March 12, 2007


Caption: Mistakes were made by this man, but they were pretty mild.

El Cabrero has been thinking lately about the subject of political rhetoric.

The immediate trigger was musing over President Bush's comments on Iraq to the effect that "mistakes were made." That kind of phrase is often used in lieu of more straightforward expressions such as "I screwed up."

While I ain't no grammarian, this is a case of using the passive voice. Consider the difference between saying "the glass was broken" vs. "I broke the glass."

As Wheaton College professor Michael D.C. Drout wrote in the course guide to his enjoyable series of lectures, A Way with Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion,

What if you want to leave out information? Then passive voice is your friend. "Mistakes were made," you say, when challenged about the collapse of the multibillion dollar corporation you were running. Why not say "I made mistakes"? Well, it makes you a lawsuit target (you have just "admitted" to making mistakes), whereas if you just say "mistakes were made," you end up looking as if you've admitted something without actually doing any admitting. "I made a mistake" is a performative utterance, with all the difficulties that go with it. "Mistakes were made" is not performative. As an analyst of rhetoric, look out for passive voice...

On the same note, here's an interesting fairly recent commentary on the president's use of the passive voice.

Now, on to some more recent "mistakes" that were made...

DOMESTIC SPYING A number of congressional representatives, not to mention many Americans, are outraged over the federal government's domestic spying on ordinary citizens. It looks like another mistake was made.

CARING FOR IRAQ VETERANS. It's fair to say that some major "mistakes were made" in this department. Marie Cocco, syndicated Washington Post columnist put it well:

A culture of contempt for government infects those who govern. It has shamed America and left the government itself in a shambles.

It is seen in the callous maltreatment of gravely wounded soldiers who've returned from Iraq. The scandal of Walter Reed Army Medical Center is compounded by a veterans' health care system starved of funds needed to accommodate a new generation of the disabled and disfigured -- a shortfall that has long been clear to those who use the system and who lobby for veterans, but not to those who blindly protect the Bush administration's tax cuts above all else...

It is the same cavalier incompetence that led to the debacle of the Hurricane Katrina response, its nightmarish aftermath still lived by the uprooted and the abandoned. The overlap between the twin tragedies of Katrina and Walter Reed is not imaginary. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has uncovered an internal Army document outlining how the hiring of a private contractor to provide support services at the military hospital led to an exodus of skilled government workers and put patient care ``at risk of mission failure.'' As it happens, the very same contractor had botched its role in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

(By the way, it was a native of West Virginia, Army Spc. Jeremy Duncan, who blew the whistle on the wretched treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Good job and best wishes to him and all those in similar situations!)

Mistakes have been made indeed.



WVBlue said...

A comment was drafted but it turned in to a

El Cabrero said...

That'll happen sometimes. Nice post!

Jspiker said...

Well...I apologize for everything I ever said bad about him....I thought he was just plain stupid!

El Cabrero said...

Perhaps you meant to say, in keeping with the passive voice theme, that "Stupidity has occured..."