Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


Scaling up

In a recent series of articles, Christine MacDonald of the Detroit News has reported on the distressed finances of the Detroit Public Library system, taking a dim view of spending on salaries and perks for senior staff, contracts issued to relatives of administrators, failed fundraising campaigns, large raises for union workers, catering, business cards, and other items at a time when library leaders are contemplating extensive layoffs and branch closures in order to erase a budget deficit of approximately $11 million. Special scorn, however, has been reserved for the recently completed renovation of a wing of the library’s main branch: MacDonald has repeatedly indulged in a morbidly gleeful inventorying of the wing’s furniture, including 20 new chairs and eight new trash cans that cost about $1,100 apiece.

MacDonald’s reporting is fixed squarely within the frame of waste: library leaders, entrusted with public money in a time of economic distress, have spent recklessly on items of little or no value to the public. To be sure, MacDonald’s articles have detailed incidents of nepotism and general financial mismanagement. Viewed in this frame, however, any expenditure at all comes to be seen as a waste. The main branch renovation stands out from the other items MacDonald describes as the only one that can be considered a public asset, something of value to, and accessible to, everyone who comes into contact with the library. As something with a genuine upside, it fits least naturally into the frame of waste.

It is perhaps for this reason that MacDonald expends extra rhetorical energy framing the renovation as a waste of money. Of particular interest is her use of the scalar focus particle even:

Detroit Public Library officials say finances have grown so bad they could close most neighborhood branches, but in a few weeks plan to unveil a revamped wing of a main library that even administrators say spares few expenses.
(Critics: $2.3M Detroit library project a symbol of waste amid budget crisis, Detroit News, Apr. 22, 2011)

The library didn’t buy the 20 chairs from Gingell. But even administrators say the purchase was a mistake.
(Library users deserve $1K chairs, firm rep says, Detroit News, Apr. 26, 2011)

Unions and even some commissioners contend the library wasted money on a $2.3 million renovation of the Main Library’s South Wing that includes 20 European-designed chairs that cost $1,100 apiece, eight stainless steel trash cans that cost $1,110 each and two fireplaces that ran $5,000 a pop.
(Library pays $6,500 for business cards for all, Detroit News, May 5, 2011)

Even associates with focus; in all three cases above, it is prefixed to a focused noun phrase (administrators in the first two examples, some commissioners in the third). While linguists differ on the particulars of the analysis of even, there is general agreement that it invokes a set of alternatives ordered along a scale. Roughly speaking, even says that the proposition expressed is less likely than other relevant alternatives. At the same time, it asserts the truth of this unlikely proposition, leaving us to infer that all of the more likely alternatives are true as well.

To take an example from above, relevant alternatives to the proposition Administrators say the purchase was a mistake might include Library staff say the purchase was a mistake, Library patrons say the purchase was a mistake, City officials say the purchase was a mistake, Local taxpayers say the purchase was a mistake, and so on. The key implication is that administrators are relatively unlikely to view the purchase as a mistake. Perhaps this is because they were the ones who made the purchase; perhaps it is because they are wasteful by nature. Even leaves us to imagine our own reasons for why administrators would be unlikely to look unfavorably upon the purchase; but its use requires that we accept that basic premise and invent a reason, whatever it may be.

With our reason in mind and the unlikelihood premise accepted, we are led to infer that everyone else (and thus we) must believe the purchase to be a mistake, too. Even the administrators admit as much! The logic of scalar inference introduced by even is subtle but powerful. In this case, it serves to mask the fact that, once we step away from MacDonald’s rhetorical frame, the wastefulness of the main branch renovation is not self-evident. Viewed through other frames, such as those of investment or revival, the renovation takes on a different cast altogether. From the financial dysfunction of the Detroit Public Library administration, a truly lovely new public asset has emerged. That’s something that even the Detroit News should be able to appreciate.


Chromatic relativity and contrastive focus

From today’s New York Times coverage of the Canadian election:

“The key to understanding Stephen Harper is his determination to establish the Conservative Party as the dominant party in Canada,” said Michael Bliss, a historian. “He wants to gradually shift the shade of government from red to blue.” In Canada, the Conservatives are blue.

What is striking about the final sentence in the excerpt above—apart from its oddly terse, field-guide–like tone—is its economical handling of the implicit contrast with American political color terminology. An American audience needs the final sentence above not just because it knows nothing of Canadian political color associations, but because those associations are exactly the opposite of what they are in the US. The swift cultural entrenchment of red–blue color-coding in American politics that has taken place since the 2000 presidential election (and the associated brief reign of Tim Russert’s whiteboard) makes Michael Bliss’s final comment above seem like a misstatement or a typo before we arrive at the final explanatory sentence.

It is no accident, then, that the final sentence begins with the prepositional phrase In Canada. This immediately establishes a contrast with the reader’s location and paves the way for the contrastive focus to come. Consider, for comparison, the following reformulation: The Canadian Conservative Party’s official color is blue. This gets the facts right, but does not invite the contrast with American political color terminology that the original does. In the reformulation, a crucial part of the explanation is missing; as a result, the sentence is far more awkward.

The contrastive focus itself, with its associated prosodic emphasis, falls most naturally on the adjective, blue. That is, the implicit contrast seems to be with a sentence like In America, the conservatives are red (this despite the fact that “the conservatives” is not the name of any American political party). But the focus could instead fall on the subject, the Conservatives; the implicit contrast then would be with the sentence In America, the Democrats are blue. Even if the first option is the preferred one, the availability of the second indicates that there are two questions under discussion: “What color are the Conservatives?” and “Who is blue?” The first arises from the mention of politically associated colors in the midst of a discussion of the Canadian Conservative Party. The second arises from the implicit contrast with American political colors, where blue has an altogether different association. The subtleties of linguistic information packaging are on full display in that odd short sentence.