Tuesday, January 26, 2010

If I Were "Ellie Light"...More Clues to the Puzzle

Is the Now-Legendary "Ellie Light" Astroturfer a Grammar Goddess?

One of the frustrating things about co-running a blog like this is that I can only do it part-time and with limited resources. For this reason, I can only contribute educated speculation to the ongoing blogger investigation into the identity of mystery pro-Obama astroturfer "Ellie Light." I've already deduced that the occurrence of the Light Brigade neatly coincided with the arrival of Obama's former campaign manager David Plouffe in the Washington Post's op-ed pages this past Sunday--an appearance that had to have been choreographed in advance. Just like the "Ellie Light" op-ed campaign.

Both Plouffe and partner-in-crime, Obama insider David Axelrod are pretty well known for their encouragement of/involvement in astroturfing during the long 2008 election campaign. So I've been thinking that one or both of them are at least peripherally involved in the current flap.

Follow me, now. Both these guys, along with their staffers, are well versed in the arts of communication and mis-communication. Among other things, they and any staff they might hire are presumed masters of the English language, twisting it and molding it to suit their needs. But like any really smart writer/communicator dudes, they can make mistakes. And I think someone has made a mistake here.

Fox News online updates the "Ellie Light" story today, quoting the following paragraph from "her" letter--one that's already made the rounds. I'm inserting it below. Read it carefully:
"But today, the president is being attacked as if he were a salesman who promised us that our problems would wash off in the morning. He never made such a promise. It's time for Americans to realize that governing is hard work, and that a president can't just wave a magic wand and fix everything."
That first sentence is really interesting. The clause "as if he were a salesman" is in what used to be called the "subjunctive mood" back when I was in school. And, as a former English professor myself, I still employ this construction, at least in formal documents.

However, for better or ill, statistically, no one bothers with this distinctive form anymore, at least in the US. (The Brits still use it with great regularity.) Grammar is no longer rigorously taught in American schools, which is why our speech and writing habits have coarsened considerably since the 1950s. Most Americans in the above written excerpt would have said (or written) "if he was a salesman." "Were" is rarely employed by the vast majority of American speakers and writers in this context.

Ergo, unless "Ellie Light" is a Brit (or a well-educated member of the British Commonwealth), he/she is probably a well educated American and very possibly a professional writer. He/she also doesn't pal around with the actual proletariat much either. Otherwise, he/she would have long ago abandoned the formal subjunctive which is viewed by the average man on the street as a kind of haughty affectation.

Which brings us back to "Ellie Light." Fox reports that:
A woman claiming to be Light called into Michael Smerconish's Philadelphia radio show Tuesday morning. On the show, a clip of which was posted on Politico.com, she described herself as a "traveling nurse" and admitted to fabricating hometown addresses.
The woman who called may or may not be a phony, although this individual did at least fess up to the obvious--namely, that "Ellie" fabricated hometown addresses. Yet I'm not so sure that a "traveling nurse"--no offense to a highly educated profession--would be so natural and precise with the formal subjunctive in his/her writing. I think this phone call was another smokescreen.

To me, this subtle little clue gives us some insight into the skillsets and perhaps the profession of the "Ellie Light" writer. "Ellie" is well-educated, writes with far greater skill than the average American, and is likely a member in good standing of the political/social elite. "Ellie's" communications have all the hallmarks of a professional communicator. The average American don't write so good no more. Ironically, though, as a member of the elite class, this writer wouldn't have thought to cover his/her tracks by employing a little "lower class" grammar to throw off the hounds in the blogosphere.

I.e., we are indeed being hoodwinked by a pro or a team of pros. I leave it to more technically adept bloggers--who can actually trace phone calls or full email headers--to eventually expose the actual astroturfer. But my guess is, they won't have to stray very far from the Plouffe-Axelrod clubhouse to find the guilty dude/dudette.

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