Jump to Navigation

Sound and Fury, Signifying Less and Less | Martin Dyckman

Our Columnists
Informed Personalities from Across the State, Across the Spectrum

Sound and Fury, Signifying Less and Less | Martin Dyckman

Martin Dyckman's picture
Sound and Fury, Signifying Less and Less
Thursday, May 31, 2012 — Martin Dyckman

Although nearly all members of Congress are college graduates, you wouldn't know it from hearing their debate on the House and Senate floors. According to a recent study, they speak like high school sophomores. That's nearly a full grade lower than in 1995.

The Sunlight Foundation, a public interest group dedicated to government transparency, noted that "it's the most moderate members of both parties who speak at the highest grade levels, and the most extreme members who speak at the lowest grade levels." Interestingly, this was most obvious among first-and second-termers. 

The question is whether they're deliberately talking down to the average American, who reads somewhere between the ninth and tenth grade, or whether Congress is simply becoming less educated.

If the latter, it explains their apparent trouble in understanding the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, which promoted its passage. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote like the college men they had been, in an age when higher education pretty much guaranteed erudition.

The ghost of Daniel Webster, the senator legendary for his eloquence, is surely weeping at what's happened to Congress since his death in 1852. But his tears would be shed more over why they speak than over how they say it.

In his day, members debated to inform, impress and persuade each other, a process indispensable to compromise. When compromise finally failed, the Civil War resulted.

What passes for debate today is a cacophony of sound bites intended for the cameras and the campaign commercials. Compromise is not the object; winning elections is.

Perhaps this explains why they seem to say so many stupid things, both on and off the floors of Congress.

Two Floridians made that kind of news recently.

Sen. Marco Rubio did it when he called President Obama the most "divisive" president in "modern political history." Granted, Rubio was unborn when Lyndon Johnson polarized the nation over Vietnam and in diapers during Richard Nixon's Watergate crisis, but someone in his position ought to have learned enough history to know who the divisive presidents truly were and that Obama is not one of them.

It may be, of course, that Rubio is shrewder than he sounds. Students of propaganda will recognize his tactic as that of the criminal transferring his own crimes to the victim. Since before Obama's inauguration -- "I hope he fails!" Rush Limbaugh said -- our president has been bedeviled by a rigid Republican bloc unwilling to compromise on anything, devoted to defeating him above everything else. Rubio wants you to think it's all Obama's fault.

Moreover, by the qualifier "modern," Rubio conveniently overlooked Abraham Lincoln, the first and greatest Republican president, whose election divided the nation quite literally.

The other Floridian with recent foot-in-mouth disease is Rep. Daniel Webster, who is not to be confused with the original. He's the sponsor of a House-passed bill to abolish the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The survey is the basic and often only source of demographic data -- earnings, health care, occupations, education and so on -- that are as vital to industry as to government. More than $400 billion in federal money is distributed according to the survey, but Webster probably figures on stopping all that too.

Webster's dumbest remark in debate was to say the survey is not scientific because it's random. The randomness of it is precisely what makes it scientific.

He objected also that it is a "program that intrudes on people's lives."  This is the same Daniel Webster who as a state legislator thumped for legislation to intrude into the lives of the brain-dead Terri Schiavo and the husband who had won a prolonged court fight to let her die in peace.

The courts set Webster right on that occasion. Perhaps some day the voters will.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. 

© Florida Voices

Comment on this Column Using Facebook

FloridaVoices User Comments

Log in or register to post comments


An old editorial adage comes to mind: "If I had more time, I'd have made it shorter."

If moderates use more complex syntax but simpler syntax proves more persuasive, moderates might best learn to speak in syntax that scores lower "grade levels." Social intelligence implies speaking comprehensibly to the audience.

The question might be whether those who use longer syntax are more intelligent, or whether they're trying to appear more intelligent compared too an average American. Partisan jabs in an editorial column notwithstanding, any potential correlation between syntax complexity and basic intelligence may be irrelevant to persuasiveness of speech. More likely, we attribute greater intelligence to those with whom we agree.

If a sample of my clips were analyzed in one of the grade-level algorithms, I'm sure we'd see that my lowest-grade-level products were those I produced while working a daily crime beat. Why? Daily practice and a deliberate effort.

by Dr. Radut.