Vertical thinking

Huckabee unleashes figure of speech; pundits puzzled.

Josh Marshall is puzzled:

He sees, on Huckabee’s website:

I think America is looking for someone vertical, who is thinking, Let’s take America up and not down.

Josh demands an explication de texte:

Can anyone explain what the hell that means? Vertical? I guess if you’re main opponent was Fred Thompson you might push the fact that you spend most of your time standing up. But seriously, is there something I’m missing here? Or is this the weirdest campaign I’ve ever heard?

Really, the quotation doesn’t seem like much of a puzzle to me, in light of this passage from Huckabee’s victory speech last night:

Americans are looking for a change. But what they want is a change that starts with a challenge to those of us who were given this sacred trust of office so that we recognize that our challenge is to bring this country back together, to make Americans, once again, more proud to be Americans than just to be Democrats or Republicans, to be more concerned about going up instead of just going to the left or to the right.

There, that wasn’t so hard to parse, was it? Admittedly, the last thing you look for in the speech of a contemporary American office-seeker is a vivid, original metaphor. Especially if all your friends think the politician in question is a boob because he went to Bible college.

Thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s a commonplace that the pulpit rhetoric of the African-American church is often rich in eloquence. Some of Barack Obama’s oratory derives directly from that tradition &#8212 you can even hear the “preacher” in his voice &#8212 though Obama has other voices, including Lincoln’s, at his command.

But when most people think of the pulpit rhetoric of white Southern fundamentalism, they think of the gimcrack showmanship of Billy Graham (who painted his fingernails so that they would flash in the light as he gestured) and rest of the blow-dried TV preachers. That is a mistake.

The cadences of the black pulpit are all its own, but some of the same social and economic forces that made the sermon a major literary genre among African-Americans exerted comparable influence in the poor Southern white community. (William Jennings Bryan didn’t arise out of nothing; the homiletic quality and religious phrasing of the “Cross of Gold” speech is no accident, comrades.)

Mike Huckabee got his start in life as a preacher, and there’s no reason to think that he’s lost the knack. He certainly isn’t nearly as well-educated or as thoughtful as Barack Obama, but if they wind up going toe-to-toe this year there’s no reason to think that Huckabee will be outclassed as an orator.

We should have learned our lesson from the last time we thought we were running against a boob.

Footnote To those used to the less stirring prose of mainstream Protestant sermons, King’s politicized version of preaching was intensely thrilling. But King was not numbered among the masters of his craft. As King surely would have said himself, his eloquence wasn’t a patch on that of, e.g., Howard Thurman. Just listening to an old tape on the radio, Thurman’s sermon on the Valley of the Dry Bones gave me goosebumps; twenty years later, I can still hear his repeated key-text in my mind. “Can … these … bones … live?” Thurman made those words stand for the possibility that every sort of hope that is, to all appearances, dead beyond revival might yet be brought back to life.

Update Josh and his readers claim to hear in Huckabee’s “vertical” reference a “dog-whistle” appeal to evangelicals, for whom “vertical thinking” means thinking oriented toward God. But this hardly fits the canonical “dog-whistle” episode where some coded meaning is hidden in an otherwise incomprehensible expression (e.g., references the Dred Scott decision as a coded way of signaling a desire to bring fetuses under the protection of the 5th and 14th Amendments).

If you worship any of the versions of the Sky-God from Ouranos onward, “up” means, among other things, toward Heaven. But the root metaphor is even more universal than that; “higher = better” is among Lakoff’s “embodied metaphors,” built into the way our bodies confront the world. When Ezra Klein says that Obama’s rhetoric is designed to “elevate” the listener &#8212 or for that matter when a property appraiser inquires into a parcel’s “best and highest use” or an organization chart puts the CEO at the top of the page &#8212 they’re not reciting secret code-words; they’re just employing a universally comprehensible image.

If there’s anything more dangerous than treating your opponents as boobs, it’s imagining them as engaged in dark rituals.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Vertical thinking”

  1. Mike Huckabee’s Vertical Politics

    Josh Marshall was perusing Mike Huckabee’s campaign site to help understand his appeal and came upon something that stumped him:
    Can anyone explain what the hell that means? Vertical? I guess if you’re main opponent was Fred Thompson you …

  2. Vertical

    VERTICAL….Apparently the latest hot word to convince evangelicals that you're one of them is "vertical." Who knew? It's like trying to keep up with the latest from the hip hop world. In other trendy word news, the American Dialect Society…

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