June 22, 2006

An editorial conflict of interest at Slate?

Yesterday, Ann Althouse offered Slate well-deserved congratulations on its 10th anniversary ("The usual Slate plus a spate", 6/21/2006), while registering an equally well-deserved complaint about Jacob Weisberg's little cottage industry in Bushisms:

Oh, Slate is exasperating at times. Jacob Weisberg keeps cranking out his Bushisms, maybe just to keep Slate critics from noticing other problems. They're so damned distracting. Look, he's got a new one up there now:

"I tell people, let's don't fear the future, let's shape it."

What's even supposed to be wrong with that? The phrase "let's don't" is standard English. Is there something off about thinking people fear the future? Is the idea of shaping the future too arrogant and unrealistic? Come on, Weisberg, that's no "Is our children learning?"

The day before, Eugene Volokh made the same point about the same BotD:

Here's today's Bushism of the Day, "the president's accidental wit and wisdom," from Slate:

"So we'll bring our ideas, they'll bring theirs, let's clarify the differences, let's don't say bad things about our opponents."

Whoops, sorry, wrong President -- that's actually from President Clinton. The Bushism of the Day today is really this:

"Let's don't just talk about it. Let's actually do it, by passing the legislation."

Rats! Screwed up again -- that's actually from Vice President Gore. Here, and this time I'm serious, is today's actual Bushism of the Day:

"I tell people, let's don't fear the future, let's shape it." -- Omaha, Neb., June 7, 2006

As best I can tell, the only supposed flub -- the only supposed humor -- here is "let's don't." (Without that, the phrase isn't terribly rich in content, but neither are "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," or a wide range of other perfectly normal exhortations from political leaders.)

Yet it's a flub only in the sense that departure from the standard Northeastern/West Coast elite spoken English is a flub. If you search for "let's don't," you'll find it used routinely in spoken English, chiefly (as best I can tell from my searches) by people from flyover country.

Eugene Volokh cites The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, where Ken Wilson says that ""There are three negative idioms: Let’s not stay, Don’t let’s stay, and Let’s don’t stay. All are Standard, although Let’s don’t is more typically American than Don’t let’s, which is more typically British."

In this case, I think Ken is missing a nuance. All three idioms might be Standard, but "let's not" is a lot commoner:

let's not
let's don't
don't let's

"Let's not" is 118 times commoner than "let's don't" on Google, 95 times commoner on Yahoo, 98 times commoner on MSN. In news-oriented indices, the ratios tend to be larger:

  Google News Yahoo News MSN News
let's not
let's don't
don't lets

That's a ratio of 304 in Google News, 169 in Yahoo News, and 41,438 in MSN News (where something strange is going on in this case). 3 of the 10 "let's don't" examples from Google News are Bush quotes; the other 7 are from NC, LA, TX, AL (2), LA(2) -- that's not just fly-over country, it's more specifically the American south.

My impression is that "let's don't" is not only somewhat more informal that "let's not" -- which will already be tagged as informal by some because of the contraction -- but also is in commoner use in the south. (There are four examples of "let's don't" in a corpus of telephone conversations that I searched, three used by southerners and one by someone from a "midland" state, a region that includes places like Oklahoma and Missouri. The 67 instances of "let's not" are from all over.)

The New York Times search (since 1981) turn up 3,241 examples of "let's not" versus 62 examples of "let's don't", for a ratio of (only) 52. This evidence confirms that both idioms are informal: a spot check of the first 20 hits for "let's not" reveals that are all from letters, Op-Ed pieces and quotations in news articles -- except for one use in a book review:

"Neff, let us assume, wants permanent insurance against Keyes's subtle inquisition into the ostensible claims of his sexual life." Oh, come on, let's not assume it.

And the NYT search is also consistent with the view that "let's don't" is associated with southern speech. Among the first 10 examples, 5 are quotes from American southerners, or in one case from an African-American from a northern state:

Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, added, ''Let's don't play games with their lives.''
''Let's don't say one word to anybody,'' Mulkey-Robertson [Baylor basketball coach] said.
Walter and Betsy Cronkite sat at a corner table with Andy Rooney and his daughter Emily. ''We've been coming here 23 years,'' Mr. Cronkite said before his wife added tartly: ''Let's don't lie about our age. It's 43 years.''
At the 1999 Gridiron Dinner, Mr. Clinton won over the room when he looked back at the impeachment ordeal and said: ''Let's don't kid each other. This was an awful year. It was a year I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.'' Pause. ''I take that back.''
''It was a mayor accomplishment in the final analysis,'' he said. ''I'm happy to share credit with the City Council. But let's don't get carried away with it.'' [David N. Dinkins]

3 are in quotes from sources whose sociolinguistic origin I don't know:

The lyrics and music, written by Mr. Mills, are a pastiche of influences - Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan - without ever really having a voice of their own. Still, there are a few songs - "Class," "Letters to Boys," "If Only" and "Let's Don't" - that are nicely wrought, making one wish that Mr. Mills and Ms. Reichel had further honed their work.
''These are bad folks, and let's don't forget that,'' Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr. of the Air Force, the new deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington.
'You didn't cross Oli lightly. He let you know just what he thought. At 13, he'd say, 'I don't agree with you, Mom, but let's don't argue about it.' ''

and two are quotes from northerners as reported (or invented) by people (I believe to be) of southern background:

''I remember Howard at the time was very good at sizing up people,'' Mr. Hudspeth said. ''He'd cut to the chase, every time. He'd say, 'Let's don't bother with that guy, he's too contentious, we'll never convince him.' Instead, we worked on some other guy. Howard was always a few steps ahead.'' [Thomas Hudspeth quoting Howard Dean]
Huber pauses, as if considering what he's going to say next, then: ''You just killed somebody, Win. Let's don't talk politics.'' [from a serial novel by Patricia Cornwell]

All of this underlines the points that Ann Althouse and Eugene Volokh made:

  • "let's not" and "let's don't" are both informal but widely-used idioms;
  • "let's don't" is less common and has southern-states associations;
  • Jacob Weisberg is engaging in cynical manipulation of regional and class prejudice in order to enrich himself.

Well, they didn't actually say that last part -- I'll take responsibility for it myself.

For several years, I've joined others in complaining about the preposterous over-reaching of the Bushisms industry (see below for some links). The individual cases are just like any disagreement over usage: we argue over what linguistic norms really are, what they should be, and why. But there's a broader pattern here, and it's not just that many people dislike President George W. Bush and are happy to find a linguistic focus for their feelings. That's the demand side of the industry, and it's obvious. However, there's something to say about the supply side as well: the Bushisms industry apparently accounts for a significant portion of Jacob Weisberg's income, and he's the editor of Slate, who gets to decide which "Bushisms" to print and how often to print them.

Amazon.com lists mroe than two dozen Bushisms products, including at least five book-length collections, various special editions ("The Deluxe Election Edition", etc.), yearly quote-a-day calendars, wall posters, refrigerator magnets, and even a DVD. Stacks of Bushism-objects for sale are prominently displayed in most bookstores that I visit. This is not a flash in the publishing pan -- it's been going on for almost six years. Maybe someone who knows the publishing industry better than I do can estimate what Weisberg's royalty payments from this enterprise are like, but I'm pretty confident that they're in the same range as what he makes at his day job as editor of Slate. (I'm assuming that the royalties go to Weisberg as author, and not to Slate as the magazine where the Bushisms were originally published -- the copyright pages read "Copyright 200X by Jacob Weisberg").

There's nothing wrong with this in general -- Americans have been excoriating their leaders since the republic was founded, and a good thing, too.We can disagree about the principles and the details involved, and that's also as it should be. And when someone writes books that others want to buy, (s)he makes money, and that's likewise fitting and proper.

But isn't there something wrong when a magazine editor, whose job is making judgments about what is and is not worthy of publication, makes much of his income from re-publication of collections of a feature whose instances are so often so spectacularly superfluous? Does anyone think that Jacob Weisberg would consider very many of these "Bushisms" worth the space in his (excellent) magazine and the attention of his readers (which include me), if he wasn't making money from George W. Bushisms, Still More George W. Bushisms, ..., George W. Bushisms V, Bushisms 2006 Day to Day Calendar, etc.; and if he didn't foresee the need to fill the pages of George W. Bushisms VI, the Bushisms 2008 Day to Day Calendar, and on and on? and if he didn't have a personal financial motivation for keeping the Bushisms brand and the Bushisms product line in the public eye?

As journalistic conflicts of interest go, I guess this is a venial one. It's not like the DNC is slipping envelopes of cash to Weisberg to reward him for making fun of the president. (Instead, Simon & Schuster is sending him quarterly royalty checks to reward him for making fun of the president.) But you no longer need to wonder why in the world a series of fluent and sensible statements by W, which would never be noticed if anyone else produced them, are routinely displayed on Slate as Bushisms. Just follow the money.

Some posts on related topics:

"'Too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence'" (10/10/2003)
"You say Nevada, I say Nevahda" (1/3/2004)
"Non-Bushism of the day" (1/27/2004)
"Sauce for the gander" (4/22/2004)
"Weisbergism of the week" (4/27/2004)
"A CNN-ism" (6/18/2004)
"Two paradigms of eloquence" (7/26/2004)
"Gibson Scores a 'Bushism', with an assist to Kerry" (10/9/2004)
"Beware linguistic and political stereotypes" (10/12/2004)
"Ceci n'est pas un Bushism" (10/15/2004)
"Wilgoren invents a trend" (10/25/2004)
"Fasten = Grecian?" (5/18/2005)
"Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed" (7/9/2005)
"And they're just as ignorant as it used to do" (19/19/2005)
"Don't read it as something more than it's not" (10/29/2005)
"Has George W. Bush become more disfluent?" (11/17/2005)
"Trends in presidential disfluency" (11/26/2005)
"Trembling to be wrong" (12/20/2005)
"People that would do ourselves harm" (1/13/2006)
"Chinian, not Chinese?" (1/26/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 22, 2006 08:53 AM