[An e-mail exchange between my sister J and I shortly after Barack Obama was elected President. We discuss the connection between thought, speech, and problem-solving ability. It began with an article by political satirist Andy Borowitz.]
J writes: Thought you might get a kick out of this...seems like an Onion article, but not sure it is... whatever, it's funny!
In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.
Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama's appearance on CBS' "Sixty Minutes" on Sunday witnessed the president-elect's unorthodox verbal tick, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.
But Mr. Obama's decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.
According to presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, some Americans might find it "alienating" to have a President who speaks English as if it were his first language.
"Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement," says Mr. Logsdon. "If he keeps it up, he is running the risk of sounding like an elitist."
The historian said that if Mr. Obama insists on using complete sentences in his speeches, the public may find itself saying, "Okay, subject, predicate, subject predicate - we get it, stop showing off."
The President-elect's stubborn insistence on using complete sentences has already attracted a rebuke from one of his harshest critics, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
"Talking with complete sentences there and also too talking in a way that ordinary Americans like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder can't really do there, I think needing to do that isn't tapping into what Americans are needing also," she said.
I respond: So funny! And yet so sad. Neither Bush nor Palin can articulate their thoughts worth a damn. One is our current President and the other aspires to the office. The public is supposed to find this charming or cute, rather than frightening and disqualifying.
Though I deal with computer languages and not spoken languages, my job is to put thoughts into written words. That’s what programming is. All day, every day I hear from users of our software, “I thought it would work this way.” “I want it to do this for me.” “Yeah, it’s supposed to that, but in my case here it should really do this.” “Last week I did A and B and got C. This week I got D. What gives? (Completely ignoring X, Y, and Z.) Etc… Lots of isolated descriptions of how they thought the system would behave, or how they’d like the system to behave, with little regard for the conflicting demands of other users.
It is my job to extract the common patterns, reconcile the discrepancies, and codify a written set of instructions that solve the problem for all users and all business cases with satisfactory performance. The ability to think analytically is very important. But so is the ability to communicate verbally and in writing. Verbal and written communication is absolutely essential to understanding the business problem you’re asked to solve. Solving the wrong problem is no good, right? Neither is it any use to the business if I understand the problem perfectly but fail to write a coherent set of instructions to achieve a solution.
I’ve done this long enough that I can have a short conversation with a programmer and know within a few minutes how capable they are. Their skill with verbal communication is highly predictive of their ability to synthesize complex business and computer problems into functioning code. If you can’t think straight you won’t speak straight. If you can’t speak straight, you won’t code straight. As simple as that.
Is the President somehow exempt from this correlation between thought, speech, and problem-solving ability?
When George W. Bush was running for president back in 1999 there were very many talking heads telling the general population not to be concerned with the man’s stammering rhetoric. “Don’t worry, he’ll surround himself with good people. He’ll be the MBA president. He knows how to assemble a team of advisors.” I remember telling Dad
"Is the President somehow exempt from this correlation between thought, speech, and problem-solving ability?"
how utterly unconvinced I was when one experienced hand after another was quoted in the paper saying “He’s much different in private. He asks good questions. He communicates well.” Bullshit, I thought. Seems awfully suspicious that the man is coherent only when no one is watching. Muddled speech is indicative of a muddled mind. If you are smart, and have thought deeply about a topic, and organized your thoughts, you will find a way to express them. Through written words, speaking extemporaneously, through music or visual imagery- one way or another you will find a way to express your thoughts clearly. This has little to do with formal education. I’ve listened to many old school blues musicians who grew up in the Jim Crow South, were denied an education, and yet can paint a vibrant picture with words that indicates their eyes were open the whole time. They didn’t miss a thing and are able to convey their impression to the audience. Synthesizing experience into words and melody takes brains.
If a person isn’t able to express himself clearly in any forum, that indicates he hasn’t been paying attention or isn’t able or interested in understanding what is happening around him. And yet very many supposedly smart people told the nation eight years ago that George W. Bush was exempt from this rule. Fucking morons! These are the same people who now, having seen the destruction wrought by our President, express their disappointment in the man. Well call me an elitist, but I am very disappointed in them for their terrible judgment when evaluating the candidate.
OK, I feel better now.
J responds: When I replied to my boss I said the same thing: so funny. although, kinda sad it's so funny...
I couldn't agree with you more. You have no problem communicating your thoughts through words, written or spoken. In fact, you do it at such an exemplary level that I had to look up a word. Pffff! Can you guess which word?
But seriously, W has been a disaster of a president and an embarrassment to the nation. I don't think we could have elected a bigger idiot to represent us, let along "lead" us. I still think about that ridiculous "deal breaker" type question during the election 4 years ago: Who would you rather have a beer with? Bush or Kerry? Ummmm, I'm sorry what! This is the question you're basing your vote on? Can I vote you off the island or something? We're not electing our 5th grade student council president! This is for real. Like a real job, and an extremely important one for that matter! Talk about fucking morons!