Everyday Semiotics

Monday, October 16, 2006

Back in the saddle?

So last night, while my darling was ill and apart from me, I decided not to sit and wallow in the agony of our separation, but rather to get the fuck back to work on my "scholarly" pursuits.

That involved re-revising the extant six pages of "Semiotic Terrorism" I last altered over two months ago (and adding a short two paragraphs, about which I'm terribly pleased).

Tonight, to bolster my more peripheral arguments dealing with the contemporary discourse on (actual) terrorism, I've been slogging through some of our fine president's most recent speeches on the matter.

Of concern to me is first the terminology he uses in describing terrorists and second the syntax or presentation of these terms, with specific attention to the purported meaning of terrorist actions and American military actions. What I want to know most of all is, what message does Bush want to convey to the terrorists, or perhaps more importantly, what message would be conveyed if we do not "stay the course" in Iraq?

Combing through the official record, I've been struck by the instances in which the transcriber has reproduced Mr. Bush's teleprompter fumbles. One would think the text that plays over the teleprompter would simply be uploaded to whitehouse.gov; but apparently this isn't the case.

Speaking to the American Legion in Salt Lake City in August, the president stumbled at least three times, according to my quick scan of the transcript. Behold:

"Despite their differences, these groups from -- form the outlines of a single movement, a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology."

"On the political side, we're working closely with Prime Minister Maliki to strengthen Iraq's unity government and develop -- and to deliver better services to the Iraqi people."

"Many of these folks are sincere and they're patriotic, but they could be -- they could not be more wrong."

These fumbles are nothing to make fun of. (If I'd been delivering this or any speech, I'd have certainly a lot more than three times.) They're altogether easy errors to make -- confusing "from" and "form," saying "develop" when reading "deliver" and omiting the key but easily missable word in a negative phrase.

It is remarkable, however, that these errors are included at all. My first guess is it's taken directly from the monkeys tapping away at the network TV Closed Captioning keyboards. But surely the text is proofread, because it lacks typos or any obvious transcription errors. And the phenomenon crops up in other transcripts, so it's not a fluke.

All of which raises the question, why isn't the teleprompted text fed into the Closed Captioning machine (?) simultaneously? Does Bush frequently ad lib or something?

Either my Google skills are lacking or no one has commented on this phenomenom in cyberspace. One of my searches, however, turned up an oddity -- a site devoted to John Kerry's concession speech, which chronicles some transcription correction perpetrated by the Kerry camp.

Then two calls from the crowd nearly simultaneously: "We love you" and "We still have your back." Somehow Kerry conflated the statements and called back, "I love yours too."

He clearly wasn't familiar with the popular phrase "got your back" and so confused the statements, and responded rather nonsensically - he loves your back? A person truly familiar with the culture, with the vernacular, would not have made the mistake.

This was a remarkably telling moment: no matter how hard, and I have no doubt, sincerely, Kerry has tried to connect with the soul of the nation, to jump on the back and ride the great dragon that is our culture, he never quite connected, he never quite got it right.

This isn't something you learn, this is something you are. It is very difficult to make a broad, generally populist appeal when you are simply NOT a man of the people, when you are an upper-crust Eastern intellectual with a bizarre billionaire second wife, even if you are pals with Bruce Springsteen (who is also a multi-millionaire, by the way). That morning in the duck blind in Ohio convinced no one and rang false - it was a jarring moment that reinforced an underlying perception of opportunism, of trying to be all things to all people, of stretching oneself too thin.

Bush, with a remarkably similar early background, doesn't even try, much. He has to deal with the opposite perception that he is a dumbass and a cowboy. He seems genuinely most at home out on the ranch, on the open plains of Texas, so his patrician, blueblood heritage is largely neutralized. He is seen as a regular guy despite the accident of birth. He is of the vernacular. He isn't trying to appear to be something he is not, he isn't trying to be all things to all people.

The rest of Kerry's speech was very fine - his line, "There are no losers in American elections - we all wake up as Americans, and that is the greatest gift of all," was brilliant, and his calls for unity and commonality touching and sincere - but that one awkward, unscripted moment summed up for me why Kerry was conceding and not graciously accepting.

Fascinating also that the transcription on Kerry's site, "corrects" his misunderstanding:

Audience member: "We still got your back!"

"Thank you, man. And I assure you - you watch - I'll still have yours."

Um, no, that's not what he said. AP's text doesn't include the moment at all. See for yourself here.

FoxNews has the transcript correct here.

And here I thought I was just being overly picayune blogging about the minor tongue entanglements of politicians....

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