Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Reactions to Cheney's speech at the American Enterprise Institute (Part II)

In his speech at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, former Vice President Cheney made the following suggestion.
The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work, proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.
I don't want to devalue the difficult work of intelligence officers or to question their dedication to their jobs or the country they serve, but Mr. Cheney's assertion sort of reminds me of an old elephant joke.
A: Why do you have a banana in your ear?
B: It keeps elephants away.
A: There are no elephants in this part of the world.
B: You see! It works!
Recall that Mr. Cheney's speech yesterday was part of an on-going series of public speeches defending the actions of the former administration, which he served, and suggesting that the current administration's approach to terrorism is insufficient. Consider the following from yesterday's speech:
Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and our terrorist enemy.

Apparently using the term war where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated. So henceforth we're advised by the administration to think of the fight against terrorists as, quote, overseas contingency operations.
It is striking that Cheney calls "overseas contingency operations" a euphemism, right after referring to "enhanced interrogations" himself, but the slippery definition of euphemism may have to wait for another post. For today, I want to point out that this entire line of discourse is based on the assumption that something terrible would have happened were it not for the actions of the Bush administration, including "enhanced interrogations" and other controversial activities. The "entire line of discourse" I refer to includes not just Mr. Cheney's recent remarks, but also expressions by other politicians, journalists, and ordinary people that the Bush administration "kept us safe."

There are two problems with this presupposition. First, if the claim is that there were fewer than two attacks on US soil in which thousands of people were killed during the time that President Bush held office, virtually every US president can make the same claim. (Critics of the Bush administration suggest that the notion that there were no attacks after 11 September 2001 is not true. Examples here and here.) Second, and more to the point, there is no evidence that actions undertaken between 2001-2008, such as "enhanced interrogations", "extraordinary rendition", or operating the prison at Guantanamo Bay specifically prevented any attack. At least two people employed by the US government during those years, former State Department lawyer Philip Zelikow (PDF here) and former counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan, have suggested that these techniques were either unnecessary or counter-productive.

An additional problem is in the nature of presupposition itself. The idea that the United States would inevitably be attacked is seldom asserted overtly. Rather, assertions that a terrible harm was averted are built on an implicit assumption that the threat of harm exists. I admit that former Vice President Cheney probably knows more than I do about the existence of potential threats to the United States, though it is highly unlikely that he knows more about such threats than members of the current administration do. In any case, though, what I lament is harm to public discourse caused by presupposed, ill defined notions of reified threats.

Reactions to Cheney's speech at the American Enterprise Institute (Part I)

I had two reactions while listening to former Vice President Richard Cheney's speech about national security yesterday, 21 May 2009. In this posting I will describe a purely linguistic and fairly trivial reaction. I'll also have another, I hope more substantive post on the framing of information in that speech and recent terrorism-related discourse.

Not to split infinitives
First, the trivial reaction to linguistic form. The former vice president said,
Part of our responsibility, as we saw it, was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America and not to let 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse.
This struck me as slightly odd, and after a second's reflection I figured out why.

1. Our responsibility was not to do X.
2. Our responsibility was to not do X.

I most readily understand structure 1 to mean that there is a set of responsibilities that includes several tasks, but that X is not one of them. On the other hand, I would use 2 to mean that the responsibility is to do the negative of X (don't forget etc.).

While listening to the former vice president, I very briefly understood something like 3.

3. Forgetting the terrible harm that had been done to America and letting 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse was not our responsibility.

What the former vice president clearly intended, though, was the sentiment expressed in 4.

4. Not forgetting the terrible harm that had been done to America and not letting 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse was our responsibility.

Of course, I was able to understand this very quickly, but the mismatch between Mr. Cheney's preferred style and my own did not go unnoticed.

I suspect that Mr. Cheney (or his speech writers) prefers not to split infinitives. That would rule out a sentence like 2, above. He is not alone: the Corpus of Contemporary American English contains many more instances of strings like responsibility not to V than responsibility to not V, as shown by the following table.

 to notnot toexample
responsibility863responsibility not to let the people down
job4118the job is not to defend the country
duty354The duty not to discriminate

[NOTE: Due to a typo, an earlier version of this chart suggested that there are 543 examples of duty x not to in the corpus. There are actually 54.]

Of course, some of these not to strings intend the "no responsibility" reading, while some intend the "responsibility to negative" reading. (In other words, the author of the job example has no responsibility to defend the country, while the author of the duty example must not discriminate.) I'll look more closely at the results and try to post some sort of analysis in a few days. For now, suffice to say that while my own usage of the split infinitive doesn't appear to be unique, Mr. Cheney's avoidance seems to be more common.