Thursday, October 08, 2009


As noted in my last post, Authorers are gaining traction, right up there with Birthers and Truthers, after Bill Ayers' put-on about ghostwriting Barack Obama's Dreams for my Father was taken as gospel by a colony of right-wing gulls.

The Orly Taitz of Authorerism is World Net Daily's Jack Cashill. Here's his case for the affirmative, in which a wealth of nonsense is amassed to "prove" the contention, if not conclusively (Cashill is a master of the "I'm not saying X for sure, but there's a lot of evidence pointing that way" school of hedging).

I slugged my way through this, and was going to let the whole thing drown in the helpless laughter of non-gulls everywhere, but I'm a blogger, dammit, and I just couldn't let it go so easily. Herewith, then, my comments about Cahill's assertions and methodology.

In 1995, Barack Obama produced a lyrical masterwork that Time magazine has called "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." Yet all the Obama samples we have unearthed before 1995 are pedestrian and uninspired. There is no precedent for this kind of literary transformation.

Apparently Cashill has never heard of Walt Whitman. In fact, quite a few writers of stature penned embarrassingly bad juvenilia.

Consider the two following "nature" passages in Obama's and Ayers' respective memoirs, the first from "Fugitive Days":

"I picture the street coming alive, awakening from the fury of winter, stirred from the chilly spring night by cold glimmers of sunlight angling through the city."

The second from "Dreams":

"Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds."

These two sentences are alike in more than their poetic sense, their length and their gracefully layered structure. They tabulate nearly identically on the Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES), something of a standard in the field.

The "Fugitive Days" excerpt scores a 54 on reading ease and a 12th-grade reading level. The "Dreams'" excerpt scores a 54.8 on reading ease and a 12th-grade reading level. Scores can range from 0 to 121, so hitting a nearly exact score matters.

Perhaps readers can fill me in, but as someone with a few qualifications of my own in the field of literary criticism, I'm at a loss to see any connection between the two passages quoted, other than the mention of weather in their urban environment and a descriptive high seriousness. And using Flesch on single sentences is like taking a poll sample of ten Canadian electors. Nonsense.

Another significant variable is sentence length. In comparing 30-sentence sequences from "Dreams" and "Fugitive Days," each of which relates the author's entry into the world of "community organizing," "Fugitive Days" averaged 23.13 words a sentence. "Dreams" averaged 23.36 words a sentence. By way of control, sentences in the memoir section of Cashill's book "Sucker Punch" average 15 words in length and scored considerably higher on the Flesch test.

In a random test of verb repetition, of the first 60 distinctive verbs in "Fugitive Days," an incredible 55 appear in "Dreams" and only 37 in "Sucker Punch" [Cashill's own memoir] despite the fact that Ayers is closer in age and education to Cashill than to Obama.

Impressed yet? Not I. We don't know which 30-sentence sequences have been chosen for comparison, or on what basis they were chosen. What Cashill describes in the second paragraph is hardly a "random test," but in any case, using his own memoir as a control is simply bizarre methodology. What were these verbs? What happens when you extend the sample to, say, a hundred verbs? Or restrict the sample to the first thirty?

I shall spare readers any more fisking, because it will make this post too lengthy. Instead, here's a summary.

Apparently Ayers and Obama shared similar observations of training versus education, and the tendency of schools to strip minorities of their own cultures. They both knew that the Hudson River in New York can flow in both directions because of tides. And both of them made reference to minority students turning on each other to curry favour with whites.

These are three [parallel stories] that we have found. We suspect there are more," says Cashill. He's entirely serious, or so it seems, about two commonplaces well-lodged within progressive discourse at the time, and a bit of knowledge that is hardly arcane.

Cashill then moves on to "parallel metaphors." This is where all of the nautical imagery comes in that I noted in my previous post. Here's a taste of the arguments:

Both books use "storms" and "horizons" both as metaphor and as reality. Ayers writes poetically of an "unbounded horizon," and Obama writes of "boundless prairie storms" and poetic horizons – "violet horizon," "eastern horizon," "western horizon."

The metaphorical use of the word "tangled" might also derive from one's nautical adventures. Ayers writes of his "tangled love affairs" and Obama of his "tangled arguments."

I've never been a merchant seaman, but my own creative work uses quite a bit of ocean imagery as well, including two poems that I blogged here in the past. Maybe Ayers wrote them. I'll never tell.

Then there are parallel "postmodern themes." Like this one:


"Narrative inquiry can be a useful corrective to all this."


"Truth is usually the best corrective."

Wow! They both use the word "corrective!" But there's no common "postmodern theme" to be found--indeed, Obama's use of the word "truth" is the opposite of postmodern. "In true postmodernist fashion," says Cashill, "Ayers rejects the possibility of an objective, universal truth." But not Obama, it appears, as Cashill holes his argument at the waterline. [Stop that! --ed.]

Moving on to "60s consciousness," Cashill is struck by the fact that each author used the phrase "behind enemy lines," and believes that Obama would never have heard of the "Mekong Delta." But they both referred to it! And in his own memoir, Cashill didn't!

It gets worse. Citing another idiot, Cashill tells us that the Preface to Dreams, added when it was republished in 2004, doesn't actually say that Obama wrote the book! Therefore we must conclude...

As for computer-assisted "stylometrics," Cashill was assured by an expert that such methods are prone to error, so that he should just carry on with, well, the stuff referred to in this post. But to add weight to his analysis, Cashill tells us that no fewer than five teams of researchers have been doing the stylometric thing, with four already reporting in.

Here's a sample:

"Using the chi-square statistic," observes one professor, "Obama's and Ayers's books were indistinguishable, while Obama's book was easily distinguishable from books by other authors."

Hoo, boy. Another says Ayers might simply have edited Obama's book. Others think Obama's book had two authors. The fact that these various findings are contradictory doesn't bother Cashill in the least.

We don't know who any of these researchers are, incidentally, nor what their methodologies were. It's for their protection, claims Cashill. Look what happened to "Joe the Plumber," he says, but as I recall those wounds were largely self-inflicted.

In any event, do the cadences here sound familiar? They should. If you plough through the Truthers' stuff, and I have, they amass a "case" out of dozens of cherry-picked little tidbits as well, some of which are simply made up.

But we can, and should, go back even further, to the fons et origo of this sort of thing: the coterie of literary wingnuts who have insisted that Shakespeare was simply too oafish, ill-educated and country-bred to write the plays attributed to him.

Precisely the same kinds of "analyses" can be found in their books. The only difference is that at least some of these are considerably more convincing than anything Cashill has produced to date.

This odd bookwormy occupation continues, in fact, to the present day. In what one might call a synchronic wingnut collision, far-right American commentator Joseph Sobran turns out to be a Shakespeare authorer. And here is an excerpt from a commonsense takedown that just might have wider application:

Sobran seems to be unaware that lists of parallels such as he provides have long been looked at very skeptically in attribution studies, since writers in any era consciously or unconsciously influence each other and draw on common sources. This is especially true of Elizabethan poetry, where writers freely borrowed from each other and drew upon a large stock of common themes and images; and among Elizabethan poets, it is particularly easy to find parallels in Shakespeare, simply because his canon is so enormous and varied. Sobran acknowledges that one can find parallels between any two authors, but wildly underestimates the number, and he has apparently made no effort to compare any other writers with Shakespeare. Instead, he arbitrarily decides (on the basis of no evidence) that we could expect to find "a dozen or so" parallels between Oxford and Shakespeare, with an upper limit of "three dozen," and when he finds more than this arbitrary limit plucked out of thin air, he considers it "evidence," even "proof." But the huge majority of the parallels Sobran lists are Elizabethan commonplaces, and given his generous standards as to what constitutes a "parallel," a similar list could be compiled for any Elizabethan poet with a canon the size of Oxford's.

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

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