In Other Words

Some of the blogs I read were standing in open-mouthed dismay at this section of the transcript of a Bush Social Security event in Tampa yesterday:

Q — really understand how is it the new plan is going to fix that problem?

THE PRESIDENT: Because the — all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There’s a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those — changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be — or closer delivered to what has been promised.

Does that make any sense to you? It’s kind of muddled. Look, there’s a series of things that cause the — like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate — the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those — if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.

Okay, better? I’ll keep working on it. (Laughter.)

It’s worth ramming this one home: this was a stage-managed event, with a hand-picked, partisan audience, and this is the official White House transcript, post whatever cleaning up they deemed to be prudent. That’s the most powerful man on the planet speaking as if channeling the late Stanley Unwin. Look, if you were paying an accountant to work for you, and he showed such a complete inability to describe clearly something that he’s proposing, you’d get the heebie-jeebies and look for another one. Wouldn’t you? Chance the Gardener was, at least, concise.

And, no, what’s shown here isn’t merely a language problem. It’s a comprehension problem, perhaps also a conceptualisation problem. Also perhaps a laziness problem. This, from the same transcript, is spine-tinglingly scary:

MR. HUERTAS: Normally, there’s a manager, right, that is the finance manager that controls the funds. All you need to do is decide how much money you want to put on each account. And of course, there’s always a choice of — whether you are younger, you usually put more money on the risky finances and less money on the other one. When you are older, like I’m getting, I will put less money on those risky — (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: I wish I was your old. (Laughter.)

Bloody fucking hell. ‘I wish I was your old.’

An old friend crops up in the first section I quoted: ‘In other words’. It’s a favourite construction of his — one of the most often used blocks in the damaged Lego Duplo set that he thinks of as English. It raises the hairs on the back of my neck. There are twelve occurrences of ‘In other words’ in this forty-nine-minute transcript, a good but not exceptional crop.

I think Bush’s use of ‘In other words’ has one or both of two purposes: one is about how he relates to himself; the other is about how he relates to other people. The first is the simpler: it’s what in the US tends to be called a ‘do-over’, or a ‘Mulligan’. Bush’s life has been littered with situations — familial, financial, social — in which his privilege has dug him out of holes that would have destroyed someone without that safety net. It’s a concept he’s used to; it’s something he perhaps unconsciously feels entitled to. And it’s certainly something he needs. So, in full view of the appalled world, he allows himself linguistic ‘In other words’ do-overs, ending up like a driver who can’t parallel park to save their life, but persists in going back and forth, ramming the kerb, scraping the car, and raising the blood pressure of anyone behind waiting to pass. Example:

THE PRESIDENT: That’s good, he knows something — in other words, he’s an expert on the subject.

That’s a do-over. He took a second run at it, because he knew that the first attempt was clumsy.

Bush’s second use of ‘In other words’ is, I think, also related to privilege, at least in his case. It’s sometimes a characteristic of people who live in a social bubble that they have difficulty accurately perceiving what’s normal, or what the range of normality might be. Because their experience is narrow, they’re basically just badly calibrated for society, and fall back — whether consciously or not — on their own situation as a measure of normality. Add to that Bush’s paralysing lack of curiosity about the world, then add to both of those a new context in which he’s protected from his own idiotic reflection by a toadying administration that’ll pull any stunt to save face, and you have a situation in which Bush is trapped within his own perceptions, projecting them outwards onto the world.

This is very aptly shown in Bush’s effusive praise for Tony Blair’s oration skills, whenever the two of them have to speak together. Blair is indeed a fine speaker, of course, but what Bush seems not to grasp is that something like Blair’s fluency tends to be expected of senior politicians the world over. In his bubble-world, however, Bush is calibrated only for himself, so it’s Blair who seems the exception – and therefore worthy of special mention. To Bush, this must seem like a generous compliment, but by overpraising adequacy he merely reminds us of his own inadequacy.

Bush’s bubble extends to his own linguistic problems, too. He praises others to an audience when they show nothing more than basic competency, because he feels sure — projecting his own incompetence as a baseline — that the audience feels the same way he does. It’s both an act of genuine generosity and a calculating attempt to get the crowd on his side. Look, he’s saying, this fancy fellow is all well and good, but he’s not like us ordinary folks, right? Underneath, it’s a way to plead for kinship and belonging. Politically, it’s a smart move. Anti-intellectualism is a big vote-winner in the US.

And so ‘In other words’ is really just an extension of Bush reaching out, having projected his own linguistic ability across the audience as a standard. He’s clarifying for them, because he’s clarifying for himself. He knows they need help to grasp a concept, because he needs help to grasp a concept. It might almost be seen as patronising the audience, talking down to it, but it’s really not. Bush is genuinely talking to the people he sees as equals. This is the sort of thing that happens as a result:

When Social Security was designed, the life expectancy was about 60 years old. In other words, you were expected to live that long.

That’s not the inept parallel parking of the first example. Here, Bush is genuinely trying to be helpful. He feels that the phrase ‘life expectancy’ is complex enough to need some clarification. But he’s clarifying, primarily, for himself. The effect for someone who doesn’t need any clarification is indeed of being talked down to. It’s childishly redundant.


  • Does that make any sense to you? It’s kind of muddled

    Again with the laughter. “Uncomfortable laughter”, maybe? Is this early-onset Alzheimer’s, lack of sleep, or what? North Gare’s main point is actually about Bush’s use of “in other words” as a verbal crutch; have a look.

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