Home > Uncategorized > An ill-considered paddle in political literary commentary, or: whither the SAT essay?

An ill-considered paddle in political literary commentary, or: whither the SAT essay?

November 22, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

This year has simultaneously cast the Trump impeachment hearings and the SAT essay across my desk, and the coincidence is not a happy one.
I promise to keep this essentially non-partisan. I also promise to get back to blogging about games and adjacent matters right after this.

My point is one of style in writing, arguing, and, ultimately, thinking.

The Standard Aptitude Test (SAT) is a rite of passage for any US kid planning to go to college. The essay portion of the test, where you have to analyze a text and show how it works, is theoretically an optional add-on, but it’s important for some colleges, so for practical purposes, it’s required.

The task of the essay is always the same:

Consider how the author uses;
       – evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
       – reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
       – stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add              power to the ideas expressed.

The text to be analyzed varies, but it’s almost always a speech by a politician. Usually it’s something classic, like JFK’s Rice Stadium speech, where he talks about going to the moon before the end of the decade.

So every ambitious kid in America gets acculturated into norms of political speech-writing by being required to explain what speech-writers are up to. They must recognize glowing phrases, persuasive tactics, and sprinklings of statistics. They are expressly told not to engage with them as content, just to describe their operation as elements of rhetoric.

And I’ve been thinking that in this, the writers of the SAT exams are terribly out of date. Let’s imagine applying this discipline to a speech by Donald Trump. Say, his press conference with Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India:

“Well, my personal chemistry is as good as it can get, I have great respect, I have great admiration, and I really like him, that’s another thing. And he’s a great gentleman and a great leader. And I remember India before. Now, not intimately, but I remember India before and it was very torn, it was a lot of dissension, a lot of fighting, and he brought it all together, like a father would bring it together, and maybe he’s the father of India, we’ll call him the father of India that’s not so bad. But he brought things together, you don’t hear that anymore. So I think he’s done a fantastic job, but what the event showed is how much I like the country of India, and how much I like your Prime Minister. There was tremendous spirit in that room too, and they love this gentleman to my right, they really do. Those people went crazy. That was like Elvis, that was like an American, he’s like an American version of Elvis, it’s like you brought in the middle of an all-American deal, Elvis Presley came back. It was, he was quite something. They love your Prime Minister. It’s a great thing.”

Am I being unfair, putting off-the-cuff remarks from a video up against JFK’s prepared speeches? Yes. But, to be fair, Trump hardly ever sticks to his notes and rambles off the cuff on any and all occasions. If the quotable political speech is not dead, it’s not because Trump hasn’t been trying to kill it.

Is there anything in the speech that one could build an SAT response out of? There’s a brief nod to evidence and reason, in the appeal to India’s supposed “fighting” before Modi and its supposed “togetherness” now, but we don’t actually know what “togetherness” means or what Modi did (in truth, nothing. Also there’s a genocidal war going on in Kashmir, so um plenty of fighting and dissension). It’s essentially all emotional appeal but of a curiously blank sort, based on the most general of personal impressions – “great,” “tremendous spirit,” “went crazy.” The assertion “we’ll call him the father of India” actively advertises the fact that Trump just made the epithet up. Maybe that’s emotive use of language, but I’m not sure what emotion it’s supposed to conjure up, nor whom it is supposed to serve – Modi (the “American Elvis”), or Trump himself as bestower of honors? If students are supposed to understand this sort of speech making (or that of Lindsay Graham, or of Jim Johnson or Devin Nunes in the impeachment hearings), they will need very different analytical tools – maybe some sense of how memes spread on social media and the rates at which different catchphrases decay or distort in collective memory. The essay should probably be submitted in the form of a series of retweets, to be read only in real time.

But then this week I heard two exemplary SAT type speeches, from Fiona Hill and Alexander Vintman, and it seems the art has not been entirely lost. Both deploy evidence, argument, and emotive elements aplenty (logos, ethos and pathos, in the parlance of the NY school system). And I suspect they both made the writers of the SAT exams breathe a huge sigh of relief: now they have fodder for a few years to come.

Funnily enough, as testimony they’re not supposed to take pains to persuade, they’re just supposed to be submitted as evidence – fuel for later persuasive political speechification. But;
(a) who cares about nonsense like that, this is Congress!
and
(b) both speakers evidently felt they needed to do some persuading, as a matter of self defense against smears, partly from the people they were speaking to directly. In particular, both speeches take enormous pains to excuse their speakers’ foreign origins and to cast those speakers in the mold of ideal American patriots.

Vintman, born in  Ukraine but raised from a very young age in the US, can point to his uniform and purple heart as signs of his right to speak as a proper American. He concludes with a reliable heart-tug call-out to family, while doing proper obeisance to American myths (or values) of freedom and civilization:

“Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family.”

The US just beat the USSR all over again, right here in this speech. Truly, we are better. And Vintman also cleverly adds potential blowback to any attempt by friends of Putin to have him assassinated for his role in the proceedings: he was just saying how we’re better than that. It’s like that time Caliph Uthman was killed while praying and his blood splattered on the Koran – not a good look for the killers.

Hill has a harder time with the patriot talk because her voice is so obviously British – specifically, Yorkshire. But, having heard Vintman’s tour de force a few days before, she manages to hook herself onto Vintman’s shiny star via her father’s WW2 service, making him into an American patriot who suffered the misfortune of being born in the wrong country, and herself into the belated realization of his destiny:

my father loved America, its culture, its history and its role as a beacon of hope in the world. He always wanted someone in the family to make it to the United States.”

Then she repeats Vintman’s obeisance to the myths of American freedom and opportunity by, ironically and ingeniously, talking about her accent:

this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America.”

So as part of her speech apologizing for her unAmerican accent, she makes a virtue out of how America disregards her accent. It’s a rhetorical coup de main.

I think if the SAT essay can teach an appreciation for that sort of use of language, then it’s still absolutely relevant.

Here are the two speeches in full, not so that you feel you have to read them but because the internet is a fickle mistress and if I just link them, sooner or later those links will die:

Alexander Vindman’s opening statement at today’s impeachment hearings
(reproduced with ads removed from Politico, 11/19/2019 09:53 AM EST)

Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member, thank you for the opportunity to address the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence with respect to the activities relating to Ukraine and my role in the events under investigation.

Background
I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America. For more than two decades, it has been my honor to serve as an officer in the United States Army. As an infantry officer, I served multiple overseas tours, including South Korea and Germany, and I was deployed to Iraq for combat operations. Since 2008, I have been a Foreign Area Officer specializing in European and Eurasian politico-military affairs. I served in the United States embassies in Kiev, Ukraine and Moscow, Russia.

In Washington, D.C., I was a politico-military affairs officer for Russia for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff where I drafted the Armed Forces’ global campaign plan to counter Russian aggression and Russian malign influence. In July 2018, I was asked to serve at the White House’s National Security Council.

At the NSC I am the principal advisor to the National Security Advisor and the President on Ukraine and the other countries in my portfolio. My role at the NSC is to develop, coordinate, and implement plans and policies to manage the full range of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic national security issues for the countries in my portfolio. My core function is to coordinate policy with departments and agencies partners.

The Committee has heard from many of my colleagues about the strategic importance of Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian aggression. It is important to note that our country’s policy of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, promoting Ukrainian prosperity, and strengthening a free and democratic Ukraine, as a counter to Russian aggression, has been a consistent, bi-partisan foreign policy objective and strategy across various administrations, both Democrat and Republican, and that President Zelenskyy’s election, in April 2019, created an unprecedented opportunity to realize our strategic objectives.

Relevant Events
In the Spring of 2019, I became aware of two disruptive actors–-primarily Ukraine’s then-Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney— promoting false information that undermined the United States’ Ukraine policy. The NSC and its inter-agency partners, including the State Department, grew increasingly concerned about the impact that such information was having on our country’s ability to achieve our national security objectives.

APRIL 21, 2019: PRESIDENT TRUMP CALLS UKRAINE PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY
On April 21, 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected President of Ukraine in a landslide victory on a unity, reform, and anti-corruption platform. President Trump called President Zelenskyy on April 21, 2019, to congratulate him for his victory. I was the staff officer who produced the call materials and was one of the staff officers who listened to the call. The call was positive and President Trump expressed his desire to work with President Zelenskyy and extended an invitation to visit the White House.

MAY 2019: INAUGURATION DELEGATION GOES TO UKRAINE
In May, I attended the inauguration of President Zelenskyy as part of the Presidential delegation led by Secretary Perry. Following the visit, the members of the delegation provided President Trump a debriefing offering a positive assessment of President Zelenskyy and his team. After this debriefing, President Trump signed a congratulatory letter to President Zelenskyy and extended an invitation to visit the White House.

JULY 10, 2019: DANYLYUK VISIT
On July 10, 2019, Oleksandr Danylyuk, then Ukraine’s National Security Advisor, visited Washington, D.C. for a meeting with National Security Advisor Bolton. Ambassadors Volker and Sondland and Secretary Rick Perry also attended the meeting. I attended the meeting with Dr. Hill.

We fully anticipated the Ukrainians would raise the issue of a meeting between the two presidents. Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short when Ambassador Sondland started to speak about the requirement that Ukraine deliver specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with President Trump. Following this meeting, there was a short debriefing during which Amb. Sondland emphasized the importance of Ukraine delivering the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma. I stated to Ambassador Sondland that this was inappropriate and had nothing to do with national security. Dr. Hill also asserted his comments were improper. Following the meeting Dr. Hill and I had agreed to report the incident to the NSC’s lead counsel, Mr. John Eisenberg.

JULY 25, 2019: PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION CALL
On July 21, 2019, President Zelenskyy’s party won parliamentary elections in
another landslide victory. The NSC proposed that President Trump call President Zelenskyy to congratulate him. On July 25, 2019, the call occurred. I listened in on the call in the Situation Room with White House colleagues. I was concerned by the call, what I heard was improper, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg. It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent. It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and
Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermine U.S. national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.

I want to emphasize to the Committee that when I reported my concerns — on July 10, relating to Ambassador Sondland, and on July 25, relating to the President — I did so out of a sense of duty. I privately reported my concerns, in official channels, to the proper authorities in the chain of command. My intent was to raise these concerns because they had significant national security implications for our country. I never thought I would be sitting here testifying in front of this committee and the American public, about my actions. When I reported my concerns, my only thought was to act properly and to carry out duty. Following each of my reports to Mr. Eisenberg, I immediately returned to work to advance the President’s and our
country’s foreign policy objectives. I focused on what I have done throughout my career, promoting America’s national security interests.

Conclusion
I want to take a moment to recognize the courage of my colleagues who have appeared and are scheduled to appear before this Committee. I want to state that the vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible. It is natural to disagree and engage in spirited debate, this has been our custom since the time of our Founding Fathers, but we are better than callow and cowardly attacks.

The uniform I wear today is that of the United States Army. The members of our allvolunteer force are made up of a patchwork of people from all ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds who come together under a common oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. We do not serve any particular political party, we serve the nation. I am humbled to come before you today as one of many who serve in the most distinguished and able military in the world. The Army is the only profession I have ever known. As a young man I decided that I wanted to spend my life serving the nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression, and for the last twenty years it has been an honor to represent and protect this great country.

Next month will mark 40 years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees. When my father was 47 years old he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives. His courageous decision inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service. All three of us have served or are currently serving in the military. Our collective military service is a special part of our family’s story in America.

I also recognize that my simple act of appearing here today, just like the courage of my colleagues who have also truthfully testified before this Committee, would not be tolerated in many places around the world. In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions and offering public testimony involving the President would surely cost me my life. I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.

Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth. Thank you again for your consideration, and I would be happy to answer your questions.

Opening Statement of Dr. Fiona Hill to the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,
(reproduced from the NY Times, Nov. 21, 2019)

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Nunes, and members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to testify before you today. I have a short opening statement.

I appreciate the importance of the Congress’s impeachment inquiry.

I am appearing today as a fact witness, as I did during my deposition on October 14th, in order to answer your questions about what I saw, what I did, what I knew, and what I know with regard to the subjects of your inquiry. I believe that those who have information that the Congress deems relevant have a legal and moral obligation to provide it.

I take great pride in the fact that I am a nonpartisan foreign policy expert, who has served under three different Republican and Democratic presidents. I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction, except toward the truth.

I will not provide a long narrative statement, because I believe that the interest of Congress and the American people is best served by allowing you to ask me your questions. I am happy to expand upon my October 14th deposition testimony in response to your questions today.

But before I do so, I would like to communicate two things.

First, I’d like to share a bit about who I am. I am an American by choice, having become a citizen in 2002. I was born in the northeast of England, in the same region George Washington’s ancestors came from. Both the region and my family have deep ties to the United States.

My paternal grandfather fought through World War I in the Royal Field Artillery, surviving being shot, shelled, and gassed before American troops intervened to end the war in 1918.

During the Second World War, other members of my family fought to defend the free world from fascism alongside American soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

The men in my father’s family were coal miners whose families always struggled with poverty.

When my father, Alfred, was 14, he joined his father, brother, uncles and cousins in the coal mines to help put food on the table.

When the last of the local mines closed in the 1960s, my father wanted to emigrate to the United States to work in the coal mines in West Virginia, or in Pennsylvania. But his mother, my grandmother, had been crippled from hard labor. My father couldn’t leave, so he stayed in northern England until he died in 2012. My mother still lives in my hometown today.

While his dream of emigrating to America was thwarted, my father loved America, its culture, its history and its role as a beacon of hope in the world. He always wanted someone in the family to make it to the United States.

I began my University studies in 1984, and in 1987 I won a place on an academic exchange to the Soviet Union. I was there for the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and when President Ronald Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. This was a turning point for me. An American professor who I met there told me about graduate student scholarships to the United States, and the very next year, thanks to his advice, I arrived in America to start my advanced studies at Harvard.

Years later, I can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.

This background has never set me back in America. For the better part of three decades, I have built a career as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical national security professional focusing on Europe and Eurasia and especially the former Soviet Union.

I have served our country under three presidents: in my most recent capacity under President Trump, as well as in my former position of National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In that role, I was the Intelligence Community’s senior expert on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine.

It was because of my background and experience that I was asked to join the National Security Council in 2017. At the NSC, Russia was a part of my portfolio, but I was also responsible for coordinating U.S. policy for all of Western Europe, all of Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) and Turkey, along with NATO and the European Union. I was hired initially by General Michael

Flynn, K.T. McFarland, and General Keith Kellogg, but then started work in April 2017 when General McMaster was the National Security Advisor.

I—and they—thought I could help them with President Trump’s stated goal of improving relations with Russia, while still implementing policies designed to deter Russian conduct that threatens the United States, including the unprecedented and successful Russian operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

This relates to the second thing I want to communicate.

Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.

The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan Congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.

The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.

U.S. support for Ukraine—which continues to face armed Russian aggression—has been politicized.

The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country—to diminish America’s global role and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests. President Putin and the Russian security services aim to counter U.S. foreign policy objectives in Europe, including in Ukraine, where Moscow wishes to reassert political and economic dominance.

I say this not as an alarmist, but as a realist. I do not think long-term conflict with Russia is either desirable or inevitable. I continue to believe that we need to seek ways of stabilizing our relationship with Moscow even as we counter their efforts to harm us. Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

As Republicans and Democrats have agreed for decades, Ukraine is a valued partner of the United States, and it plays an important role in our national security. And as I told this Committee last month, I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine—not Russia—attacked us in 2016.

These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes. President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a Super PAC. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.

I respect the work that this Congress does in carrying out its constitutional responsibilities, including in this inquiry, and I am here to help you to the best of my ability. If the President, or anyone else, impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interests, that is more than worthy of your attention. But we must not let domestic

politics stop us from defending ourselves against the foreign powers who truly wish us harm.

I am ready to answer your questions.

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