Sunday, December 14, 2014

Common Folks

Every day, President Obama awakens to a world filled with serious problems. Ebola, terrorism, racism, torture, unemployment, incarceration, ISIL, Putin, al-Assad, Hamas. Attached to each word, to each name is a seriousness that evokes very deep emotions. Each one occupies the President's thoughts, and collectively they define the space in which we all reside.

President Obama is nothing if not precise and very careful in his response to each crisis that is laid before him. His greatest strength lays in his intelligence and his ability to express our worries, our fears and our hopes in clear and powerful terms. He is the polar opposite of his predecessor, who appeared to intentionally perpetuate the image of himself as a simple man by speaking often in a comically inelegant manner.

Yet, there is one word that has bridged the gulf between George W. and the current holder of the highest office. One word that each of these men called upon again and again. One word that seemed jarringly inappropriate in the context of the moment but has arisen, over and over. One word that unites two men with such different political philosophies and ways of communicating their thoughts. That one word is "folks."

In response to our emerging national conversation concerning the recognition that we are very far removed from a post-racial society, President Obama spoke of the ongoing problem relating to black "folks." It struck a discordant note with me and I wondered how often he had called upon that word in different contexts, for it forever seemed to pepper his conversations.

The answer is a lot.  A recent article in BuzzFeed found that word appeared at least 348 times during President Obama's news conferences. It determined that for every 10,000 words uttered in these settings 7.3 was that one congenial, non-threatening, non-confrontational word. Folks.

The runner up in the use, or over-use, belonged to George W. Bush, but his reliance on that term paled in comparison with the current record holder, being less than half as prevalent. That is not to say that the former record holder did not cause some significant consternation with the application of this word.

Whether it be in reference to Al Qaeda as "the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th" or as Islamist fascists as that "extremist group of folks",  it was not an uncommon turn of events for President Bush to somehow refer to the people who had, in his opinion, led us directly into what may arguably be the most ill conceived conflict this country has ever entered into, with a word that we perceive to have no malevolence attached to it.

And if the use by President Bush was somehow startling in its juxtaposition to the gravity of the issue, it seems President Obama has amplified and expanded its application.

It was reported that during the second of the  2012 Presidential debates, Mr. Obama used the word folks on 17 occasions,on subjects as diverse as gun control: "automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers"; illegal immigration: "deport folks"; and the murders at the Libyan embassy: "I know these folks killed."

In a recent interview on "60 Minutes" President Obama spoke of the strategy to be utilized in confronting the then newly emerging terrorist group, ISIL : "We've got to get Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly.These folks do not represent us. They do not represent Islam". During that same conversation he defended his failure to arm Syrian rebels against Bashir al-Assad contending it was not correct to assert that if "we had given those folks some guns two and a half years ago, that Syria would have been fine."

Perhaps the President's most well remembered, and some would say tortured use of that word came in August of this year when he responded to allegations of CIA abuse of prisoners by stating "we tortured some folks.". This seemingly far too casual reference even led to the creations of a twitter hashtag "#wetorturedsomefolks."

Yet the use of this word is not confined to the most virulent of situations or aggressive foes. Years before, in discussing those who opposed passage of his proposed health care plan, he stated that "some of those same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought Medicare in the past.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reviewed the range of circumstances to which this word affixed in a July, 2014  press conference: " The president used the word “folks” eleven times, referring to a variety of groups including workers, critics, healthcare-seekers, the Border Patrol, the general public, the Central Intelligence Agency, Africans, and potential Ebola victims."

So, what conclusions can be drawn from the President's reliance on one innocuous word? Is it intended to humanize Mr. Obama, who has often seemed distant from both the electorate and from those in Washington who clearly find him remote and unapproachable? Is it meant to reduce the level of fear or concern that attaches to the most seemingly dangerous of adversaries or circumstances? Or is it merely the natural tendencies in his language, a word that both he and President Bush find easy and comfortable in their conversation?

It is hard to discern what motivation lies behind the constant use of this word. If meant to make the President seem less an intellectual elite and more a common man, I would suggest that it has failed to achieve its purpose. If it was a way to reduce anxiety in the public as to the toxic level of our enemies, I do believe that hyperventilated language can exacerbate (see the recent dialogue regarding the Ebola quarantine) and that common relatable phrases, in limited dosage and in proper context, can minimize anxieties. If it be only a term of comfort, that assists this President, and the one before him, in making each of the pressing issues of the day a little less personally cumbersome, then I can appreciate why this word has become so prevalent in presidential speech.

But whatever the rationale, "folks" has become a term that jars my senses a bit and troubles my soul. For me, it has lost its meaning by becoming a generic. It no longer strikes me as a term of informality or closeness, but rather as a word that makes me stop and lose context of what comes before or after.

I would merely ask the President to follow the sage advise of Porky Pig that was the punctuation mark at the conclusion of each of his episodes.


Anonymous said...

This is another one of your great pieces.


Anonymous said...

That's all folks


Michael Gansl said...

Very astute piece. However, I'm not quite sure about your advice.