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Just Plain Folks

The word folks in American usage has an established stylistic value, namely that of informality or endearment vis-à-vis its neutral synonym people. Speakers in certain regions may prefer to use folks rather than people to such an extent that the former word becomes neutral in their variety of American English and the latter formal. But for most speakers of standard American English folks remains an informal counterpart to people. Whatever the regional backdrop of an individual’s idiolect, however, it is a miscarriage of the stylistic force of folks to use it with reference to malefactors, terrorists, and generally to evildoers of all stripes. Such usage, when it occurs––and is not ironic––can only be evaluated as perverse. But this perversion is also perforce a sign of the mind set of a speaker who utters the word with such a referent. To denote evildoers as folks is to extend a term of endearment to those who, far from being endearing, are incontrovertibly repellent morally.

But that is precisely what President Barack Obama does, as recorded in the following interview:

“KATIE COURIC: Have you ruled out trying confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in New York City?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have not ruled it out, but I think it’s important for us to take into account the practical, logistical issues involved. I mean, if you’ve got a city that is saying no, and a police department that’s saying no, and a mayor that’s saying no, that makes it difficult. But I think that the most important thing for the public to understand is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush Administration handled them all through 9/11.

They prosecuted the 190 folks in these Article III courts. Got convictions. And those folks are in maximum security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes. And it is a virtue of our system that we should be proud of. Now, what I’ve also said is that, you know, it’s important for us to recognize that when we’re dealing with Al Qaeda operatives, that they may have national security intelligence that we need.

And it’s important to make sure that the processes and procedures we approach with respect to these folks are not identical to the ones that we would use if we’re apprehending the local drug dealer. And that’s why we’ve put in place some very particular ways of dealing with these issues that ensure our security, but also still uphold our due process.

KATIE COURIC: Are you talking about reading them the Miranda rights? Their Miranda rights? In other words, like Abdul Matallab, who was read his Miranda rights? A lot of people are very upset about that. Because he was giving information to the F.B.I. Then his rights were read to him, and he clammed up.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, that’s actually not what happened. What happened was he clammed up, and after we had obtained actionable intelligence from him, that’s when the F.B.I. folks on the ground then read him his Miranda rights. But keep in mind, Richard Reid was read his Miranda rights five minutes after he was arrested, under the previous Administration. Some of the same critics of our approach have been employing this policy for years.”

KATIE COURIC: Chris from Falls Church, Virginia writes, “Mr. President, I lost my house two years ago and I’ve been out of work for a year. Can the Federal Government really stimulate the economy enough to start creating new jobs any time soon?” Without getting into too much policy speak, what would you say to Chris?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’d say to Chris — I know how tough it’s been. I’d say that we are seeing the corner turn on the economy growing again. Last year, at this time, the economy had contracted, had shrunk by six percent. We know now that last quarter it had grown by six percent. That’s a good sign that companies are starting to pick up hiring again, because they see the opportunities to go out there and make money.

It’s not happening as fast as we’d like. And that’s why there’s still some things we can do in terms of tax credits for small businesses. Taking some of that TARP money that’s been repaid and giving it to community banks, so that they can lend it to small businesses. Giving job credits to small businesses for hiring. Potentially, a million small businesses out there could get $5,000 for each employee they hire this year. All those things, I think, are moving us in the right direction. And my hope is, is that [note the reduplicative copula!] for folks who are unemployed, they’re gonna start seeing concrete improvement in their own lives in the next few months.” (Lynn Sweet, “Katie Couric Super Bowl Obama Interview,” Chicago Sun Times, February 7, 2010)

Given the instances highlighted above (in boldface italics), one can only adjudge President Obama’s use of the word, when referring to terrorists  and drug dealers, to be at complete variance with its ordinary stylistic value. Like all linguistic aberrations, his idiosyncratic usage must be seen as mirroring an aberrant forma mentis. This is the only interpretation one can come to in the presence of the blithe equalization of malefactors with morally neutral referents (F.B.I agents and the unemployed).

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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