It’s technically unfair that I have used this picture, since today’s Combat! is not an edition of Meanwhile, inside Michele Bachmann’s head, which series is explicitly devoted to things that Michele Bachmann did not say. It’s a terrifyingly confusing system developed by a probably incompetent man, but we’re stuck with it. Today is an edition of Close readings, in which we analyze in detail one particular public statement made by one particular individual—in this case, that most particular of US congresspeople, Michele Bachmann. Speaking to the Western Conservative Summit in Denver on Friday, Representative Bachmann warned that President Obama, the Democratic Party and health care reform were turning the United States into “a nation of slaves.”* It’s possible she was taking a page from Rick Barber. It’s possible she was connecting her remarks to the writings of the Founding Fathers. It’s possible she’s a crazy person whom we have inadvertently vested with the power to make laws. Only the skills we learned as English majors can tell us for sure, and the time has come for us to perform a close reading. Won’t you join me in the study?
First, some context. Bachmann was speaking in Colorado, where the reactionary populist movement is at its most vibrant, and her remarks hewed tightly to Tea Party rhetoric. She organized her speech around Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel—Rahm’s brother and the Office of Management and Budget health care adviser—and the rumor that he supports rationing of health care based on how much federal tax revenue patients are likely to generate. Seriously. That story turns out to be a whole-cloth fabrication by Betsy McCaughey—also known for her continued insistence that the President is not a US citizen—but Bachmann ran with it, claiming that the Obama administration makes most of its policy decisions on the basis of various citizens’ usefulness to the Treasury. On to the quote:
We will talk a little bit about what has transpired in the last 18 months and would we count what has transpired into turning our country into a nation of slaves.
The most striking aspect of this statement is, of course, its presentation as some form of inquiry. While she has technically uttered a declarative sentence, Bachmann is basically employing the Fox News approach. She’s not saying that the President is unconstitutionally exploiting the American people for tax revenue; she’s just opening up a chat about whether or not we are, since his election, all enslaved.
In a weird way, Bachmann’s statement is a masterpiece of structure. The first 90% of the sentence is what I would call a Word Nest—subordinate clauses, prepositions, time markers, euphemisms and explanations of what we are going to talk about that the auditor naturally filters out. The vague phrase “what has transpired” appears twice in 28 words, and otherwise Bachmann is calmly explaining that she plans for us to briefly discuss how we would classify the referent of that vague phrase. Then we get to the last three words of the sentence—”nation of slaves”—and whammo! We are ejected from the Word Nest, with no choice but to either fly with her or fall to the ground whimpering.
Here Bachmann employs classic joke structure. As any decent composition teacher will tell you, it’s best to put the important part of the sentence right at the end, where it will sort of hang in the silence that follows. It’s the same reason you don’t say, “Hey you guys, it seems that a grasshopper mistakenly assumed there was a drink named ‘Steve,’ since he was in a bar and the bartender remarked that they had a drink named after him.” Bachmann’s sentence is remarkably concentrated at the end, the rhetorical equivalent of a ball and chain.
She knows that the phrase “nation of slaves” is going to seem pretty audacious, even to her audience of sign-waving conspiracy theorists. Given the rest of the sentence, is seems that the entirety of her originally planned message was “nation of slaves,” later revised to “we are a nation of slaves,” and subsequently larded with a bunch of meaningless sub-phrases.
Whatever vestige of her lizard brain still concerns itself with self-preservation seems aware enough to disavow responsibility for that statement. Representative Bachmann is not arguing that we have been enslaved by her employer, the federal government; she just wants us to talk about whether our current condition “counts” as slavery. That she is the only one talking seems a technical detail, like the requirement that she add 28 other bland, colorless words to make a complete English sentence rather than just blurting “nation of slaves!” and leaving the podium to thunderous applause.
Of course, the United States is not a nation of slaves. If we were, we would probably have a higher employment rate, among other indicators. Presumably we are a nation of free, reasonable people who get to know our leaders best after we elect them to national office. In Bachmann’s case, that’s kind of unfortunate. We’ll have the option to re-up her contract in a few months, so remarks like these constitute a kind of negotiation. As with any bargaining session, we should listen very closely.