Friday, September 12, 2008

A political Hail Mary

Linguistics isn't political. So I'm about to look at language in order to defend Sarah Palin against some recent and common attacks. It's a risk†. Believe me -- I have no political interest in defending her. I disagree with just about every single policy position that she has endorsed. Not that my view matters.

I haven't worked too hard to conceal my political opinions lately. Certainly many readers have no interest in my political leanings and would rather not have to stop in only to find my judgmental polemics. Most readers so far only trust me on matters of language (if that). Anything else and my opinion isn't worth the paper it's not written on. Is it ever?

So here's the quote being used against Palin.

Our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d. (AP article*)

The headline of the article: Palin: Iraq war 'a task that is from G-d'

Watch this video and notice the pullquote that floats down the screen.

These citations claim that Palin uttered a phrase of her belief regarding the nature of the war. But it's a misleading quote. Even tho she uttered the words our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d it's not fair to say that she called the war a task from G-d.

Our is not the first word of the phrase. The first word of the phrase is that. It's a complementiser introducing a complement clause. So we look at the full quote to answer an important question: of what word is the phrase a complement? Here's the full quote as I transcribe it from a full video of her talk.

Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also for this country: that our leaders -- our national leaders -- are sending them out on a task that is from G-d. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for: that there is a plan and that plan is is G-d's plan. So uh bless them with your prayers: your pr- prayers of protection over our soldiers.

So it's a complement of pray. There's a verb phrase ellipsis in the second sentence: a fragment. Let me set this out visually from the quote.

____ for our military men and women
(also) ____ for this country
____ that our leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d.

Then she adds that "That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for"

This isn't an opposed difference in the semantics. It's not as radical a misquote as if she had said I don't believe that our leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d, but it is an important difference. It's closer to the difference between I know that I love you and I hope that I love you. And hoping that a war is such a task can be interpreted various ways.

If I want to be charitable I'll say that she's praying that this war be directed by a desire to do good and to spread peace and to liberate a country. I'll add that she obviously has faith in war to do that. And so she hopes that all decisions by the war pigs will further those tasks of good service. That's as charitable as I can be.

If I want to less charitable I'll say that she's hoping her G-d agrees that this is the best way to rid the world of evil non-Christians.

Just a little more. She says Pray … that our leaders … are sending them out on a task that is from G-d.

It's a football that's already in the air. So let's all just cross our fingers and hope that the job being given to the military is already a righteous one.

I will only defend Palin's statement against the misrepresentations by incomplete quotes. I used it against her in conversations with Buffy and some office mates. When I saw the full quote I realized that I was claiming she had said something that in fact she hadn't.

I still disagree with her belief that war can be a task from G-d. And I disagree with her view that prayer could even accomplish that. And that's based on what she really said.

Here's a fuller version of these and other statements she made at her church in Wasilla. The passage in question begins around 3:39.

† The only real risks of course are 1) that you'll think I'm a supporter of Palin 2) that you'll get upset with me for defending her at all for any reason 3) that you'll get sick of hearing me talk about politics. The first isn't likely. The second is fine with me. On the third I ask for your indulgence.

*In several places I have taken the liberty of using an orthographical representation that is different from the original source. This is out of respect to varying sensibilities of readers. In a quotation this is sort of like choosing well-formedness over faithfulness. Ironic.


  1. You know, it's not his name. It's his job title.

    But yes, I agree that this particular quote has been egregiously misused.

  2. I agree with you, too, and appreciate your making the point so clearly and carefully.

    I had hoped, though, that you'd tackle that pesky "that is," which is what keeps tripping me up. Why not say "sending them on a task from God"? What extra layer of nuance does "that is" add? It strikes me as stilted and needlessly wordy. Is this a churchy locution?

    Or is true, as Palin claimed during the Gibson interview, that she was quoting Abraham Lincoln, and that the phrasing was his?

    @Ridger: "It's not his name. It's his job title." Love it!

  3. i know, ridger. it's a practice i picked up when i realized simply that to do otherwise would make some people uncomfortable. and i didn't want to tackle the argument of what they should or shouldn't care about.

  4. To me there's a real rhetorical difference between "this is a task from God" and "this is a task that is from God". The relative clause adds a lot of gravitas that the phrase lacks. It's not apparently what Lincoln actually said

    ("I am not at all concerned about that [that being that "the Lord is on our side"]," replied Mr. Lincoln, "for I know that the LORD is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the LORD'S side.")

    but it seems appropriate for a prayer occasion. Plus it avoids making people think of Jake and Elwood...

  5. I agree: "that is" adds some focus. And it makes sense that she intended it so.

    There's also that pause right after it. Almost as if she was about to say something utterly prosaic -- a task that is good! or something a little more scary -- a task that is righteous! or some other phrase that focuses on the task being something it should be. Perhaps she picks a very slightly marked construction because she hadn't planned early enough to start the usual Christian refrain: pray that our leaders are sending them on G-d's errand or sending them to do G-d's work.

    In fact she creates some distance that way. If she said something like "G-d's" errand it would sound like some sort of perverse heavenly priority. This is his mission right now and all that. As she says it the task is closer to being merely in accordance.

    Again I say: As if.

    Best is your suggestion that Jake and Elwood are peeking around the corner of her comment. Lovely.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.