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Grammar Time!

[ 27 ] March 28, 2010 |

Lame titular puns never augur well, and this post is no exception, as it concerns something Sarah Palin said in Searchlight, Nevada yesterday. Before a crowd of millions, Palin attacked the “lame-stream media” for being a mixed metaphor, then said precisely the opposite of what I hope she intended to, insisting that “telling people that their arms are their votes is not inciting violence.”

In this case, the verb “to be” is a linking verb that establishes the equivalence of the nouns to its left and right. For example, in the previous sentence, I established that “the verb ‘to be’” and “linking verbs” are nominal equivalents. Think of it as an equal sign: you can write “Obama is the President” or “The President is Obama” without changing the content of the sentence because

Obama = The President

So when Palin said “their arms are their votes,” she may not have been trying to incite violence, but she was saying

arms = votes

That equivalence is best understood in the language of action film clichés, e.g. “Our arms are our votes, and we’re gonna have us an election.” Palin’s supporters will contend that she’s merely explaining a metaphor, and one unfortunate consequence of doing so is using verbs of equivalence to explain what something represents, e.g.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, from the universe of potential metaphors, Palin’s people went with the view through a telescopic weapon sight. The crosshairs may be metaphorical, certainly, and what they imply—that people outside a district should contribute money to “take out” the Democrat elected by the people of a district—may be antithetical to the concept of a representative democracy, but the real issue here is the initial decision to employ a sniper’s scope as political imagery.

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Comments (27)

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  1. Uh, actually Scott, if B is A then A is not neccessarily B. I’ll leave the spelling mistake in there for you, though.

    • SEK says:

      if B is A then A is not neccessarily B

      I have reached an unhappy medium: at my place, Vance thinks the word “equivalence” is too weak; over here, you think it’s too strong. It’s both! It’s neither! I can’t win!

      • Vance Maverick says:

        Nah, in this matter I am nutella and nutella is me. We’re both saying that the copula is used for more purposes than simple equivalence.

        It’s also true that you can’t win.

        Do you have a link to Palin’s original use of the phrase? In this article, she’s paraphrasing herself.

        • SEK says:

          Do you have a link to Palin’s original use of the phrase?

          That’s what “she told the crowd,” which I take it is the original use.

          We’re both saying that the copula is used for more purposes than simple equivalence.

          Well, of course it is. I suppose the implicit “in this case” isn’t coming through the folksy “see” up there. It’s been edited.

        • Halloween Jack says:

          We’re both saying that the copula is used for more purposes than simple equivalence.

          That’s what she said! Phwoar!

          um.

  2. Some Guy says:

    To me, the most direct way to interpret, “their arms are their votes” is, “If elections don’t go your way, it’s time to kill you some dissenting options.” I don’t any other way to read it.

    Now we wait until someone starts shooting elected officials/liberals/Enemy Groupmember X (again. Anyone know what ever happened to that guy who shoot cops because he was scared they wanted to take his guns away? This how much less safe his home would have been without guns!!) THEN we can start reading about how it’s actually the liberals fault for making Real ‘Merkins have to shoot them. Like how rape in Alaska is the women’s fault for not just saying yes in the first place.

    • SEK says:

      Now we wait until someone starts shooting elected officials/liberals/Enemy Groupmember X

      But this would never happen! (watches the news) Good thing we caught ‘em in time!

  3. howard says:

    wait, let me get this straight: wasn’t this supposed to be the tea party woodstock or something?

  4. Kyle says:

    Palin’s supporters will contend that she’s merely explaining a metaphor

    Actually, I would contend that as well. Or I would if I thought the matter had called for contending. It seems more like a case of stating the obvious.

    Vance thinks the word “equivalence” is too weak; over here, you think it’s too strong. It’s both! It’s neither! I can’t win!

    Oh my, you’re taking it from left and right. Obviously, if two commenters disagree, that must mean they’re both wrong. Works for those reporters who do online chat at the Washington Post.

  5. nick says:

    Hmmmmm.
    It’s not a simple logical/copula situation– consider the alternate possibilities of emphasis:
    1) our ARMS are our votes
    =batshit crazy
    2) our arms are our VOTES
    =reasonable metaphor explicating the difference btw frontier fantasy and 21st century social reality

    Now, meaning #2 would be better expressed by “Our VOTES are our arms”–and Palin is batshit crazy. So it’s not hard to figure what she meant. But there’s more than a simple equation here: there’s a metaphor that could be employed progressively.

    • Ginger Yellow says:

      This. Also: assuming studity rather than malice is usually a good idea. With Palin, it’s always a good idea. Not that there might not be malice as well. I’m guessing she either meant to say it the other way around and flubbed it (easily done), or simply doesn’t realise the difference.

    • SEK says:

      It’s not a simple logical/copula situation

      You can toss in “Our arms ARE our votes,” too, and it keeps the first sense you described … but it’s the fact that she made an ambiguous declaration against violent rhetoric in language that can be seen to authorize it that caught my attention. It could be a Freudian slip, a poor transcription, or a dog whistle, and I think that reasonable interpretations by reasonable people tend to downplay that last option.

  6. MikeN says:

    Anyone remember the case with the abortion doctors being posted with targets on them?

  7. Octopus says:

    Gunsights? Nah, those are registration marks used in four-color lithography to align layers, as in … voter registration!

  8. Tirxu says:

    I don’t think you can fault Sarah Palin’s use of metaphors here, certainly not on the “grammar” level.

    The verb “is” is not symmetric. In your example “Obama is the president”, you can reverse subject and object because (in context), there is only one Obama and one (“the”) president. In general, you can’t: “White men are human beeings” is not the same thing as “Human beeings are white men”.

    In a metaphor, the problem is not so much the difference between implication and equivalence as the question of which one is supposed to replace the other. The default assumption is that the object takes the place of the subject, so “our arms are our votes” would mean “we will use votes as arms”. Much more reasonable that “our votes are our arms”.

    Of course, context trumps order: “Our arms are our votes, and we’re gonna have us an election” is tantamount to preparing a coup. But “Our arms are our votes, and we’re ready to fight is endorsing the democratic process (and the military metaphor —campaign, headquarters, even the absurd concept of “winning” an election— is everywhere in the democratic process).

    So, what about context? You think that there is a problem of political violence from the right wing, and that it is linked with such rhetoric. So do I, so does many readers of LGM. But I don’t think that this post will convince anyone who did not agree with already.

    • SEK says:

      The verb “is” is not symmetric. In your example “Obama is the president”, you can reverse subject and object because (in context), there is only one Obama and one (“the”) president.

      In my defense, in my example I was talking about my example. But you make a valid point about number, which is structurally consistent even though it changes (one President, multiple arms; one Obama, multiple votes).

      But “Our arms are our votes, and we’re ready to fight” is endorsing the democratic process

      Maybe I need more coffee, but with that word order, it still sounds like a call to arms; moreover, while the politics-as-war metaphors are common enough, so are a host of other electoral metaphors, e.g. the horse race, but Palin and her fellow conservatives are doubling down on the martial metaphors in front of crowds of people who collect weaponry because, you know, when they shoot some small animal, they’d rather not be able to tell what it was they shot.

      • Tirxu says:

        Of course it sounds like a call to arms. That is the point. But these arms are votes: it is a military image for an actual election.

        I agree with you on the subject of conservatives’ martial rhetoric. I just think that this particular incident should only be filed as “Palin still unaware that words have meaning”, rather than “Palin does not know what a metaphor is”.

  9. IM says:

    Th right to bear arms = the right to arm bears.

    Perhaps she was talking about the ursine self-defence bill:

    http://www.nurserycrime.co.uk/armbears.html

    Lot of bears in Alaska and you bi-coastal elites don’t understand small town ursines.

  10. jackd says:

    An even better quote from the Politico article:

    Connie Soto, a 48-year-old interior designer from Lake Elsinore, Calif., said “we’re peaceful people”….She wouldn’t let a POLITICO reporter take a photograph of her with her handmade sign reading “Obamacrats: exterminate the vermin,” because she asserted it would be used to portray her as violent, but she also said there was no need for the movement to temper its rhetoric.

  11. Tom M says:

    Palin certainly seems to equate arms and votes (at least per the story) but she has just enough awareness of current political convention to simultaneously deny her plain import. I think Palin actually believes that her experience of the Alaskan outback serves as an adequate normative depiction of the political landscape but hasn’t the nerve to nakedly aver her belief (yet).
    She wants to be President. Until then, she’ll mask her beliefs but once there; well, I think the vernacular is: bookmark it, Libs.

  12. Taryn Kistle says:

    Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I’m very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.

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