Newsweek and The Daily Dot each falsely claimed that Marco Rubio tweeted a criticism of the Ivy League education of Joe Biden’s cabinet designees. Rubio’s tweet actually criticized the China policies of those designees. It was an example of the rhetorical device paraprosdokian which often takes the form of a series of laudatory statements concluding with a surprise and unexpected ending, a fact apparently lost on journalists Matthew Impelli and Andrew Wyrich.
Background: On 24 November 2020, United States Senator Marco Rubio tweeted:
Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools,have strong resumes,attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline
I support American greatness
And I have no interest in returning to the “normal” that left us dependent on China
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 24, 2020
The Claim: Rubio’s tweet prompted Newsweek’s Matthew Impelli to go scrambling to his keyboard. “[Rubio] criticized President-elect Joe Biden’s ‘Ivy League’ Cabinet picks,” he howled, “despite the fact that several of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members also attended Ivies.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Wyrich of The Daily Dot heaved up his own lightly paraphrased take on the tweet, writing that Rubio “complained on Tuesday morning that President-elect Joe Biden is picking people for his cabinet that went to Ivy League colleges.” Wyrich went on to note that “a lot of people” [sic] shared this criticism of Rubio, a point he sought to drive home by fluffing his appetizer-sized article with half-a-dozen embedded tweets that echoed his analysis (or, more accurately, from which his analysis echoed).
Investigation: What becomes immediately apparent is that, while several of Biden’s cabinet picks may have attended Ivies, Impelli and Wyrich did not. A quick glance at their LinkedIn profiles confirms this point. Impelli attended Syracuse while Wyrich graduated from something called “SUNY New Paltz.”
Rubio’s tweet was indeed a criticism of Biden’s picks. However, that criticism was not directed at their educational pedigrees. Rubio was using paraprosdokian, a rhetorical device designed to provoke a reader to reinterpret stated qualities by offering a surprising twist at the end of a sentence. Writing at the online learning site ThoughtCo, Dr. Richard Nordquist explains paraprosdokian.
Paraprosdokian is a rhetorical term for an unexpected shift in meaning at the end of a sentence, stanza, series, or short passage. Paraprosdokian (also called the surprise ending) is often used for comic effect.
In Catch 22, Joseph Heller uses paraprosdokian to describe one of his characters — a friendly soldier whose mannerisms infuriate the novel’s protagonist John Yossarian.
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
In the Catch 22 passage, it’s obvious Heller is not criticizing the qualities of generosity or likability. Instead, he uses paraprosdokian to nudge the reader to reevaluate preconceptions. In his 1972 work Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd Charles Harris, later Emeritus Professor of English at Illinois State University, writes of this passage that by “demanding an inversion of the reader’s normal response … [it] suggest[s] a world in which traditional responses and values have also been inverted.”
Humor writer Douglas Adams was a particular fan of paraprosdokian, employing the device frequently in his novels. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he describes the character Trin Tragula as,
… a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot …
Let’s examine Rubio’s tweet again. Far from criticizing Biden’s cabinet designees, Rubio praises them (indicated in red), for four different qualities: their Ivy League education, their strong resumes, attending all the right conference, and their polite and orderly nature. At the end of the sentence (indicated in blue) comes the surprising and humorous twist that makes the phrase a paraprosdokian. He argues that, despite these impressive credentials, they will be “caretakers of America’s decline.”
That Rubio is using paraprosdokian should be immediately apparent by the other qualities he includes in his list, such as “strong resumes” and attendance at the “right conferences,” qualities — like attending an Ivy League school — that are of an intrinsically good character. Rubio’s tweet came at a time when several analysts and commentators had lauded Biden’s cabinet picks for their academic brilliance. In his use of paraprosdokian, it would have been clear and obvious to a reasonable person of average intelligence that Rubio sought to provoke the reader into considering whether or not that fact alone qualified them to hold cabinet office when considered against what Rubio believed to be their misinformed worldview with respect to China.
Rating: Highlighting hypocrisy is a staid tactic of tabloid writing. In declaring that Rubio had criticized Biden’s cabinet designees for attending Ivy League universities, Wyrich and Impelli could point out that the leader of Rubio’s own party — Donald Trump — was himself an Ivy League graduate. This, of course, would make a searing and clickbaity punchline. But Rubio never criticized the education of Biden’s cabinet designees. Rather, he lauded their education as part of the set-up to a rhetorical statement designed to castigate their policy views. This fact was lost on Wyrich and Impelli who charged headfirst into a battle they were not intellectually equipped to fight.
Literacy is about more than being able to string together letters to form words, it is about understanding the nuances of speech and written communication in a way that would help one make sense of the world. When a simple and common figure of speech like paraprosdokian is so exotic and perplexing to reporters that they are unable to interpret or assign meaning to it, a warning sounds to those who care about the newsgathering profession.
The claim by Newsweek and The Daily Dot, that Rubio criticized Biden’s picks for having attended Ivy League schools, is — of course — FALSE.