Vizzini Syndrome: Games with Words and Pictures in the Wake of Tucson

13 Jan

I love The Princess Bride (both the book and the movie). The story is so well told and richly complex that I can’t pick a favorite line, scene, or character.


Over the past few days I’ve been constantly reminded of the criminal mastermind, Vizzini. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, a brief introduction to this character. Vizzini is (to his own way of thinking) one of the smartest people ever to have lived. He is hired to plot a complex intrigue to allow one nation to declare war on another. Whenever something goes wrong, Vizzini shouts “INCONCEIVABLE!” as though the fault lies not in himself, but in his stars. He simply cannot take responsibility for his actions.

I think Sarah Palin and her cronies took Vizzini lessons.

Let me be clear: one person pulled the trigger in Tucson. Six people are dead and over a dozen wounded because of the direct action of one man. But any tragedy is a time for reflection. A great example is Keith Olbermann asking everyone to consider how the national political tone (from all sides) has eroded to the point where irrational action might seem permitted.

The noise machine on the right has chosen instead to play word games. The best-known example is the infamous Palin crosshairs map. Has there been any willingness to admit that this imagery sends a violent political message? No. Instead, we’re asked to believe that the symbol was a surveyor’s sight. Yeah, right.

I see three major flaws in this weak defense (without even trying very hard).

Whose mustache is it anyway?

  1. The picture came with words. The phrase “Don’t retreat – Reload!” is not likely to be used by many surveyors in the course of their jobs.
  2. The weak semantic game of “it’s not crosshairs” is a lie and an abuse of language. Sights used by surveyors, shooters, and astronomers all have crosshairs.
  3. If you use an image for marketing, you must consider how it might be interpreted. I suspect there are a lot more Americans who are familiar with gun sights than surveyor’s sights. If you paint a little mustache on a picture of your opponent, no-one will believe that you meant to compare them to Charlie Chaplin.

I don’t expect Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, DeMint, or anyone to say, “Yep, I’m responsible for this tragedy, please blame me.” But refusal to even consider the role of violent rhetoric in creating a climate for violent action is irresponsible. More than that, it is cowardly and dangerous.

The right should step back from Vizzini and learn from his henchmen. Perhaps the swordsman, Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Or, perhaps more to the point, the words of the giant, Fezzik, “[That] way is not very sportsmanlike.”

P.S. – Don’t get me started on “blood libel”…

5 Responses to “Vizzini Syndrome: Games with Words and Pictures in the Wake of Tucson”

  1. Wendy Kurant January 13, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Excellent post, Michael!

  2. webwordwarrior January 13, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Great movie and great analogy. I wish people would learn that words do matter. (That’s the whole point of my screen name.) I’m surprised Sara Paleolithic didn’t claim those marks were the Cross of Jesus praying for the liberal sinners. That would have made more sense that surveying tools. 🙂

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt January 13, 2011 at 11:14 am #


      Great comment. Yes, I’m surprised she did not claim those words.

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt January 13, 2011 at 11:16 am #


        I’m a little surprised and disappointed that people don’t get your screen name, which we love, by the way.

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