’s received more irrational vituperation, President Obama (because he’s Black) or Sarah Palin (because she’s anti-intellectual)?  Let’s get real.

6. People loathe her because they are snobs, suggests Will.   Some snobs may dislike her, but most people who dislike her (that is, what she says and does) are probably not snobs: including many Republicans, let’s not forget.  Will is reviving an old Nixonian  ad hominem fallacy: pay no attention to the critics; they’re from the Eastern establishment, the Ivory Tower, or Hollywood.  Meanwhile, Palin is on an elitist celebrity’s tour, which Will hopes his audience will not remember.

7.  Barack Obama got elected; therefore,  America’s luck is exhausted: interesting.   Apparently America’s luck was fully in play when Bush got elected with the assistance of James Baker and the Supremes and when the housing bubble expanded fatally.   Because Obama has a law degree and taught law, he’s an academic–and nothing else. The rest of his experience–and his highly ordinary background–isn’t to be included in Will’s portrayal.  That would be to tarnish propaganda with fact.  Obama’s socioeconomic background is as commonplace as Palin’s and more commonplace than Bush’s.  Obama learned and taught, so he’s an academic snob.  Palin is feisty, she is what she is, so she’s ordinary.  Learning and teaching are bad, suggests Will, with his Ph.D., and ordinary is good.

8.  Let’s go ahead and grant Will’s point that academia blends knowingness and unrealism, except he probably should have written either “knowledge” or “pretentiousness” in place of “knowingness.”  He seems to mean pretentiousness, but knowledge and unrealism are a more interesting and probably more accurate pair.   Having granted the point, however, we might also ask whether the media (including Will),  Congress, the voting public, and mega-bankers are any less out of touch with reality than academics.  But even to ask such a question would be to escape the hypnotic appeal of Will’s false binaries, to use an academic term (I apologize).

9. ” By 1980, ordinariness in high office had lost its allure.”   Probably the exact opposite is more accurate, and probably Will knows it’s more accurate.   More effectively slippery than Will, Reagan pitched himself as a no-nonsense, old-fashioned American who folksily pronounced “government” “gubment”.  He was able to contrast himself not to a Carter with a populist image but to a Carter who seemed nerdy and pious: Carter the liberal engineer and Sunday school teacher, not Carter the farmer.  Who mastered the image of false populism better than Reagan and his handlers?  “There you go again,” said Reagan–the line rehearsed–getting all plain and down to Earth while Carter allowed himself to be caught talking about problems.

George Will: a fine prose stylist by Orwell’s standards; a clear writer; but a very slippery writer who may rely on most of his readers to accept the implied arguments without analyzing them and to be distracted by the crisp sententiousness.  Will’s successful columns sound better than they (their thinking) are, whereas, according to Twain, Wagner’s music was better than it sounds.

Will’s  “defense” of Palin is gratuitous and full of hoo-ha.


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