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Biden, Brain Damage, and Reagan’s Example
“One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace, one nevertheless tells the truth.” (Nietzsche)
There has been plenty of justifiable chatter lately about the mental capacities of President Joe Biden.
Not to be all too-cool-for-school, but I was questioning the mental capacities of presidents way before it was trendy.
Anyway, let’s consider Donald Trump’s word-salad reply when he was asked about the protests after George Floyd was killed:
“Protesters for different reasons. You’re protesting also because, you know, they just didn’t know. I’ve watched — I watched very closely. Why are you here? They really weren’t able to say, but they were there for a reason, perhaps. But a lot of them really were there because they were following the crowd. A lot of them were there because what we witnessed was a terrible thing. What we saw was a terrible thing. And we’ve seen it over the years. We haven’t, you know, this was one horrible example, but you’ve seen other terrible examples. You know that better than anybody who would know it. And I know it. I’ve seen it, too. I’ve seen it before I was president. I’ve seen it.”
Then, of course, there was Barack Obama. He made “yes we can” sound like “soaring rhetoric” when sandwiched by Trump and George W. Bush. Speaking of Bush the Lesser, here’s a gem from 2004: “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
Before him came a man literally called “Slick Willie.” Bill Clinton’s mental capacities left us questioning the meaning of the word “is.” After declaring “there’s nothing going on” between him and Monica Lewinsky, Clinton clarified this statement for the grand jury: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”
All this just a few years after George H.W. Bush urged us to read his lips while he blatantly lied about not raising taxes. Prior to Bush the Elder, of course, we were treated to the performances of a B-movie thespian by the name of Ronald Reagan.
At this juncture, I’m reminded of a chapter from Oliver Sacks’ remarkable book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, in which Sacks detailed the reactions of people with aphasia and agnosia as they viewed a televised speech by President Reagan.
While the multiple language and speech problems of aphasia can be caused by any disease or injury to the brain, the most common cause is stroke. “The hallmark of aphasia,” explains Dr. Antonio Damasio, a behavioral neurologist at the University of Iowa, “is the use of words that are off-target, words that are related but not quite correct.” Therefore, this condition can often be masked and difficult to diagnose.
This can also be true when treating those with agnosia. Agnosia, while it can present an extremely broad range of symptoms, sometimes causes aphasia-like speech and language problems. Such a person with agnosia may suffer from tonal problems and be unable to recognize the tone, timbre, feeling, or character of a voice, but can understand the words and grammatical constructions perfectly.
Sacks, a noted neurologist, had been in the position to encounter many rare cases of agnosia. “Such tonal agnosia (or ‘atonias’) are associated with disorders of the right temporal lobe of the brain,” he explained, “whereas the aphasiacs go with disorders of the left temporal lobes.” According to Sacks, people with atonia may sometimes be found in an aphasia ward. Therefore, as it is for patients with aphasia, treating someone with aphasia can occasionally become more complex because many patients will display a level of understanding that seemingly belies their condition.
In addition, Dr. Sacks found that some people with aphasia, when addressed “naturally,” could grasp some or most of the meaning of one’s words. Thus, he was compelled to utilize an unusual approach in his treatment. In order to satisfactorily confirm their condition as aphasia, Dr. Sacks stated that he had to go to “extraordinary lengths to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extra-verbal clues—tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s gestures, one’s entirely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture).”
Such de-personalizing of voice renders speech devoid of tone or color (think: artificial intelligence). It is this machine-like way of talking that will usually be unrecognizable to people with aphasia and quite possibly cause them to laugh at the incomprehensible sounds being uttered. The words mean nothing, it is the way they are spoken that matters. Through such unusual treatment, Sacks was able to truly demonstrate his patients’ aphasia.
Quite unexpectedly, this peculiar method exposed a rather fascinating side-effect: political savvy. In the mid-eighties, Sacks studied the reaction of people with aphasia as they watched a televised speech by Ronnie Reagan. Despite being unable to grasp the skillful politician’s words, the patients were convulsed in laughter.
“One cannot lie to an aphasiac,” Dr. Sacks noted. “He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps, he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily.”
So, why did those patients with aphasia cackle at Reagan’s speech?
“It was the grimaces, the histrionics, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients,” explained Sacks. Conversely, Sacks remarked on a woman with tonal agnosia who was also watching the address — stony-faced. Emily D., a former English teacher, and poet was deprived of any emotional reaction to the speech but was able to judge it in the opposite way the patients with aphasia did. Her response?
“He does not speak good prose,” Emily D. told Sacks. “His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged or he has something to conceal.”
“We normals,” concluded Dr. Sacks, “aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled. And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.”
Those well and truly fooled normals still line up to demonstrate which of them remained intact. For example, in 2021, Bloomberg News had this to say about Biden’s press conferences during his first overseas trip as Commander-in-Chief:
“He’s more articulate than either Bush; more in control of facts than Ronald Reagan; able to speak directly to regular voters better than Barack Obama, who never really found a way to make formal news conferences work for him.”
The words of Emily D. rang in my ears as I read that “review.” I couldn’t help wondering if there was laughter echoing down the corridors of the hospital where Dr. Oliver Sacks once worked.
“Either he is brain-damaged or he has something to conceal.” I’ll respond to that supposition with one of my favorite meme tropes:
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