There are plenty of solecisms printed every day, and we comment on a small sample of them here on Language Log -- but Andrew Sullivan usually doesn't.Okay, this is actually quite complicated.
In fact, I'm not sure that he's ever commented on a grammatical point before, or indeed on any other question of usage that doesn't involve the interpretation of a politically-charged word like "islamist" (or "christianist", a term that Sullivan has done much to popularize)....
So it's hardly a stretch to guess that Andrew is truculent to Angelou because she is very much not of his political kind.
Some other conservative bloggers have reacted in similar ways. Thus John Derbyshire, apparently without a hint of irony, compared Maya Angelou to William MacGonagall under the title "Voice of the master" (NRO the corner, 2/2/2007).
Come on, you pundits. The analysis of word choice, sentence structure, and meaning is an honorable calling, and we linguists are always happy to have company. But if you're going to pounce on Maya Angelou's malapropism without saying anything about the alleged proliferation of Bushisms, or Tony Snow's misuse of "inveigling", or Lawrence Henry's odd use of "slurry", or any of the rest of the daily parade of politically-relevant points of usage, people might get the idea that your linguistics is really politics.
1. Of course, for most political pundits, linguistics is probably going to be used as a weapon and aimed at targets of choice.
2. Some political pundits -- I include myself -- are interested enough in language to write commentary on the subject, and that commentary may stand apart from politics or be completely interwoven with political opinion. It varies.
3. Speaking of politics, Mark Liberman is himself making a political move of sorts. He's claiming sovereignty over the linguistics field. The implicit argument is that a scholarly domain belongs to the scholars, and that scholars are known by their neutrality. He is nice enough to say he's happy to have company though.
4. Sullivan may be choosing his targets based on politics, but Liberman hasn't proven it. He assumes -- because Sullivan calls himself a conservative? -- that Sullivan doesn't have Bush as a target -- but Sullivan is contemptuous of Bush. If you search for "Bushism" on Sullivan's blog, you can find him quoting a Bushism.
5. Attacking Maya Angelou may very well have nothing to do with politics. I mean, look at the quote Sullivan mocks:
The walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty, which she railed against valiantly all her public life, have not fallen, but their truculence to do so does not speak against her determination to make them collapse.That writing style is incredibly annoying. Sullivan calls it "pretentiousness, self-righteousness and lame, exhausted metaphors." He's right! When you're reading something that bad and then you find a plain error, you're motivated to point out the error. The ridiculous reverence shown toward Maya Angelou -- reflected in the WaPo's nonexistent editing -- is one more thing that makes you want to pick on her. It's not necessarily politics.
The "she" in the Angelou quote is Molly Ivins, who died recently. After looking at that bad writing, you may want to refresh yourself with some really good writing.
UPDATE: Liberman responds and disagrees with my point #3:
Claiming sovereignty? On the contrary.Well, sovereigns allow visitors.... on their terms.
At the end of my LSA talk on "The future of linguistics", I did suggest that our field could learn from Linus Torvald's 1995 plan for Linux: "World domination. Fast". But the recipe for success, I argued, is inclusiveness. We ought to welcome the participation of anyone interested in speech and language, including Andrew Sullivan and Ann Althouse. (Who had some interesting things to say yesterday about "When one word is funnier than another".)
I admit -- and I think my choice of words shows it -- that I was reading between the lines. Mark says maybe I didn't read well enough or maybe he should write more clearly, but I was looking for implications. While it's true that he could try harder to block implications, he can't -- even by appealing to my pride and casting aspersions on my reading ability -- stop me from speculating about the motivations of writers. I'm a law professor. I have to read judicial opinions all the time. The judges are constantly laying out their purported reasoning, and I'd be a fool to accept that at face value.
Another thing is that Mark edited the key paragraph after I formed an opinion about it and was in the middle of writing about it. The original version lacked the references to Snow and Henry and -- I believe -- ended with the words "people might get the idea that linguistics is really politics" (as opposed to "your linguistics").
The notion was -- and remains, though not as clearly -- that linguistics is a field of scholarship, an "honorable calling," and as such, it requires the exclusion of politics. I say this implicitly claims sovereignty over the field: I say what linguistics is, and it's something politics-free. You can come to my territory, but on my terms. If your use of linguistics is politicized, I claim the power to deport you. This is a political move, and it's not just the politics of the academy. It is an attempt -- albeit implicit -- to preserve the special authority of the expert in all sort of public dialogues.