I couldn’t help but think

People may have seen Hillary Clinton’s now much lampooned television advertisement.  She answers the phone at 3 AM, all ready for dealing with some  world crisis.  Some have seen a cause for concern.  Among them Harvard sociology Professor Orlando Patterson.  His op-ed contribution leaves much to be desired in the logic category.  We couldn’t help but think of two points.

First, the phrase "I couldn’t help but think of x" probably ought to be retired.  I don’t know when one can help but think of stuff.  The stuff I think of is mostly involuntary.  Well, here’s the phrase:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and
slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent
sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of
mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t
help but think of
D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist
movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of
black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger
implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering
the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to
protect us from this threat.

Pointing out that you couldn’t help but think of something seems like an odd way to separate yourself from your thoughts (he does it twice in this piece).  I can’t help but think of a lot of things.  But I can help but write them.

Here’s the second point (this point has, by the way, already been made across the blogosphere.  See the Daily Howler for particularly acute analysis). I think Patterson’s reading of this advert is way of the mark, particularly when it comes to the empirical questions.  He writes, later:

Did the message get through? Well, consider this: people who voted
early went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama; those who made up their minds
during the three days after the ad was broadcast voted heavily for Mrs.

Don’t know about the implication there.  Seems like there are many obvious countervailing factors that need to be considered before one can buy the inference that the racist ad–actually, not just the ad, the racism of the ad–seriously changed people’s minds.  There’s more:

It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in
Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites
favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not
in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit
polls on March 4 showed the ad’s effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to
56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton. It is striking, too,
that during the same weekend the ad was broadcast, Mrs. Clinton refused
to state unambiguously that Mr. Obama is a Christian and has never been
a Muslim.

That last claim, I think, is dubious.  The poll reading, without question, leaves much to be desired.  I couldn’t help but think of that. 

One thought on “I couldn’t help but think”

  1. This "I can’t help but think" thing is odd. Patterson seems to use it as an argument, i.e. I was compelled to think of X, therefore X must be the case, and it’s simply fatuous. The odd, inept machinations of one’s mind are no argument.

Comments are closed.