John Kerry and ‘you’

Senator Kerry and the GOP machine is making my life as a teacher easy. I just talked about unidentified antecedents in class Monday, and here he is, getting in huge hot water over the same thing. It’s language in action. I have a great real-world example for next class.

The NYT, as usual, completely botched explaining the quote in its eagerness to look fair – actually, they didn’t even bother trying. They need someone sharper on staff.

It’s always worth it to go and look at a transcript or video to make a real judgment based on context rather than secondhand rumor. This is the original news article, I believe, suggesting his comment was part of a warm-up act of bad one-liners, including Bush living in a “state of denial.” This video clip gives the actual quote, but very little before or after. Inconclusive so far… but Chris Matthews of MSNBC appears to have read a transcript or seen unedited footage that has yet to appear online. He may be alone – I can’t find anyone else who even claims to have seen one. But he references the “state of denial” joke and opines that Kerry is talking about Bush:

MATTHEWS: [I]f you listen to the transition of words there, it clearly looks like he was talking about President Bush being in a state of denial, not realizing when he took us into Iraq what he was going to face because he didn’t study hard in school.

Now if you take the quote out of context and leave it by itself (as nearly every news source has parroted) then the ‘you’ is left to the imagination:

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Bush is not mentioned in this sentence, and the connotation shifts to a generic ‘you’ without the explicit understanding that ‘you’ is Bush, getting stuck in Iraq because he didn’t do his homework in gathering good intelligence. It’s a vague or unidentified antecedent – in this case, the identifier is in previous remarks that go unquoted. Kerry’s own defense of the quote is consistent with this – the joke was for Bush.

So Kerry is guilty of nothing, alas, but leaving his pronouns without support. The media couldn’t follow this, probably due to lack of a good transcript, apparently, though Matthews was on his toes. The heavily cropped video on Google and YouTube, too, avoids the context. But the damage, of course, has been done… a classic case of a sound bite that in turn bites the speaker.

More interesting than Kerry’s poor pronoun usage, though, is the automatic assumption of who the ‘you’ was. Almost universally, the news, the politicians asked to comment, etc, upon hearing or reading the quote knee-jerk assume that soldiers were being maligned as uneducated slackers and that smart students can avoid going to Iraq, yadda yadda.

I suspect there is a stereotype of members of the military that lies at the root of this knee-jerk interpretation. In searching for the transcript or a video, I saw a lot of military members defending themselves against this perceived ‘attack’ – and all quite unnecessarily. Think for a second. Kerry is a vet. A decorated one, no less. Reason would suggest that in all likelihood such a quote is out of context. No American politician, not even Dan Quayle at his dimmest (there’s a stereotype for you), knowingly or unknowingly insults the troops. But, of course, the GOP is awfully good at tarnishing war heroes that don’t share their politics.

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