One of the latest episodes in the absurd spectacle of the 2016 US Presidential race has been Marco Rubio’s repetitive speech tic. Word-for-word repetition of canned phrases in a GOP primary debate, a New Hampshire stump speech, and apparently even in micro-encounters with potential voters have apparently been enough for media types to dub him RubioBot.
Which makes sense. “Glitchy computer programming” is an analogy that resonates right now in a way that a more archaic technology (a skipping record?) might not.
But I’m here to argue for an analogy that is not only apropos, but that actually reveals something about the underlying cause of the problem. Marco Rubio’s endlessly familiar and perpetually repeating speech blocks actually sound an awful lot like official speech in the late Soviet Union.
If you’re not a Soviet scholar, I should note first that research on Soviet politics has come a long way since Cold War-era stereotypes about brainwashed masses under totalitarian control of an all-powerful collectivist government.* In fact, the overwhelming finding has been that the average person was mostly politically disengaged, going through the motions of participating in obligatory military parades or political meetings while really more interested in the mundane issues of everyday personal life.
But you wouldn’t know that to look at Soviet texts, from newspaper articles to official speeches the reports filed on those ubiquitous political meetings, which for decades continued to repeat the firm and approved ideology of official Marxism-Leninism. So what gives?
Permit me a little detour through anthropological linguistics—it’ll be fun, I swear.
Language as a Performance, Not a Claim About the World
First and foremost, the language people use is never just a straightforward reflection of the objective world around them. Speech signifies much more than that; in particular, it is one way that we indicate whether or not we belong to the community around us.
As anthropologist Alexei Yurchak describes in his work on the late Soviet period (roughly the 1960s-1980s):
For instance, the question, “do you support the resolution?”asked during a Soviet Komsomol meeting invariably led to a unanimous raising of hands in an affirmative gesture.
Did this mean everyone in such meetings was a true believer in the Soviet program? No, of course not, Yurchak explains. Raising your hand was more than anything a way of signaling that you knew what was expected in such situations. (And really, tell me you haven’t ever raised your hand for a fairly meaningless vote in a long, boring meeting just to go along, or get the thing done with?)
In essence, Yurchak argues, the language of late Soviet life was a (seemingly) endless series of such gestures, meaningful for the social work that they did, more than the literal meanings they appeared to have.
Block Speech and the Discursive Shift
Yurchak has carefully detailed what he calls a “discursive shift” over the course of Soviet history,** or to put it in a less jargony way, a change in the predominant style of speech. While the very early years after the Revolution permitted some remarkable kinds of social and aesthetic experimentation, including with language. And early on, this was exactly what the revolutionary state wanted: new language for the new consciousness of the new kinds of citizens the Bolsheviki hoped to create.
But as time went on, the Party-State became increasingly concerned with the possibility that experimentation might go awry and develop the consciousness in the wrong direction. Yurchak again:
A 1941 practical reference book with a circulation of twenty-five thousand instructed:”Language is a tool of development and struggle…. With the help of that tool the Party arms the toilers with its great ideas that inspire one to struggle for the cause of Communism… Language, as any tool, needs to be perfected, polished, and carefully protected from whatever kind of contamination and slightest spoil” (Kondakov 1941: 14), so that it may be used “to inoculate […] the readers with concrete slogans and phrases” (ibid.:123).
(Tell me you don’t think about Rubio a little bit when you hear that description, “concrete slogans and phrases.”)
With Stalin in the lead, censors ever-more-carefully evaluated language to ensure that it met the standard of unspoiled perfection. And decisions about what kinds of language were appropriate shifted out of the public eye and into the Central Committee. This, then, was the shift: with the importance of correct speech clear, but the rules about what constituted correct speech opaque, most speakers and writers drifted toward a style of discourse that minimized experimentation and creativity, instead relying heavily on repetition of readily available set phrases and ideas from already-existing official discourse.
And imagine what happened after Stalin left the scene, leaving the position of final arbiter vacant.
In short, a speech not only could, but should be constructed entirely out of cliches. Hyper-normalized, Yurchak calls it, or “block-writing” as Central Committee speech writers put it, with one giving Yurchack this absolute gem in an interview:
“You could read these texts top to bottom and bottom to top with similar results.”
Here’s an example Yurchak gives:
1977 article in Pravda
“In the struggle between two world outlooks there can be no room for neutrality or compromise,” said the General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU comrade L. I. Brezhnev at the XXVth Party congress…
[I]mperialist propaganda is becoming more sophisticated. This imposes a high responsibility on the Soviet people…
The central task…of the party organizations should be…the further growth of the inner maturity and ideological conviction of toilers and…the propaganda of the Soviet way of life and advantages of the socialist system.
1980 book about the Komsomol
In the struggle between the two world outlooks there is no room for neutrality and compromises. With imperialist propaganda becoming more sophisticated, the political education of Soviet young people grows in importance…[t]he central task of the Komsomol…[is] the education of young people in the spirit of communist ideology, Soviet patriotism, internationalism…the active propaganda of the achievements and advantages of the socialist system.
Form Over Content: It’s a Feature, not a Bug
The essence here is that this discourse relies on certain set blocks or cliches that are then built up into something resembling a piece of writing or speech: “the struggle between the two world outlooks,” “the propaganda of the advantages of the socialist system,” “the struggle to instill in children the values we teach in our homes.”
Oh wait, that last one was a Rubioism. But it feels much the same: block writing, cliches derived or copied from tested, pre-approved phrases that ensure one’s language will be politically unobjectionable.
And that’s the point. When Rubio tells a gay, married New Hampshire resident, “I just believe marriage is between one man and one women…and if you disagree, you should have the law changed by the legislature,” it’s entirely beside the point that New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law was, in fact, passed by a legislature. Rubio is not making a claim about the legislative history of New Hampshire marriage law; he’s issuing forth ideologically correct discourse to his people.
This is not language that is really trying to make factual claims about the world. It’s language that creates a world of its own and signals that the speaker belongs to that world. It’s the language spoken by someone who is terrified of making a misstep. And it’s the language of someone from culture where language has been policed for ideological correctness for so long that “block writing” and block speech are practically an unconscious habit.
Rubio’s only problem is that the rest of us aren’t quite there. We have a high tolerance for the kinds of political cliches Orwell was railing about seventy years ago—but most of us at least prefer the pretense of cloaking old ideas in novel language.
Poor Rubio is not a malfunctioning robot.*** He’s just stuck in the uncanny valley between the Soviet past and (perhaps) the U.S. future.
* And in case it doesn’t go without saying, I’m also not arguing that Rubio is brainwashed, nor that he’s a Communist.
** Any Soviet scholar will immediately recognize the broadness of strokes with which I am painting this history. Apologies, but I really didn’t want to write another dissertation tonight 😦 If you have important additions or corrections, feel free to chide me in the comments.
*** My partner reminds me that despite the joke I was really hoping to figure out how to make, the word robot in fact comes from the Czech rabota (work), not the Russian rabota, as transmuted through the early science fiction of Karel Capek http://www.npr.org/2011/04/22/135634400/science-diction-the-origin-of-the-word-robot. I’ll end with this bit from NPR about Capek’s robots:
They couldn’t love. They couldn’t have feelings. But they could do all the works that humans preferred not to do.
And what else, after all, is a presidential race?