Palin, President Obama, Metonymy

Metonymy, as defined on the grammarabout site (not sure what metonymy has to do with grammar, but that’s okay), is ‘A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as “crown” for “royalty”).’

Another frequently used example is “the White House,” as in “the White House said today that . . . .” And we understand that, literally, the White House didn’t say anything, but that someone working in the White House said or wrote something for the media.

So when President Obama mentioned Sputnik, the satellite, and “a Sputnik moment,” he was, among other rhetorical things, relying on metonymy, or short-hand, knowing that most of his audience would do the work of translating Sputnik into memories and associations related to competing with the Soviet Union, using a moment of national fear or concern as motivation for working and thinking harder (see Weber on the Protestant work-ethic), and enjoying a bit of national lore in which the U.S., once again, came out ahead. “Sputnik” is a place-holder for a whole era and a wide range of memories and associations that people of a certain age have.

Wild Bill has forwarded me Tommy Christoper’s analysis <> of how, on Fox News, Sarah Palin, prompted by Greta Van Susteren, reacted to the President’s allusion to Sputnik, and how she twisted history badly.

Christopher presumes that Palin is not stupid, and I think I agree with him. I waffle (“I think I agree”) only because she seems not to have read or studied very much and, because she “just talks,” much of what she says sounds stupid. On the other hand, she has been smart enough to get elected governor, get selected as a VP candidate, become a celebrity, and make a lot of money. At the very least she’s crafty.

In the Fox interview, she does indeed mangle history (apparently not realizing that the U.S. “won” the “space race,” and erroneously conflating the money the USSR spent on the space-race [small potatoes] with what it spent on defense/offense).

In using her own bit of metonymy–conjuring the image of a small business in Richland, Washington, to stand for “hard-working Americans”), she shows she can use an old politicians’ trick, and she shows she knows her Fox/Tea Party/GOPer audience well, but she also demonstrates, again, that’s she’s several paces behind the President, who himself used his own small-business reference–brothers who manufacture solar shingles, with the help of a government loan–complete with televised image of the brothers, who almost teared-up, during the SOTU. To me, Palin always seems in a hurry but paradoxically behind, rhetorically–something that makes me think of a John Wooden aphorism: “Be quick but don’t hurry.”

Nonetheless, I don’t think her main audience notices that she’s so historically and rhetorically sloppy, so what does she care if she can remain a celebrity and make money? I do wonder if Greta S. is at some level mortified by Palin. Probably not, as Greta S. has her own successful gig.

Palin, the President, and Mr. Chgristopher  have given us much to ponder with regard to a wee metonymy-scuffle amidst the pseudocratic spectacle.


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