November 10, 2008


Another post about New York Times parentheses. Last week, the well-known op-ed columnist, Thomas Friedman, wrote about the presidential election that was coming up in a few days. The title of the article is “Vote for ( ).”

Friedman explains that because “Times columnists are not allowed to ‘formally’ endorse candidates,” and because “the context of this election has changed so much from the policy positions the candidates started with,” he proposes three “character traits” his readers ought to consider when voting:

1. “We need a president who can speak English and deconstruct and navigate complex issues so Americans can make informed choices.”

2. “We need a president who can energize, inspire and hold the country together during what will be a very stressful recovery.”

3. “We need a president who can rally the world to our side.”

He concludes, “So, bottom line: Please do not vote for the candidate you most want to have a beer with (unless it’s to get stone cold drunk so you don’t have to think about this mess we’re in). Vote for the person you’d most like at your side when you ask your bank manager for an extension on your mortgage. Vote for the candidate you think has the smarts, temperament and inspirational capacity to unify the country and steer our ship through what could be rockiest shoals our generation has ever known.”

Presumably because he is not permitted to endorse a candidate, and to say “Vote for Obama,” or “Vote for McCain,” Friedman instead just gives us parentheses in place of a candidate: “Vote for ( ).”

Since Friedman proceeds to identify these traits we should “vote for,” we can understand the text of this piece as filling in the empty parentheses of its title. It’s interesting that parentheses act as a place-holder in this context. The nature of the parenthetical embrace, inviting to its interior contents, seems to be one reason why parentheses would serve as Friedman’s place-holder. He’s telling us, without naming names, who to embrace. Obama certainly seems to be the unnamed name in Friedman’s parentheses.


But there are other, related and unrelated, ways to read “Vote for ( )”:

-The empty parentheses seem to recall an empty oval shape on a ballot for a voter to mark in, to inscribe his or her vote.

-“Vote for ( )” is very close to being “Vote for 0”–“Vote for 0(bama)”–it’s just asking the reader to fill in the empty lines and make a full circle.

-Speaking to Friedman’s point, we need to vote for traits, qualities, structures, not a name, a face, an image. So he chooses a mark, a structure, rather than a name. The structure he chooses inscribes a set of relational qualities–withinness, asideness, inclusion–which perhaps overlap with the qualities he’s saying we should seek–someone who will “hold” things “together.” Implicitly too, though not directly endorsing Obama, perhaps qualities of parentheses speak directly about him–a candidate who, racially and maybe ideologically, is aside from what America is used to seeing in a president, a candidate who continually emphasizes an America that is inclusive.

-However, there’s also perhaps a more unsettling way to read “vote for ( )”: Vote for emptiness; vote for a placeholder; there is no name there to vote for.

What would it mean to actually vote for parentheses?


Note the O in HOPE–a half circle, a parenthesis turned on its side, opening onto a red-and-white-striped road. The “O” is the letter that stands out in HOPE–an open vowel sound, the O of Obama, and of 08.


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