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day permlink Saturday, 9 August 2003

permlink Cuomo, twisted

Idiot-packed, Illiterate, Maddening Media (or as Brad Delong says, Why Is Our Press Corps So Bad?): I didn't really pay close attention to the Mario Cuomo story a few days ago; I just heard that he said the Democrats running for President were 'babbling' or some such. OK, that's his opinion, whatever.

Then I ran across another such article today, read it more closely, and something clicked. And it makes my head explode with renewed contempt for the press corps who, in my opinion, completely misquoted the man because they clearly do not know their own damned language.

A few sample paragraphs from stories citing Cuomo:
Labeling the Democratic voices from the presidential field "babble," prominent Democrat Mario Cuomo is calling on former Vice President Al Gore to enter the race for the party's nomination. ... "I would like to see him get in," said Cuomo in an interview with WROW-AM radio in Albany, N.Y. "Right now, the Democratic voice is not a single voice. It is not a chorus. It is a babble," said the former New York governor. Webster's Dictionary defines "babble," as "to make incoherent sounds, as a baby does, prattle."
Another, from the AP:
[Gore's] New York speech came a day after former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo urged him to join the Democratic presidential race, saying that all that emerged from the current field was "babble."
Key point: this statement was from a radio interview.

So! He called the Democratic voice "a babble", did he?. Gosh, what an unusual turn of phrase. In fact, I can't remember ever seeing that construction before. Well, Mr. Cuomo's always been something of a creative writer, maybe he's just using the English language in a novel way, as he sometimes does to great effect.

But come to think of it, what if Cuomo meant "a Babel"? In fact, that seems rather more likely; it's a literary/Biblical allusion, which Cuomo is frequently fond of, and its Webster's dictionary definition is much more directly applicable (not to mention less insulting) to the current candidates: "A confusion of sounds or voices." Why, once you think about it, it seems quite obvious that the homophonic relationship between 'Babel' and 'babble' pretty much got missed by the reporters writing down his comment.

Why? Well, there are two major options: malice or stupidity. And Heinlein has a rule about those.

We could certainly point to possible signs of malice; just look what 'mis-hearing' Cuomo enabled reporters to do above:
  • Shave "a babble" to just "babble" and stick it in phrases of their own construction instead of keeping it in context (opposing "chorus")
  • Insert an authoritative dictionary definition associating both "incoherent" and "baby" with "the Democratic voice". Neat!
Or, well, you could just assume that reporters don't know an allusion when they hear it, and are eager to highlight infighting no matter who's doing it. And, frankly, it's just as plausible an explanation that reporters are sometimes indeed incredibly, staggeringly stupid.

  • Searching Google News for 'cuomo babble' brings up many stories; 'cuomo babel' finds none. No reporter transcribed him properly.
  • What's that? You think Cuomo could not have meant 'babel'? That though he's a flowery writer here and there, it's really a stretch to claim he intended this lesser criticism? That he really wished to insult the nine Democrats this much? Could be, could be. I can only offer this, the written text of Cuomo's remarks to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, in which he said:
    We must make the American people hear our "Tale of Two Cities." We must convince them that we don't have to settle for two cities, that we can have one city, indivisible, shining for all of its people.

    Now we will have no chance to do that if what comes out of this convention is a babel of arguing voices.
    And that was, you know, really hard to find.

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