September 6, 2012

Gold Medal Speaker

Gold Medal Speaker

My fellow Americans (and others who find Americans amusing),

I hear there have been political conventions in the past couple of weeks. Unlike my family and friends, I haven’t been watching or listening, and before that I similarly ignored the Olympics, to the point of avoiding any room with a tuned-in television.

Yet I like sports and care deeply about American politics. Why such deliberate dodging of the media blitz?

  • Empty spectacle offends me with its soullessness, especially high-tech razzle-dazzle created for TV. Probably the Olympics are worse in this respect than the conventions—those increasingly absurd closing ceremonies! As for political candidates, what does it matter whether the stage set behind them offers Greek columns, American flags, Mount Rushmore or naked belly dancers? Why do we need to be dazzled? Isn’t anyone else suspicious of the trend to make everything a glitzy extravaganza?
  • I hate sappy stories. How such and such an athlete trained so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. How such and such a small businessperson/immigrant labored so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. Bleaaah!

And since I work with words daily, there’s the extra pain of hearing the language mangled by sports announcers and politicians. Now, for a few favorite sports, such as baseball, I’ve developed a trained indifference to subject-verb disagreement, mismatched tenses, standardized platitudes and modifiers so dangling that their referent inhabits a different zip code. For some reason, though, I’ve never reached that level of tolerance for political jargon; maybe because it’s more important, it’s more deeply offensive?

It’s not that politicians are clumsy and ungrammatical, though they certainly can be. What I find so painful is the knowledge that every phrase was crafted, reviewed, tweaked, vetted to touch a particular nerve in a certain set of voters. I wish I had Jay Heinrichs’ appreciation for the way politicians use the tricks and tropes of rhetoric (see his Figures of Speech blog for his humorous insights). Instead, political verbiage has the same effect on me as a whiff of rancid tuna. Even Barack Obama, one of the finest political speakers in recent memory, appalls me with stock phrases and applause lines. I’ll vote for him but I won’t listen.

Perhaps there’s some depression at work, too, in my political reactions. For my whole adult life, politicians have managed to trick huge numbers of Americans into voting against their own interests—or convinced them that a trip to the polls isn’t worth the effort. If our citizens are so profoundly stupid or indifferent, is the country worth saving?

I will admit, though, that when a bit of news or imagery sneaks past my media blockade, it can be fascinating. The dress Michelle Obama wore for her speech—I saw it on Facebook—so cooooool! Can we imagine Barbara Bush dressed that way?