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Words, Mere Words: Newt Gingrich Speaks Well. But Is He Smart?

If Newt Gingrich's career in public service proves anything, it is that he will never be caught saying “Oops.” Gingrich is currently rising to frontrunner status in the Republican presidential primary largely because he's willing to talk about any subject at any time, is ready to do so with some measure of linguistic facility, and has sufficient self-regard to exploit every opportunity to demonstrate his rhetorical command. He has managed to leverage the televised debates to his benefit by acting like a professor before an unprepared lecture hall of students, condescending to the moderators by treating every question as a logic exercise. And so, however improbably, his Ph.D in history has earned the status of an important credential to the Republican Party.

But if Gingrich has amply proven his academic talents, he has also demonstrated their limitations. The Republican Party should not mistake his communication skills with evidence of real knowledge, or even of good reasoning. Gingrich may be a master of academic exercises—his ability to make bookish references and formulate long sentences demonstrate as much—but that does not mean he knows what he is talking about.

Gingrich's patterns of speech are largely analytically acute, and sometimes aesthetically interesting, but substantively, they are very often lacking. Language is supposed to be a package that carries substance, but Gingrich is sometimes so pleased with his uninterrupted stream of words, that he mistakes it for an actual flow of ideas. This, sadly, is an affliction endemic in academia, where too many spend too long trying to score points in petty intellectual fights; the further the substance of the debate recedes, the faster the self-satisfaction of the participants grows.

Linguists have long known not to be distracted by the decorative aspects of language, and that profound substance can often be found in unexpected packages; indeed, they are trained to find it there. A classic study, performed by the University of Pennsylvania’s William Labov back in the 1960s, shows that to be the case. Labov showed that in Philadelphia’s inner city, those speaking the roughest “Ebonics” were often reasoning more deeply than more educated, middle-class black neighbors. (This was just before middle class blacks started moving to the suburbs in the wake of the Fair Housing Act.)

Here’s a male teenager asked whether he believes in heaven:

Like some people say if you’re good an’ shit, your spirit goin’ t’heaven ... ‘n’ if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad. ‘Cause, you see, doesn’ nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know, ‘cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods, and don’t nobody know it’s really a God. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, tha’s bullshit, ‘cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven -- ‘cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to!

On the surface that hardly sounds like what we call sober reasoning. However, Labov laid out the clear formal lines of logic expressed in this slangy, nonstandard vehicle of speech:

1. Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.
2. Therefore nobody knows that God really exists.
3. If there is heaven, it was made by God.
4. If God doesn’t exist, he couldn’t have made heaven.
5. Therefore heaven does not exist.
6. Therefore you can’t go to heaven.

Compare this to the more bourgeois person asked whether there is such a thing as witchcraft:

I do feel that in certain cultures there is such a thing as witchcraft, or some sort of science of witchcraft; I don’t think that it’s just a matter of believing hard enough that there is such a thing as witchcraft. I do believe that there is such a thing that a person can put himself in a state of mind, or that something could be given to them to intoxicate them in a certain – to a certain frame of mind – that – that could actually be considered witchcraft.

A teacher would have no problem with the phraseology; we all see the basic confidence in self-expression. In a television debate, this may not have even been considered a gaffe. But technically this guy didn’t say a thing of use. Is there witchcraft or not? What is it that “could be considered witchcraft”? Smooth talking and smooth thinking reveal themselves to be hardly the same thing.

So it is with Gingrich. Take a close look at what he's saying, and you'll find that he's using artfully constructed rhetoric to cloak ideas that are simply wrong. A favorite of mine was a few years ago when he opined that bilingual education fosters the language of the “ghetto.” He apologized for the “ghetto” part, appropriately enough. However, he was never forced to confront the fact that his whole statement was patently ridiculous. What evidence is there of burgeoning communities in the United States of people who grow up speaking only Spanish, or do not speak English well enough to function beyond asking someone to fill it up with regular?

The evidence shows instead that there are many communities of people who speak both Spanish and English, and, by all lights, they should be seen as a benefit, not a hindrance. Gingrich was arguing in part against bilingual education, but research has shown quite conclusively that children get a leg up in early learning when taught first in their primary language. Bilingual ed programs in the United States have not always been good, but Gingrich wasn't offering criticism—he was conducting a smear in the language of high-minded objectivity.

For someone with vaunted academic credentials, this is an embarrassment. If Professor Gingrich is intent on brandishing his Ph.D, might not he be expected to have done some basic research—or at least show basic respect for research—on the subjects he talks about? But there is a basic misunderstanding at work here: Scholarship is not about the production of words, but about the search for knowledge on the basis of evidence. Gingrich seems to have interpreted his academic training rather as a way primarily to burnish his own ego—to confuse supporters into following him, rather than to clarify matters of importance.

He is obviously well-practiced at this sort of scholarly and linguistic malpractice. So as Gingrich’s poll numbers go up this week, we should keep in mind that sometimes the pomp and circumstance of scholarly language is little more than a cynical game of bait and switch.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.