Tag: political rhetoric

Landmine Advocacy From The Digital Archive

I am preparing to leave for a week to conduct participant-observation research at the The Third Meeting of States Parties (3MSP) to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in Oslo. As I prepare my remarks for the Youth Meeting, which I understand is supposed to be one of my more inspirational talks, I’ve been looking up old advocacy videos on YouTube and I came across this 2006 landmine campaign ad which I’d never seen before. It was apparently so controversial that it received almost no airtime in the United States.


Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (II)

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found hereAfter the final post, we will make the entire piece available as a PDF — consider it our first true “working paper” publication.

Since each theory begins with a metatheoretical judgment about human nature, I think the place to start looking for insights is in psychology, which focuses on the empirical questions of how people actually think and feel under what circumstances, and what they tend to be inclined to do. For an example of how psychology can inform constructivism, let us return to Krebs and Jackson’s “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms,” which suggests a constructivism based on the notion that rhetoric operates as a sort of coercion. In this very creative piece, they lay out a model in which much of the action of politics comes in the form of rhetorical competitions in which competing forces try to frame issues in terms of societal values that favor their argument. One side wins if the other runs out of plausible responses to refute the implications of its opponent’s frame.

One gap in this argument is that the plausibility of arguments depends fundamentally on pre-existing “rhetorical commonplaces” familiar to the public audience, but in their empirical illustration Krebs and Jackson do nothing to show what the relevant rhetorical commonplaces were before the debate they analyze. In principle, constructivists can do this by sampling the discourse prior to any particular debate to get a sense of what those commonplaces are.

What constructivists cannot do, however, is measure how widely believed and strongly influential those commonplaces are with the relevance audience. This audience is always multiple—divided into subgroups by myriad cleavages. How is the constructivist to know which rhetorical commonplaces are the ones that most powerfully influence the relevant audiences, and therefore demonstrate the power of rhetorical jiujitsu? Krebs and Jackson do so by assumption, picking out one particular rhetorical commonplace in Israel—the notion that those who serve in the military have thereby earned equal rights—to explain why Druze Arabs, who do serve in the Israeli military, have been granted rights other Israeli Arabs have not.

The trouble with this argument is that, even if one retains a constructivist methodology, Krebs and Jackson fail to consider other discourses that may better explain the outcome. For example, perhaps the key point in Israeli discourse is not that the Druze have earned citizenship, but that they have proven their loyalty—their military service proves that they are not a security threat. Much Israeli discrimination against Arab citizens is justified on security grounds. How do we know that the more important reason for the outcome was not that the notion of earned citizenship was unanswerable, but that the notion of Druze as a threat was a non-starter?

The deeper problem is that even if Krebs and Jackson had considered both discursive effects, constructivism offers no way to assess which one was more important, if both were present and prominent. The only way to assess these competing hypotheses is to think more systematically about the interaction between discourse at the social level and attitudes and beliefs at the individual level. In other words, one must resort to the methods of sociological framing theory (e.g. Benford and Snow 2000) that Krebs and Jackson reject—examining the pre-existing beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions of the audiences (including their perceptions of the credibility and other qualities of the leaders proposing alternative narratives) to explain why some rhetorical moves resonate with different audiences while others do not.

The study of pre-existing beliefs, values, norms, attitudes and perceptions, in turn, leads us back to the realm of political psychology. It is political psychologists who have studied these issues most carefully, and have come to some important conclusions about the power of different discourses with different audiences. One of the most important of these findings is the importance of emotional or symbolic predispositions in influencing attitudes. Some stark examples are in the work of Drew Westen (2007, pp. 107-8). For example, when a group of respondents were asked their views about whether President Clinton deserved to be impeached, 85% of the variance in their answers was predicted by their emotional feelings about the political parties, Clinton, infidelity and feminism as measured in those same respondents six to nine months earlier. When cognitive constraints were added to the model, they increased the explanatory power only to 88%. Obviously these respondents had been exposed to some combination of pro- and anti- impeachment discourses, but their responses varied with their symbolic predispositions.

The basis for my hypothesis about the role of security fears in Krebs and Jackson’s Israeli case comes from another strand of political psychology, the unfortunately named “terror management theory” (see., e.g., Greenberg et al. 1990; Cuillier et al. 2010). In a series of experiments, these scholars have shown that subconscious concerns about death systematically drive political opinions to the right, making respondents more respectful of their own national and religious values and symbols, more favorable to those who praise such values and symbols, more unfavorable toward those with different values of any sort, more punitive toward moral transgressors, more physically aggressive toward those who differ politically, and less concerned with incidental harm to innocents. In a particularly striking study, Cohen et al. (2005) found that respondents who were asked to think about death preferred George Bush over John Kerry by 45% to 20%, while respondents in the control condition preferred Kerry to Bush by 57% to 13%. If this pattern holds up in Israel, then it seems plausible that security arguments against Arab rights are more important than failure-to-serve arguments regarding Muslim and Christian Arabs. Therefore the lack of credibility of such arguments regarding Druze Arabs should similarly be more important than rights-for-service arguments.

The reason that systematic attention to audiences’ actual beliefs and values (as measured in survey research) is so important is that failure to do so makes it too easy for the analyst implicitly to impute his or her own values to the audience. For example, in a generally persuasive and well-executed study, Lobasz and Krebs (2007) show how Democrats were “rhetorically coerced” by the “war on terror” discourse into acquiescing in the Iraq invasion that many of them were uncomfortable with and later opposed. While this positive argument is persuasive as far as it goes, the counterfactual argument is not: the suggestion that the most promising alternative discourse would have been a “jeremiad” arguing that the 9/11 attacks were a reaction to American behavior, and that the U.S. should reform itself rather than launching a crusade in the Middle East.

Lobasz and Krebs, not inattentive to findings in political psychology, note that there are some psychological obstacles to acceptance of the “jeremiad” discursive mode, mentioning in particular the fundamental attribution error. However, they vastly underestimate those obstacles, in particular by overlooking the values widely embraced by conservatives and moderates but not liberals or leftists (Haidt 2012). Most important of these is the value of loyalty. The trouble with the jeremiad narrative is that it leaves the would-be Jeremiah vulnerable to the question: “Whose side are you on, ours or the terrorists’?”

The power of the “war on terror” narrative is further boosted by other psychological effects Lobasz and Krebs overlook. First, any “us against them” narrative draws its power from the ingroup-outgroup effect demonstrated by decades of experiments in the social identity theory tradition. Just making the ingroup-outgroup distinction salient leads to increased stereotyping of the outgroup and increased pressure for ingroup cohesion (adding to the power of the “whose side are you on” question). Second, the credibility of the “war on terror” justification for the Iraq war was enhanced by prejudice—both cognitive stereotypes of Arabs and emotional dislike for them—that was prominent among an important subset of the American population. Third, the terror management effect from the lingering fear of terrorism was simultaneously driving attitudes toward the right on issues of nationalism.

Finally, the jeremiad narrative lacked credibility on the issue of 9/11 itself: even if I believe that most Arabs dislike the U.S. for what it does, not what it is, that does not invalidate the logic of a war on terror. If I make that distinction, I must also make another: most Arabs were not involved in the 9/11 attacks, either. Those that were—the militants of al-Qaeda—were violent extremists who did need to be fought. The only plausible alternative to Bush’s War on Terror, then, was Obama’s later war on al-Qaeda. Many plausible discursive traditions were available to purse this argument against the Iraq war, most importantly the security discourse itself, perhaps stated frontier-style: “You’ve got the wrong man (Saddam) there, Sheriff. We can’t let the real culprit (bin Laden) get away with this”.

My argument, then, is that responsible theory-building requires that we build not only on the findings of those within our narrow academic niche, but much more widely beyond it. For the relationship between psychology and constructivism, there is a whole host of psychological mechanisms—in social identity theory, terror management theory, prejudice and ethnocentrism theory, cognitive dissonance theory, cognitive network theory, etc.—that provide important insights into which rhetorics are most likely to resonate with which audiences and in which conditions. Sociological framing theory additional insights regarding the importance of the credibility of the leader offering a particular frame or narrative, among other factors. All of these considerations widen the scope for agency in constructivist analysis, not only by identifying the psychological tools available for leaders to manipulate, but also by identifying the psychological resources available to audience members in deciding how to respond.


Friday Anti-Nerd Blogging Early: When Sports and International Relations Meet, the Dumbest Things Happen

I am headed out to Coachella this Thursday for three days of music in the desert. Well, two days. I am too old to make it all the way through, and I have to teach on Monday. In any case, I thought I would offer this Friday anti-nerd blogging column a little early in the week. For those of you teaching or taking classes on the semester system, it is that time of year that you are very, very tired. You need the break a bit in advance.

The MLB team, the Marlins, just suspended their manager, Ozzie Guillen, for complimentary comments he made about Fidel Castro. The Marlins play in Miami where they have this little minority constituency that seems to gets its way from time to time. Or every time.

Please do not look to this man for foreign policy insight. This should be self-evident

I am going to go out on a limb and say that anything that a professional baseball player, or even coach, says about politics does not matter whatsoever. Ozzie Guillen is clearly something of an idiot, but this is something that we should expect of our athletes. Even cherish. Let’s apply that same rule to every sport. In general there should be no penalty for what people who know nothing about politics say about politics, even if they are in the public eye. So we can forgive the Dixie Chicks, Kanye West, and even Ted Nugent. We can make fun of them, call them ignorant. Indeed we should. But for them to lose their job over it, even if just for a few days, is very, very dumb. The guy should not even have to apologize. If everyone had to say sorry for being an idiot, there would not be much time left over. I have now just satisfied my lifelong ambition to mention Ted Nugent in a blog.

Guillen isn’t a leftist, communist revolutionary, or an apologist for dictatorial regimes. He simply admires, he says, Castro for his amazing staying power. Despite being an international and domestic pariah he has held on to power for decades (Castro, not Guillen). In other words, Guillen appreciates that Castro is a tough and stubborn son-of-a-bitch. I think we can all agree that, even if we not quite call it a merit, Castro is indeed a tough and stubborn son-of-a-bitch. I find this whole event somewhat funny in that it has transpired at a moment in American politics in which the greatest asset for a political figure, at least voters claim, is principled conviction and an unwillingness to back down.

In general, I think that the American public needs to take a really big collective breath and chill the f*ck out about what people say. It is far more important what people do. Does Ozzie Guillen diddle little boys? Not that we know of? Then let’s all just shut the f*ck up.

The same goes for politics. If Rick Santorum calls Mitt Romney “the worst possible candidate,” it should not be news because it does not matter. It does not tell us anything about either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney except that they probably don’t like each other. Duh. It just seems to me that we all are all on the constant look-out for something that offends us. We want to be outraged. What does that say about us? What’s with the axe to grind? I say let the offense come to us. And let’s wait for something really offensive.We can blame it on the news media, but my guess is the first thing we all tweet, facebook, etc., is dumb shit like this. They only do it because we watch it.

In other words, the public needs to be more like IR scholars, who don’t give two shits about rhetoric and talk. I think this is actually a big, big problem, and it is something that some are trying to correct like Ron Krebs, Stacie Goddard, Jennifer Mitzen, Jarrod Hayes and Patrick T. Jackson. But for our own domestic politics, we would do well to heed the lesson that so much of this is unimportant fluff.

OK, off to hang out with the hipster doofi. Lates.


Do words matter?

The Obama administration’s rhetorical escalation on Syria this week seems to have generated quite a bit of skepticism that it will have any effect. Drezner sees it as mostly harmless and won’t really do any good. Daniel Serwer thinks for it to be effective, others are going to have to push harder. Andrew Sullivan finds Assad unfazed. True to form, the Neocons see it as too little.

On one level these are fair points — if the sole measure of this rhetorical shift is whether or not it will compel Assad to leave office then obviously this will be a failure. But, no one in the administration believes that simply calling for Assad to leave coupled with a new set of limited sanctions will compel him to magically pack up and exit. That’s not what this is about. It’s about finding ways to keep the pressure on Assad by using a U.S. presidential statement to reinforce the legitimacy of the protest movement and conveying to the protesters (and the rest of the world) that they are on the right side of history.

This may seem little more than diplomatic fluff, and perhaps history will show that it had little or no effect. But, occasionally words do matter and remarkably sometimes they even inspire — in ways that many of us may not fully appreciate and that social scientists often find difficult to measure. For example, while many Americans (myself included) were critical of President Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric during his first term, especially his infamous “evil empire” speech, most of the East European and Soviet dissidents — Havel, Michnik, Geremek, Sharansky, among others — have long noted that those words from a U.S. President helped them get through some of the most difficult moments of communist crackdowns and Poland’s Martial Law. If we measure Reagan’s evil empire speech by Moscow’s response, it didn’t seem to have any discernible effect. However, if we ask the dissidents in the trenches, they tell us a very different story.

My sense from the early reporting out of Syria over the past day or two is that at least some of the activists have been boosted by the new American position and that this may help sustain their efforts. We’ll see….


Historical perspective

As James Poulous reminds me, 2010 ain’t got nothing on 1968, let alone the long 1960s.

Violent rhetoric?

Societal polarization?

Political violence, including assassinations?
Much worse.

It is something of a testament to how far we’ve come that what outrages us now is relatively tame compared to the spewings of the far left and the far right less than half a century ago.

I still don’t have much use for claims that center-left politicians are trying to destroy the United States, or that center-right politicians are fascists. I still think that most of the political elites accusing their opponents of trying to institute tyranny and implying the need for armed revolt are lying weasels. But let’s not wax nostalgia about some golden past of American politics, okay?


Violent Rhetoric, Rhetorical Violence, and all that

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a debate going on about the relationship between rhetoric and violence (meta). I basically agree with Henry Farrell’s take:

One can say that there is (moderate) evidence supporting the argument that violent rhetoric makes violent action more likely. But this does not and cannot show, in the absence of other evidence, that any particular violent action is the product of a general atmosphere of violent rhetoric.

Still, I find myself compelled to comment.

First, of course there’s &$^!!$@* relationship between rhetoric and violence! It doesn’t take a great deal of study of organized political violence to figure this one out. The parameters of debate here are actually quite narrow: whether overheated rhetoric in a generally peaceful environment leads some individuals to commit acts of violence that they otherwise would have eschewed.*

Second, I find this debate somewhat beside the point. The real issue, in my opinion, concerns cynicism and hypocrisy.

Mainstream right-wing voices have spent the last two years building the case that President Obama is an Islamo-Marxist intent on imposing Sharia law, confiscating property, nationalizing the health care system, giving U.S. territory back to the Native Americans, abetting terrorism, and otherwise destroying the entire foundation of the American Republic. Republican elected officials and candidates for high political office have explicitly (or all but) argued that if the political process fails to roll back key Obama initiatives then political violence is an appropriate response.

If they believe this crap, it shouldn’t matter whether Jared Lee Loughner was a left-wing anarchist,** a Tea Party stalwart, or (as seems most likely) so disturbed as to hold beliefs that transcend such simplistic (and coherent) categorizations. They might disagree with Loughner’s reasons for action, but they’re on extremely thin ice when it comes to condemning his chosen method of pursuing political change.

What their condemnations prove, I think, is that most of the political elites spewing their nonsense don’t believe a word of it. After all, the Republican House of Representatives isn’t going to be rolling back any of Obama’s key policy achievements any time soon. And even if they miraculously did, we’d still be stuck with a Senate and Executive controlled by sinister agents doing everything in their power to drag America down the road of Islamo-fascist-communist-gay tyranny. If I accepted this worldview, I certainly wouldn’t place my faith in John Boehner to defend the nation. Would you?

So, no, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, the extreme right-wing blogsphere, and rest of the usual suspects aren’t culpable for the death of a nine-year old girl in Arizona. And yes, elements of left shouldn’t accuse them of culpability. They aren’t accessories to murder; they’re just hypocritical weasels.

*In fact, the majority of this debate covers even more limited ground, insofar as it excludes (1) violence against property and (2) threats of violence designed to intimate politicians and their supporters.
**That link, by the way, provides a wonderful example of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy: among other things, if Loughner was an anti-Semite then he couldn’t have been a Tea Party supporter. Sigh.


Causation, Correlation, Aggression, and Political Rhetoric

John Sides at the Monkey Cage weighs in with some social science on the relationship between militant metaphors in political speech and individuals’ willingness to engage in actual political violence against government officials. The findings he cites: an experimental study has shown there seems to be no effect on the overall population of exposure to “fighting words” in political ads, but there is an effect on people with aggressive tendencies. Moreover:

This conditional relationship — between seeing violent ads and a predisposition to aggression — appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).

But his real point is that we should be cautious of inferring from this or any wider probabilistic data causation regarding a specific event:

To prove that vitriol causes any particular act of violence, we cannot speak about “atmosphere.” We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence. That is a far harder thing to do. But absent such evidence, we are merely waving our hands at causation and preferring instead to treat the mere existence of vitriol and the mere existence of violence as implying some relationship between the two.


Obama’s Lesson on Audience Costs

One line that caught my attention in Obama’s Q/A with the House Republicans last Friday was his rationale for toning down the demonization of one another. He argued, for example, that when Republicans portray him as someone out to destroy the country (i.e., health care reform is a Bolshevik plot), it radicalizes their constituencies and ultimately limits their ability to engage in any bipartisan efforts with him to deal with the country’s problems — lest they be accused of being an accomplice with a socialist.

Audience costs don’t come as a surprise to many of us in IR. James Fearon’s 1994 APSR piece articulated the concept and suggested that because democracies would likely have higher domestic audience costs than authoritarian regimes, they would be able to make more credible threats. Michael Tomz has elaborated on the theoretical mechanisms and developed stronger empirical evidence showing how audience costs actually shape and constrain elite behavior. Focusing on national security issues, Tomz finds that domestic audiences are concerned with reputation and credibility and routinely punish leaders who say one thing but do another thing.

I found it interesting that Obama made these references last Friday — the same day Tony Blair defiantly testified before the British Iraq Inquiry. Audience costs don’t constrain elites who are true believers like Blair who continues to hold that Saddam Hussein posed an existential threat to global society. He told the Inquiry: “I believe he was a monster, that he threatened not just the region but the world.”

But, I’ve argued that domestic audience costs did have an effect on Bush’s U.S. domestic mobilization for war against Iraq. The legacy of a decade of demonization of Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s opened the political space for President Bush and the Neocons to maneuver the US towards a preventive attack on Iraq. Several of the Democrats who voted to authorize the war in Iraq in October 2002 were clearly uncomfortable with their vote, and yet, they feared a public backlash a month before the mid-term elections. That backlash wouldn’t have happened without their own participation in the decade-long rhetorical conditioning that Saddam Hussein posed an existential threat to the United States — they couldn’t oppose war with Iraq without the risk of seeming to coddle a tyrannical dictator hell-bent on destroying America.

Obama’s caution — that demonization of your political opponent could very well box you in — is certainly worth noting whether it pertains to domestic politics or international diplomacy.


Sting Operations

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed Stung by the Perfect Sting rattled some cages in the blogosphere this week. Laura McKenna calling her a whiner, implying the post was really about her own bad blogger press. Tim Burke claiming she is dissing bloggers by failing to reference our own grand debates over anonymity. Danny being Danny Drezner accusing Dowd of comparing bloggers to muggers. The column seems widely interpreted as a slam against the new media.

I was sorry that none of these posts engaged the actual story in the article, which had almost nothing to do with the blogosphere per se. Part of this is Dowd’s fault: her argument was poorly executed and buried under asinine introspection (we bloggers would never exhibit careless narcissim.) But look past the fluff and at issue is an important and (yes, Tim) timely legal question raised by not one but two rulings just this month: Should a person’s right to anonymous speech shield him/her against defamation suits?*

Anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment. But defamation is not. So what recourse does a plaintiff have when slandered anonymously? At Digital Media Laywer, David Johnson explains the “chicken and egg” problem this way:

If trial proves that the speaker is liable for defamation, then his anonymity was not entitled to First Amendment protection and should be disclosed. If trial proves that the speaker is not liable for defamation, then his anonymity was entitled to First Amendment and should not be disclosed. However, disclosure of a speaker’s identity is generally required for a court to determine whether his words were defamatory. In other words, you have to disclose his identity to determine whether his identity should be disclosed.

One way around this is the “summary judgment standard” set out in Doe v. Cahill, a 2005 Delaware ruling on whether or not Patrick Cahill, a City Councilman, could obtain the identity of anonymous blogger John Doe for the purposes of a libel suit. Daniel Solove explained the summary judgment standard in a blog post in that year:

In this case, Cahill was a public figure, and to prevail in a defamation lawsuit, he had to prove that (1) Doe made a defamatory statement (damaging to Cahill’s reputation); (2) the statement was concerning Cahill; (3) the statement was published (disseminated to others); (4) others would understand the statement to be defamatory; (5) the statement was false; and (6) Doe made the statement with actual malice (he either knew it was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth).

Solove criticizes the New York rulingfor using a looser standard in the case referenced by Dowd. The plaintiff Liskula Cohen, arguably also a public figure, had been vilified on an anonymous blog as “skankiest in NYC” and was only required to show her case had merit to convince the court to order that Google reveal the blogger’s identity. But even if they had used the Doe v. Cahill standard it is hard to see how they would not have ruled in Cohen’s favor. The only hangup may have been the requirement that the plaintiff demonstrate a defendant’s “malice” but this would seem rather an unfair hurdle when a defendant’s identity is unknown. Hence the chicken and egg dilemma.

Did the court make the right choice? Should a person’s right to anonymous speech (generally, not just in the blogosphere) protect them against defamation suits if filing the suit essentially requires knowledge of the defendant’s identity?

Dowd’s key argument is: No. She, however, is talking not only about defamation but also about various pernicious forms of cyber-bullying and hate speech as well. (She is also not, of course, opposing anonymous or pseudononymous deliberative argument ala The Federalist Papers; it is a straw man to claim that she has “conflat[ed] and tar[red] all anonymous commentary because some act rudely on the Internet” when in fact she carefully distinguishes constructive pseudonomity from mere character assassination.)

On this, I’m with Dowd. I am an advocate of pseudononymous (and to some extent anonymous) blogging, but I am against mindless slanderous invective for its own sake. It cheapens political deliberation, distracts us from the issues, and sets a bad example for our children. As a commenter wrote over at Copyrights and Campaigns:

“Having read the Federalist Papers, I don’t recall Publius defaming as ‘skanks and hos’ those who disagreed with the adoption of the Constitution.”

My fellow political bloggers are correct to point out that this behavior is also not representative of most anonymous bloggers or commenters. But that’s precisely the reason to agree with Dowd and with the court’s decision. Ultimately, “Anonymous Blogger” Rosemary Port’s defense rested on the claim that no one takes the blogosphere seriously as a source of facts. According to the ruling:

“The Blogger argues that even if the words [‘skank’ and ‘ho’] are capable of a defamatory meaning, ‘the context here negates any impression that a verifiable factual assertion was intended,’ since blogs ‘have evolved as the modern day soapbox for one’s personal opinions,’ by ‘providing an excessively popular medium not only for conveying ideas, but also for mere venting purposes, affording the less outspoken a protected forum for voicing gripes, leveling invective and ranting about anything at all.'”

To the extent that this perception is true (that is, to the extent that bloggers get tarred in the public eye as mindless opinion-spouters) it’s not because of people like Dowd, but because of people like Port who abuse their anonymity to defame others – an act that is in fact not protected by the First Amendment – and then claim this as some kind of moral high ground.

*The case raises other interesting questions as well. For example: what is defamation? The court found that allegations of sexual promiscuity count, and I would grudgingly agree, though you could have a whole feminist debate about what that signifies. I also think you could argue, though Cohen did not, that this was not simply defamation but a kind of hate speech – in fact, had the blogger turned out to be male, I think we’d be hearing precisely such claims of misogyny – interesting double standard. Also, Rosemary Port has now sued Google for complying with the court’s order – hard to imagine that she has a case, since Google’s terms of use state it will hand over information if required to do so by the government, but as Solove points out perhaps Google was negligent in failing to go to bat for her? Worth watching to see.


Volleys in the war on terror

Barack Obama may not have formally ended the war on terrorism, but he’s certainly making dramatic changes in the way it is prosecuted. From Spencer Ackerman this morning:

take a look at his first not-even-48 hours in office. He’s suspended the Guantanamo Bay military commissions, a first step toward shuttering the entire detention complex. He’s assembled his military commanders to discuss troop withdrawals from Iraq. He’s issued a far-reaching order on transparency in his administration that mandates, among other things, a two-year ban on any ex-lobbyists working on issues they lobbied for. And now he’s shutting down the CIA’s off-the-books detention complexes in the war on terrorism.

That’s a remarkable start. A bit later in that post, Ackerman mentions that the CIA will also have to start complying with the Army’s revised Field Manual (which is compliant with the Geneva Conventions) when interrogating terror suspects.

To the likely approval of UK Foreign Minister David Miliband, these moves “uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties both at home and abroad.” They also de-emphasize the military dimension of the conflict and begin to disentangle disparate foes previously lumped together as terrorists.


My Two Cents on Obama’s Speech

It was full of gloom and doom, which is not what some of us might have expected from the “hope” President, but just the kind of realism the nation needs to hear. Finally someone who will ask us to step up to bat and make the sacrifices needed to turn the planet around!

(And frankly the enormity of the mess we’re in was hit home to me when my kids and I, desperate to see Obama sworn in during a layover in Charlotte, were told by the manager of the sports bar near our gate that the basketball game was more important than hearing this historic speech. If anyone can change this mentality that afflicts so many Americans, it’s Obama, but there is a long way to go.)

The kids and I spent that hour huddled around my MacBook Air instead, along with a growing crowd of other passengers. My initial reactions:

1) The “war” against “a network” is definitely not over, contra recent suggestions on this blog. Much of Obama’s rhetoric is surprisingly similar to that of the previous Administration. Jon Stewart captured this well last night.

2) Was he sending veiled cues to Israel when he said, the US will be “a friend to all nations”? Are we finally entering an era where the US will not only obey international law but make our alliances and partnerships contingent on similar good citizenship from our allies? And if so, would this be a good thing?

3) Despite being an unprecedented diversity-fest, this was a very monotheistic celebration. Prayers and benedictions were addressed to the Almighty, not to the female Goddess, the Taoist Creative, or the pantheon worshipped in many forms by American Wiccans, Native American communities, or other minority faiths. Obama made multi-faith references to Christians, Muslims, Jews and – importantly – to non-believers. But I was a little bothered by the juxtapositioning of the People of the Book with nonbelievers, dismissing the wide swaths of deeply spiritual people of faith within this country who do not subscribe to a view of God consistent with any of the Abrahamic faiths. Obama did mention Hinduism as well, and it is probably too much to expect him to rattle off an exhaustive list of spiritual and religious diversity within this country. Still, I felt the limits of this framing warranted mention.

4) Most remarkable in my mind was this: Obama made very few specific promises in this speech. The one time I heard him use the word “pledge” it was in reference not to ending torture, solving the global economic crisis, or combatting global warming; it was to reducing global poverty:

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

To me, this seems like a surprisingly ambitious agenda – if he was going to pledge this, why not make some other pledges that are more within his capacity? Not to belittle the impact that a concerted US effort to combat poverty could have. President Obama could make an enormous difference immediately with such concrete steps as announcing that he will support the commitment of 7% of the US budget to non-mility foreign aid. This would still be a tiny fraction of US spending, but an enormous increase from existing spending on non-military aid. It would embody his messages of service, sacrifice, outreach to other nations. And, in addition to helping make a dent in global poverty, it would reduce one source of tension between the US and other OECD countries who already meet or exceed the 7% goal.


Wordling Away The Time

I have no idea what this tells us about anything important. But I do like it.

McCain’s concession speech Wordle is below the fold.

Of course, what I’d really like to compare to Obama’s victory speech is McCain’s victory speech, the one we’ll never hear. And I’d be interested to see how Obama’s concession speech would have looked compared to the image you see above.


Motives, Action, and Ordinary People

I started writing this post as a further contribution to the comment thread sparked by my last post, and in particular to the discussion that Janice Bially Mattern and I were having there. But my reply got too long for Haloscan to process, so I have moved it up a level and made it into a separate post. Plus, in doing so I am able to add this striking graphic, which is, I think, another example of the phenomenon we’re wrestling with. Full disclosure, I found this picture over at FiveThirtyEight. Fuller disclosure, as you might guess, the discussion that Janice and I are having is itself about round 538 or so in an ongoing conversation; this time we’re having the discussion in public and online, however, and I think that’s enough added value to continue the exercise.

Enough preliminaries. I think that our discussion about what to make of expressions like those captured on this video or the above graphic is moving between at least three different concerns or registers. They’re related, but I think it’s helpful to isolate each one so that we can get a clearer picture of the issues at stake.

1) my initial post was a cautionary note about inferring people’s true opinions or motives from their public performances. The fact that people are captured on film or video making racist/sexist/homophobic — or even just downright factually inaccurate — comments, I suggested, does not mean that they “really believe” the things that they are saying. Instead, a whole number of factors might incline a specific person to use such language: yes, they might “really believe” their statement/performance. but they might also be saying/doing something that they think is going to get them the approval of their peer group, or annoy their opponents, or “keep the conversational ball in the air” by recirculating some phrase or gesture that has previously been circulated all around them.

Given this potential micro-level diversity, I argued (and generally argue in situations like this) that we ought not to concern ourselves with the precise motives and beliefs of individuals, but instead ought to craft explanations that allow such inner compulsions towards action to vary, while we instead focus on the social context out of which and into which the action flows. So instead of looking at why a specific individual chose to use a specific piece of language or perform a specific action, we look at the cultural vocabulary available in the situation, and the social transactions with which that vocabulary is entwined — in this case, the vocabulary linking Obama to socialism/communism/terrorism, characterizing him as a Muslim, and impugning the manliness of his supporters, and the social networks of partisan news organizations and long-standing local communities within which signs and symbols can be quickly recirculated. This kind of analysis gives us the conditions of possibility for the performance(s) in question, and it has what I would consider the great advantage of confining itself to the sphere of the empirical instead of making inferences about unobservable motives and beliefs — which is not the same thing as saying that people don’t have motives and beliefs, but is merely a claim that we don’t need to know the precise details of those motives and beliefs in order to account for social action and public performances.

Janice points out, in effect, that this is an incomplete explanation, unless I wanted to conclude that people were compelled by their environment to act in specific ways. If I want to preserve contingency and agency, don’t I have to interpose some kind of process of individual deliberation between the environment and observed performances? Without this, my position looks like a kind of cultural determinism: the circulation of a particular bit of language on Fox News or conservative talk radio leads to its deployment in practice by McCain supporters at campaign events. And I would agree if I were trying to account for individual decisions. But I am not trying to account for particular people’s decisions to use or not to use a given linguistic formulation. My concern is not with why that particular gentleman stood outside of the hall in Toledo where Obama was delivering a speech, holding a grammatically confused but still clearly expressive sign; rather, my concern is with the social and cultural configuration(s) that make such performances possible in the first place.

On that score, I think that we need to look at the interrelation of news and propaganda, as well as the segmented networks through which information flows in present-day America — it is entirely possible to surround oneself with sources that are all slanted in a particular direction, and more or less completely ignore the other sources that are out there in the media landscape, and when this is combined with interpersonal social relations that recirculate those messages, I think we can start to see how performances like these become possible. (In fairness, this works in the opposite direction too: after a hard day at work reading liberal blogs and newspapers, one can come home, attend an Obama house party reception, then catch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report before bed…we may like our own cultural vocabulary-bubble better because it’s ours, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s any less subject to the same dynamics as I am highlighting here.)

2) Janice replies with the language of “choice,” and suggests that a) language use in particular always involves choice, and b) an account without choice is insufficient, primarily since it lets people off the hook by not forcing them to take responsibility for their actions and not letting us hold them accountable for their actions. Let me take those in turn.

a) “choice” and “decision” language tends to bother me when applied to social action, and it bothers me both on empirical and on normative grounds. Empirically, “choice” bothers me because the language envisions both the presence of plausible alternative courses of action, and the presence of a more or less conscious process of deliberation between those alternatives, and I am simply not convinced that these two conditions always obtain. What alternative cultural vocabulary is empirically, practically available to ordinary people expressing their dissatisfaction with Obama? I would need to actually see available alternate language in order to buy this — and it’s not sufficient to hypothetically construct an alternative vocabulary that might exist, or to draw on the vocabulary valuable to us as detached observers. What I would need to see is empirical evidence that the speakers in question — the people in the video — actually had alternative modes of expression available to them, legitimated in their local social contexts. Then I would be prepared to concede that there were alternatives available.

But that’s only half the empirical battle, because then there’s this matter of “deliberation” to consider. I’m unsure how one ever knows whether deliberation has actually taken place, since we either have an unobservable internal process or a set of public expressions — the unobservable process can’t be observed, and the public expressions are subject to the same social dynamics I’m discussing here. Someone’s “private” journal is nonetheless “public” in that it uses collectively-constituted vocabularies and arguments and commonplaces — and that looks to me less like “deliberation” (leading to an inward compulsion to act) and more like legitimation (shaping action by negotiating the boundaries of acceptability, and in a sense drawing the action along with it). In the absence of empirical evidence of deliberation, I’m not sure how this presumption helps us.

That said, I can certainly see how it helps normatively, because if we presume deliberation than we can concretely claim that agency intervenes between structured environment and empirical outcome: Fox News didn’t make these people say what they said and do what they did, rather they deliberated and came to the conclusion that saying/doing these things was a good idea. But while this preserves a certain measure of structural indeterminacy, I am unclear that it preserves agency — or, better, I am unsure that it avoids what Talcott Parsons referred to as “the utilitarian’s dilemma.” Parsons pointed out that if we presume that individuals are making deliberate choices, and if we want to explain a social situation while retaining that presumption, we either have to explain their choices in more or less deterministic terms (heredity and environment, he argues) and thus eliminate their freedom to choose, or we have to allow people’s preferences to fluctuate more or less at random and thus give up any hope of explaining the situation but preserve their freedom to choose. Hence: efforts to preserve agency that rely on notions like “decision” strike me as rather paradoxical.

b) I am not convinced that it’s our job as social scientists to hold people accountable for their actions. Choice language — or, rather, an analytic involving individual choice — certainly permits that kind of normative evaluation, but for my part I don’t think that the purpose of analytical tools is to evaluate concrete social action. I think our analytics are about explaining and understanding situations; taking or not taking responsibility is a rather different endeavor than explaining/understanding. And there is nothing in my position that prevents us, or someone else, from holding the speakers and performers accountable for their actions; what my position does do is to deny that act of holding someone responsible the sanction of scientific or even scholarly grounding, and restore it to its (proper, in my view) normative status. Put differently, I don’t think that responsibility and accountability are empirical matters to be settled social-scientifically — I think they’re practical, or practical-moral, matters to be worked out in the course of social and political practice. So whether people are individually responsible for their public performances strikes me as the kind of question that demands a different kind of discussion than a discussion about the how and why of those actions. In the end, this is because there’s no way to social-scientifically determine whether someone is “responsible” for something, because responsibility is a value-orientation rather than a social-scientific conclusion.

[Note that it is, however, entirely possible to social-scientifically analyze how a group or organization comes to regard someone as responsible for something. That’s the kind of question one could, in principle, settle empirically. Whether the person in question was or was not “really” responsible, however? I can’t imagine anything but a social and political resolution to that question.]

3) This leads us to the third issue: whether it’s normatively preferable to use an analytic presuming and thus celebrating individual choice and decision, or to use an analytic that avoids “choice” language, deliberately doesn’t inquire too deeply into motivations, and contents itself with sketching empirically-plausible alternatives and conditions of possibility. I have already signaled my preference here, as has Janice, so there’s not much more to say — except that for my money a situation like the one depicted in the images I’ve linked to here presents an opportunity not for judgment, but for education. Not “education” in the sense of giving these people more information so that they will see that my/our point of view is superior, but “education” in the sense of helping, or forcing, people to confront the implications of what they’ve just said or performed. Holding a mirror up to students is, I find, a very helpful pedagogical technique — reflecting their claims back to them, perhaps slightly sharpened to bring out implications that they might not have considered beforehand. In effect, it’s an opportunity to provoke a crisis. And I would be constrained if I were to presume that performances were the result of conscious deliberation and more or less rational choice — constrained to provoke that crisis, because if the performance emanated from some internal disposition on the speaker then no crisis would result. But in practice, I see all the time — both in the classroom and outside of it — that people do not seem to have fully thought out what they are saying or doing, and that by holding up a mirror a crisis can be provoked. I do not pretend to know precisely why this is so, because that would require me to know a lot more about the internal dispositions of my interlocutors than I think that I can reliably know, but I have observed it happening a lot. The indeterminacy of the crisis, the moment when the ground falls out — that’s when agency happens, that’s when creativity and contingency actually come into play, that’s when I deliberately don’t want to “explain” what is going on because in so doing I’m taking agency away from my interlocutor. I would argue that my non-decisionist analytic supports that practice better than a choice analytic, which is ultimately the justification for using it.

Long enough for now.


Vox populi?

There’s this video of McCain supporters in line at a rally in Pennsylvania that has been making the rounds on the ‘Net (tip of the hat to Janice Bially Mattern for sending it to me). Here it is now:

Figuring out what to make of this is slightly more complicated than simply having a gut reaction to it — not the a gut reaction is unimportant, or even necessarily wrong, but in this case I think it can obscure some of what’s going on in the scene. This is particularly true since the video’s author is clearly drawing a contrast between the hate-filled and factually inaccurate statements of the McCain supporters, and the progressive (even set to a hip-hop soundtrack!) presence of the Obama supporters. Now, I am not saying that the author is right or wrong about this; I am only suggesting that we have to slow down and consider the situation a little more closely.

First, it’s important to note that what we’re seeing here is not some kind of uncensored raw set of opinions. It isn’t even the relatively calm environment of a telephone survey or a set of questions asked by someone holding a clipboard in the shopping-mall parking lot. It’s people waiting in line to attend a campaign rally, a situation roughly akin to people standing in line to get into a major sporting event. Emotions run high and a certain amount of over-the-top trash-talking is more or less expected — and we shouldn’t underestimate the subtle social pressure of appearing fired up in front of one’s peers. Plus what we might call the “Real World” / “Jerry Springer” effect: turn a camera on someone and watch them slip into performance mode, and perhaps appear even more over the top than usual.

My point is that what people say in such circumstances doesn’t necessarily represent any sort of true inward conviction. Not that “calm” environments are any better at eliciting such inward convictions; calm environments have their own set of subtle social pressures and norms of appropriate behavior. Rather, my point is that what people say and do in any given situation is less a reflection of their inner state of mind and more a product of the interaction of different aspects of the situation with whatever their inner state of mind happens to be, and the result might not have much of any correspondence with their inward state of mind at all. One could easily construct several different explanations for the statements heard in that video — people “really” feel this way, people wanted to be accepted by their peers, people were caught up in emotion of the moment, people have only been exposed to a narrow ranges of messages and don’t have much other vocabulary in which to express their support of one candidate over the other — which, at least to my way of thinking, means that we are making a mistake if we jump right to the conclusion that what we see and hear in that video is some kind of a genuine and authentic expression of popular sentiment.

Second, McCain’s down by several points in the PA polls, and has been for several days. This of course exacerbates any of the social dynamics I just mentioned — think about the rabid fans of a losing team before a big game with their arch-rival (not that I would know anything about that this year, since the Yankees are . . . um . . . ). One can easily imagine an even greater emphasis on supporting the team and denigrating the opponent, as it’s easier to be charitable and generous from a position of strength than from a position of weakness. Which leads me to wonder about the counterfactual: if McCain were up in the polls, would we see this kind of vitriol from his supporters? Probably not, because we wouldn’t have seen the deliberate activation of these scripts by the campaign, and their intense circulation by a pretty well-organized propaganda machine. And since I am unwilling to jump from public performance to dispositional essence, I would not be comfortable saying that the people depicted in the video “really” feel this way about Barack Obama, and would be equally uncomfortable concluding that such sentiments would “inevitably” find expression somehow.

So, and this is my final point, because we can construct a whole bunch of plausible scenarios involving a whole bunch of subjective motivations, we should basically abstract from internal motivations (which means: we acknowledge that individual people are motivated by something, but we deliberately do not specify precisely what that motivation might be) and instead read what’s going on here as a product of observable social mechanisms and processes. In particular, we should focus on the formation of the available cultural vocabulary that is being deployed against Obama in this situation. Several things are noteworthy: the singing of “God Bless America,” the accusation that the Obama supporters need to go “get a job,” the notion that Obama is a terrorist and hangs around with terrorists, the use of Cold War-era anticommunist (and antisocialist) jabs, and my personal favorite, the charge of homosexuality that is leveled about 55 seconds into the video (and linked to “commie”). Much of this should sound familiar, and not just because of the past few weeks of Fox News “coverage” of the election; rather, these symbols and commonplaces are quite well-established parts of the American political vocabulary, and the “terrorism = Communism (= Nazism)” linkage has been a staple of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” rhetoric since 2001. What we are seeing here is a group of people using the resources at hand to make sense of a situation, which is, I think, what people do in general.

This does not mean that people are cultural dupes, or that the media simply produces a false consciousness that overlays their “real” interests or feelings or whatever. But it does mean that people are sense-making creatures, even when the resources that they have available to make sense are both narrow and all strategically slanted in the same direction. Sure, some of the people in the video probably have completely internalized those messages, but I’ll bet that others are just (to paraphrase Nietzsche) passing around a coin that is taken to be true because it’s in such circulation among their peers and in the media outlets that they regularly turn to. What I am suggesting is that the problem here isn’t the ordinary people in the video, but the broader social context within which articulations like this make sense in the first place.

But since, certain overzealous Habermasians (and “marketplace of ideas” Millians) to the contrary, that broader social context doesn’t work according to the rules of civil rational debate, all the empirical falsification in the world of silly claims like “ACORN caused the financial crisis” is not likely to make a damn bit of difference. Instead, what is needed are alternative stories and the means to convey them into the places where people live. And that’s not likely to happen in the heat of a presidential campaign, because whatever the motives (noble or ignoble) of the candidates when it comes to producing a more civil national politics, at the moment their exclusive focus more or less has to be on turning out voters, which one does by ignoring pockets of high support or the other candidate and looking for easier targets of opportunity. I wonder if we can ever lift our eyes away from such short-term considerations to focus on the organization of the public sphere that makes the (re)circulation of scripts like that possible.


Measuring Linguistic Norms

Recently, I criticized Sarah Palin’s pronunciation of “nuclear,” and suggested that electing her would only make Americans look as if we (still) don’t care how dumb our leaders appear on the global stage. At best, I expected a discussion about whether we should take such things into consideration in elections. More accurately, I expected that post to be ignored, and for most readers to latch on to the much more interesting food for thought to come in later posts that day. (Who would have thought English grammar would be more fascinating than the ethics of killer robots?)

Imagine my surprise to be introduced – by people I respect – to the theory that in fact, there is no one “correct” pronunciation of “nuclear”:

“I just can’t see this as a ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ matter. The English language is not a fixed thing but varies tremendous among geographical and social groupings.” – Dan Nexon

“I’m sorry but this is bullshit… Received pronunciation has nothing to do with… whether a used word is correct or not.” – Alex

“As someone who has consistently ‘mispronounced’ nuclear ever since I learned it from parents who mispronounced it, in a community which mispronounced it, I’ll have to agree with the previous commenter who called your argument ‘bull shit.’ How many accents to diplomats have to deal with every day?” – C. Hall

As a critical thinker, I take such claims quite seriously. It’s actually nice to be forced to think past my own biases. What if I’m actually wrong? What if there’s no correct pronunciation? What if I’m just exhibiting liberal, elitist bias, itself a sort of ignorance about the diversity of dialects out there in different communities of practice around nuclear science and policy?

Originally, I had written in the spirit of a frustrated citizen. Today, I write as a social scientist. On what ought to be the “right” pronunciation I now stand agnostic. But whether there is, in fact, a generally accepted pronunciation and a generally deplored pronunciation (as social facts) I can measure empirically.

Here’s a stab at doing just that. (It can be replicated much more systematically with a bit of time, money, and a team of student coders.) First, let us clearly state the question: is there a “normative” way to pronounce nuclear? (Not a right way. A way that exhibits the characteristics of a “norm” – a “collective expectation of the proper behavior of actors,” to quote Peter Katzenstein whose definition Dan Nexon cites in his famous blog post on international norms.) And the hypothesis: I hypothesize that the “normative” pronunciation is as it is spelled: “noo-clee-ar,” or its British derivation “nyu-clee-ar.” (Not because that’s the spelling. But because I predict people will behave as if that is the expectation in a measurable way.) The counterhypothesis is that the pronunciation “noo-kya-lar” enjoys the same or a greater degree of normative legitimacy (that is, is considered equally “correct.”)

One test of this would be practice: the frequency with which the two pronunciations are used among those engaged in “nuclear security” discourse. I would disconfirm my own hypothesis if I found that in a replicable sample of rhetoric, using replicable measures, speakers were equally likely to use either pronunciation. Today, in between panels at the NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics Annual Principal Investigator Conference, I tested this through an analysis of YouTube clips found using the search terms “nuclear security.” All were posted in the last two years, suggesting the results reflect current norms. I listened to each clip until the first use of the word “nuclear” and then coded the pronunciation, the title, URL and date (for replicability), and as much information as could be discerned about the national / regional background and professional affiliation of the speaker. Only the first word “nuclear” in each clip was used, for ease of replicability. In total, 25 observations were made before I ran out of time and energy. I excluded duplicates not only of the same clip but of the same speaker (so, for example, McCain is featured only once in the dataset). I excluded clips in languages other than English. I also excluded the video of Gorbachev’s interpreter because I couldn’t get it to load.

The remaining clips included all the rest that appeared on the first two screens of YouTube. This represents a sample of 25 out of a population of 1070; YouTube ranks them by “relevance.” These first, “most relevant” 25 include several clips of the Presidential candidates; journalists from the US, UK, Canada and Russia; analysts from Washington think-tanks; nuclear scientists; international diplomats and a comedian. They include speakers originally raised in the US South, MidWest, MidAtlantic and Northeast and Southwest. (Unfortunately none from the Northwest.) They include speakers from the U.S., Russia, England, Australia (I think), Canada (I think), North Korea and Iran. The results:

My dataset for those interested in replicating or supplementing (email me for the complete xls file):

This cursory analysis shows (I think – though bear in mind by this hour I’m slightly inebriated) that the majority of speakers in the sample pronounce the word as it is spelled. Within this (admittedly small and non-representative) sample, I found no variation according to US region. Although I had believed that speakers from the US South are likelier to use the pronunciation “nuk-ya-lar” (and several commenters also referred to “regional” dialects), in fact I found the spelled-pronunciation to be used by speakers from Georgia and Tennessee, as well as from the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southwest.

Results are mixed, however, on whether the alternate pronunciation necessarily correlates with lack of knowledge about nuclear policy, as Alex Montgomery would have it, or on whether this usage is peculiarly American, as I had believed. Four speakers in my sample used the word “nukyalar.” We can, I think discount the political satirist (of unknown regional origin). The other three include only one one American: Senator James Imhofe (of Des Moines, IA). The other two “alternate pronouncers” are (I think) both non-American and at least one of them is clearly well-informed about nuclear policy: Australian nuclear energy expert George Collins, the chief of research at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.

So, one imagines that were this analysis continued on a much larger number of observations (there are 115,000 YouTube videos with the tag “nuclear”, and many of them contain more than one instance of a discrete speaker pronouncing the word) one might find an overwhelming majority using the spelled-pronunciation, but a population of alternate pronouncers that does not necessarily fit stereotypes.

Whatever it tells us in terms of a person’s qualifications on nuclear policy however, I can convincingly say that the use of “nukyalar” equals lack of fluency in (or willingness to adhere to) norms of nuclear speech. An even better indicator of this than frequency distributions of actual pronunciations is the reactions of third parties to the use of the alternate pronunciation, for as James Coleman reminds us, we know norms not by compliance, by the extent to which deviations from them are condemned by observers. Indeed, users of the “alternate pronunciation” are routinely lambasted by observers; the reverse is not true. If indeed both pronunciations were equally normative, one would expect to see another community of observers ridiculing those who pronounce the word as it is spelled just as often. I have found no evidence of this, though am willing to consider it if any of you have it.

Meantime, “M” suggests another possibility: that there are two sets of norms in two different communities of nuclear experts:

“I have long rolled my eyes at the “nuke-cu-lar” pronunciation. So, you can imagine my shock when I recently had the privilege of interacting with a number of nuclear weapons scientists and others associated with the US nuclear complex. The vast majority of them say “nuke-cu-lar”.”

Testing this would mean disaggregating the two communities; I’ve not done so here. This hypothesis could be tested by replicating the above analysis but replacing the search terms “nuclear security” with the search terms “nuclear scientist” or “nuclear engineer”; or, by gathering enough data points in that the number of nuclear engineers in the sample could be contrasted with the policy community in a statistically significant way. I am out of time today however, so must demure. I will point out, however, that in my sample, only 1 out of 5 nuclear scientists used the alternate pronunciation.

But in the meantime, these findings do, I think, suggest there is clearly a global normative pronunciation for the term, and a measurable opprobrium for those (many though they be) who deviate from it while expecting to be treated as smart, informed members of the global policy elite. Until I am convinced otherwise by something more than anecdotes and self-congratulatory statements from “alternative pronouncers,” I shall continue to advise my students to learn the conventions of the global policy elite. And I shall continue to hope for a President who defers to standard diplomatic convention.

P.S. I also checked whether in fact Palin had mispronounced “nukyalar” prior to the debate. She has, all along. So much for my theory that they prepped her to do this on purpose.

P.P.S. For those interested in YouTube and the US Presidential Election, check out this conference at my new institution.


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