Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Close-Reading the News

I spend a lot of time dissecting text, and sometimes it's hard to turn that part of my brain off just because I'm reading the newspaper or listening to NPR.  So an odd extended metaphor caught my attention this morning because it is an odd combination of slightly offensive, badly constructed and just wrong.

NPR ran a story about the Supreme Court hearing a case about whether US citizens born in Jerusalem can say they were born in Jerusalem, Israel, or whether they just have to list Jersualem with no national modification in their passports. It's a labeling issue and has no bearing on dual citizenship.

But it described the scene in court with the following two paragraphs:

Inside the Supreme Court chamber, it was a weird day from the get-go. The hands on the clock were so out of whack that at one point, they were literally spinning. And when the justices walked to their places on the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had to move aside Justice Stephen Breyer, who was about to sit in her seat by mistake.
It was an omen of an even stranger argument. The court's most conservative members, all of whom made their professional bones in Republican administrations aggressively advocating for executive power, seemed now quite hostile to executive powers that date back to George Washington's time. And the court's three Jewish justices seemed pretty unsympathetic to the Jewish plaintiffs.

The reporter seems to be expressing surprise that the Jewish justices should seem skeptical of the Jewish plaintiffs. First of all, there's nothing strange about that. Jewish people disagree with each other all. the. time. It's such common knowledge that it's the source of a variety of well-known jokes. Second of all, it's also a pretty well-known phenomenon that people who belong to religious or ethnic minorities and occupy positions of power will take care not to give the impression of being overly sympathetic to their own community. She's expressing surprise about something that is, on many levels, not surprising.

The construction of the metaphor itself is flawed, too, and doesn't actually bear out the shock that the reporter is trying to convey. I don't know about Nina Totenberg's clocks, but my clocks and watches malfunction or stop or run out of batteries not constantly but with enough regularity that it's not really a surprising thing. So in effect, what she's saying is that Jews disagreeing with each other is an occurrence similar to clocks malfunctioning, that is, a common one. To my mind, that is the correct analogy; but, as evidenced by her opening sentence — "It was a weird day from the get-go" — the commonplace was not what she was trying to express. So she is expressing surprise about something that is not surprising and doing so with a metaphor that, once you actually look at what is comparing, doesn't illustrate "the unusual" very well.

Hey, if Jimmy Fallon can slow-jam the news, then I can close-read it.

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