Only a few days after posting yet another examination of Obama Derangement Syndrome, I came across a piece about the Obama Haters’ recent obsession with the president’s use of pronouns. The claim, you see, is that he says “I” or “me” with inordinate frequency, which proves that he’s an arrogant narcissist. The pronoun narrative reached its nadir, perhaps, with right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer, who declared
For God’s sake, he talks like the emperor Napoleon… I mean, count the number of times he uses the word I in any speech, and compare that to any other president.
Well, unfortunately for Krauthammer and his kind, somebody did just that. The folks at BuzzFeed studied more than 2000 news conferences delivered by all the presidents since 1929, when mass media began coming into its own. And they counted the number of times the presidents used personal pronouns like “I”, “me” and “mine”, calculated their percentages among all words used, and compiled them into a handy chart.
And those results do not speak well for Obama Haters, Inc. Far from having the highest frequency of such pronouns, Obama has to date the third lowest. Furthermore, he also has the highest usage of plural first-person pronouns like “we” or “our”, suggesting that he actually may be the most inclusive of modern presidents.
That being said, a glance down this chart indicates that we should exercise caution in assuming that the incidence of such words is always a reliable indicator of narcissism/ arrogance/ self-indulgence. Jimmy Carter is at the upper end of the scale, and he is a manifestly unselfish man who has devoted his post-presidency time to nonpolitical public service. Herbert Hoover is at the very bottom, and yet he was a relentless and unscrupulous megalomaniac who scarcely was capable of doing anything that didn’t advance his ambitions or status. Ronald Reagan also ranks rather low, and yet he had delusions of grandeur that bordered on schizophrenia.
Nonetheless, it’s possible that the haters are, despite their best efforts, on the right track about Obama. His low level of personal pronouns does seem to coordinate with his humility, as reflected in his extraordinary efforts to work with an extraordinarily obstructionist Congress, and his amazing grace and good will in the face of an unbelievable amount of hatred thrown his way.
Whatever the implications, the most obvious problem with the haters’ pronoun narrative is simply that they got their facts wrong. Not just mildly wrong, but wildly wrong. And they did so by indulging in that very egocentrism of which they accuse the president. Having heard him say “I” a few times, they concluded, without bothering to investigate, that he does so with great frequency.
It’s a folly that has plagued the human race from day one: the presumption that the view from one’s own narrow window reflects what the universe as a whole looks like. And it has resulted in a great many irrational beliefs and behaviors, from the hilarious to the horrific. The belief that the world must be flat because I can’t see it curve. The belief that the earth must be the center of the universe because I see the sun move around it. The belief that the old woman down the road must be a witch because my dog got sick after she petted it. The belief that global warming must be a myth because it snowed in my back yard last week. And now, the belief that the president must be a Kenyan communist Nazi Muslim Anti-Christ because Fox “News” says so.
And it’s a folly that likely will continue to plague the human race in the future. Let’s just hope that its consequences are more hilarious than horrific.