The Word Killers

November 16, 2010

We’ve all heard about Frank Luntz, the man who taught the GOP to speak so that the sheep would listen. He now runs a company called The Word Doctors, which describes itself as “a powerhouse in the profession of message creation and image management.” The company describes Luntz as “one of the most honored communication professionals in America today.”

So Frank Luntz is an honored message creator and image manager. Honored by whom? Well, the web site lists among its corporate clients Disney and McDonalds and Pepsi. And a Psychology Today article claims that Luntz “gives us valuable insights on how subtle shifts in word usage can mean the difference between success and failure.”

Whether we like it or not, American politics function as a battle, and battles are all about success and failure. Frank Luntz and The Word Doctors know that—and take ample advantage of it for personal gain. According to Time magazine, via The Word Doctors, “If words are a weapon, Frank Luntz is a Samurai.”

So, let me get this straight: The Word Doctors is a powerhouse and Frank Luntz is a Samurai. It sounds like an action movie coming soon to a theater near you. Actually, the work of Frank Luntz and his disciples is near you, all the time. I got a swift, subtle reminder of that just the other day.

George W. Bush was on television promoting his book. Compared to the major lies Matt Lauer let slide by, this was a small moment, but it struck me—maybe because I had recently re-watched Fahrenheit 9/11 and been moved by the footage of protesters on GWB’s inauguration day. When Matt Lauer asked Mr. Bush about those protesters, he replied, “This crowd of activists were, you know, trying to disrupt and ruin the inaugural parade for others.”

“This crowd of activists.” Activists. What hit me like a slap across the face the minute he said the word was how ugly he made it sound. We all know what the GOP has done to the word “activist.” “Activist judges.” I knew it, but still it floored me, because it was so casual, so off-the-cuff.

The definition of the word activist (noun) is as follows:

an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause.

“Activist” has no intrinsic character, good or bad. One may find the cause for which the activist advocates good or bad, but Mr. Bush used the word “activist” in a way that made the word “activist” bad. And I personally resent that.

Activists make up Margaret Mead’s “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” who can change the world. The activists Mr. Bush spoke of were American citizens vigorously asserting their right to free speech, at a time when they felt that their right to vote had been maimed and debased by a group of thieves. Were they trying to disrupt and ruin the parade? I wouldn’t say that. I’d say they were trying to get out the message that the parade was a sham.

If the Bush inauguration protesters were activists, so are the Tea Partiers, and so are the Operation Rescue folks. They advocate for causes, don’t they? But would Mr. Bush call them activists, in the same faintly disgusted tone I sensed when he was speaking of the people who held up signs expressing their feelings about his rather strange road to the White House?

Doctors heal. I don’t find the Frank Luntz kind of message creation healing. I don’t think perfectly healthy words should be turned into sickening weapons for personal gain. If you disagree with my opinion, perhaps you can get a Word Doctor to rewrite my post. Maybe some “subtle shifts in word usage” can transform my message into one in which Mr. Bush is not a word killer.

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Pov Culture

October 27, 2010

You’ve heard of pop culture. Meet pov culture, the culture of poverty. A recent New York Times article by Patricia Cohen provides a history of the poverty culture theory, which states that persistent poverty is the result of a web of closed doors leading to bad choices, leading to closed doors, leading to more bad choices, etc.

The most compelling example of pov culture I’ve ever read is Random Family by Adrien Nicole LeBlanc. Subtitled Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Random Family made it clear to me that being poor in a  blighted place where every else was poor, except the drug dealers, who were rich for a while but then went to jail or got shot, was like living in a dysfunctional web. The world of poverty is a culture, in the exact same way that Ancient Greece was a culture. Poverty has its own set of behaviors, beliefs, and expectations.

Somehow, growing up in the projects, I avoided the culture of poverty. I think it was because:

  1. I was sent to a private school, which separated me from the other kids in my neighborhood (and their attitudes about life) for eight hours every day.
  2. I was repeatedly informed by my mother that we were not “on welfare.”  We lived on “Social Security disability” because Daddy was “chronically disabled.” This also made me feel separate from the unfortunate connotations that were attached to the word “welfare” in the 1960s.
  3. My much-older siblings, who had already flown the coop before the coop became the projects, were college graduates. At age five, I knew that a thing called college existed and that my older sister had gone there on something called a full scholarship. Escape from the projects was always a possibility for me.
  4. The projects in the 1960s were about teens drinking beer at night down at the end of development; the powerful force of the drug culture did not yet exist.. (A note of interest: my 1960s projects were lily-white.)

I came from a culture of academic excellence and upward mobility before I entered the world of the culture of poverty. My mother was a bystander among the welfare mothers who raised their kids to aspire to a rent-subsidized apartment right next to mom’s, because they didn’t know there was anything better to achieve.

The other kids viewed me as different from them, I think, and not because I talked about being different or tried to act differently. I think it just came across in my demeanor—the fact that I wasn’t going to stay where they were. In the NYT article, Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson is quoted as saying that culture is “shared understandings.”  My understanding of the projects was different from theirs. To me and to my family, it was way station: although my mother never left it, I knew that I would, like a traveler on a layover who knows she won’t spend the rest of her life in a grungy hotel room in Minneapolis—just one night.

That one night was about eighteen years long, but  I got out. Some of our neighbors did, too, taking advantage of nursing programs, vocational education programs, the military, and college grants. One woman even married up and moved to a brand-new house in the suburbs. But some of our neighbors had three generations living in the projects.

Sampson correlates poverty and “moral cynicism.” That makes sense to me. Like the people in Random Family, my neighbors spent most of their time navigating the web of being poor and trying not to get caught by the welfare agent or the police for some minor infraction of the rules of either entity. They had no mental space, no imagination, left over for envisioning a way out.

According to Cohen’s article, poverty is about more than how little money you have. My neighbors where I live now don’t have a lot of money, but they don’t have moral cynicism either. Sampson talks about “the shared perception of a neighborhood.” Here, we all see this neighborhood as a place where the lawns should be cut and the doors should have seasonal wreaths. In the projects, those things were far down on the list of “shoulds.” Besides, the housing authority never bothered to plant grass.

How to provide open doors for the people living in the culture of poverty? Many find my ideas, which are settlement-house type ideas, naive. But here they are:

  • Expose them to a culture other than pov culture.
  • Bring examples of the culture of aspiration into their neighborhood.
  • Talk to them as if they can get out.
  • Model moral optimism.
  • Don’t expect them to change overnight.
  • Praise small changes.
  • Don’t give up.
  • Resist stereotypes:  As the article reports, low-income unmarried mothers don’t necessarily think marriage is useless. They just think the men in their circle are not marriage material.

The only time many people see pov-culture people is on a street corner, waiting for a bus. Even then, you can make a difference. Instead of looking at the person and thinking of him as lazy, stupid, or in love with squalor and violence, think of him as someone from another culture. It’s as hard for him to assimilate into your world as it would be for you to feel comfortable in his. Smile and say hello. Every little dent in the armor of moral cynicism is a step toward eliminating pov culture.

This blog began as a page on my other blog, The Expanding Life, where I write about the life of our family: no school, lots of learning, plenty of intellectual and creative stimuli, and more than our share of love and laughter. I wanted my readers there to understand why I occasionally wrote about things political.

Then, my political side grew, as I became the Democratic Party Editor for BellaOnline.com. I wrote essays I was proud of for that site, but I eventually came to believe that an online gathering place for everything from soap opera fans to car racing devotees was not the best place to pursue a serious discussion of politics. BellaOnline.com does what it does very well; it was not the right place for me to do what I do (however well I do it).

That’s when this blog was born. I wanted a place of my own to store my essays, and I wanted to write more of them. It’s been a confused journey. I read voraciously about politics, and I often wondered why I want to write about it at all: so many others tell it so well that I see no place for myself. I enjoyed writing my book and film reviews, but I didn’t see that as my main role here, either.

Looking for a friendly place to send my posts to get more exposure, I found none, and so I began the Blog Carnival of Progressive Politics. It really took off; others must have been seeking the same kind of haven I sought—a place to write and read about true liberal values, such as civil liberty, environmental protection, clean energy, and compassionate policy-making. Organizing the carnival each month was a joy for me, but I still wanted more from this blog.

Recently, I received a carnival submission from a blog that has a bona fide perspective. It made me see that what I’d been doing here—poking around with posts, trying to find my way into this blog of mine—had been a very unfocused attempt to write about politics from my perspective. The problem: I hadn’t defined here what that perspective is.

Until now:

  • I grew up in the projects (government-subsidized public housing).
  • My father was chronically disabled from the time I was born until he died when I was twenty-three years old.
  • My family lived on Social Security disability checks.
  • We had no savings.
  • We had no car.
  • My mother took impeccable care of my father every day.
  • We lived in a town with a main street and local businesses galore.
  • I went to college on Pell Grants (they were called Basic Educational Opportunity Grants then) and state scholarships.
  • My husband and I have schooled our child at home, for mostly political reasons (not wanting to turn her over to the capitalist, consumerist culture at large).
  • I was raised Catholic, but the only Biblical thing that ever stuck to me was The Beatitudes.
  • My first ideas about human relationships (i.e., politics) were formed by my much-older sister’s Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul, and Mary albums.
  • The first presidential campaign I followed was the McGovern campaign in 1972. I was fourteen years old.
  • My first-ever vote, at age eighteen, was for Jimmy Carter for president.
  • If Bill Clinton could have run for a third term, I would have voted for him. I’d still be voting for him, if I could. In my opinion, my president’s personal life affects me no more than my dentist’s personal life affects me. Both are people I pay to do a job. I wouldn’t change dentists because mine was unfaithful to his wife. I’d only change dentists if mine destroyed my mouth. (And no, to anyone contemplating a cheap joke here, Bill Clinton did not destroy this country. I’d give that prize to Ronald Reagan.)
  • In 2000, I foolishly assumed Al Gore would win the presidency.
  • In 2004, I worked for John Kerry, but not hard enough.
  • In 2006, I “called for change” with MoveOn.org and felt the power of activism for the first time.
  • The experience of learning these things from a professorial Bill Clinton at Radio City Music Hall in the summer of 2008 deepened my understanding of the world I live in immeasurably.
  • In 2008, I worked with MoveOn councils to help elect Barack Obama.
  • In 2010, I became an elected official, a Democratic county committee woman.

So, that’s who wrote My Political Side. Not some anonymous book reviewer, or would-be opinion columnist, but a poor daughter of parents who never owned their own home, an honor student who couldn’t afford to pay for college without the government’s help, a woman with 1960’s sensibilities who has participated in 21st-century campaigns, and an American who wants her country to allow the meek to inherit.

My Political Side is not just my left side. It’s my most personal side—the real me, formed by my experiences. Now, I’m going to focus on writing a book and let this blog stand as a personal and historical record, however small. Thank you for reading here.

An Unhealthy Mix

October 7, 2010

When you have a health problem, the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse. Web sites can provide a multitude of factual knowledge about your condition and help you decide how to treat it, but they can can also lead you to advertiser-tinted pseudo-facts and dubious treatments. And then there are the forums: some people post useful anecdotes about how they handled having X disease, while others—many whose own treatment was botched—tell a tale of gloom and doom for anyone who suffers from X.

In other words, information about health care is complex and often subjective. To utilize it best, one needs to be quite good at discerning a fact from a claim, and a piece of research from a sales ad. In today’s consumer culture, that task keeps getting more difficult.

The New York Times offers an insightful piece about Sharecare.com, “an interactive social Q.& A. platform to provide consumers with what they want to know on health and wellness subjects.” Stop right there. What consumers want to know is not necessarily what consumers need to know.

And that’s not the worst of it. According to the Times, Sharecare.com will include content from such entities as The American Cancer Society and AARP, as well as such “experts” as Dr. Oz, who, according to his very busy web site, has a blog, a television program, and a radio show, in addition to being one of Oprah Winfrey’s darlings. It would seem that he has a vested interest in telling consumers what they want to know.

The scariest part of the Times article tells about the “knowledge partners”:

marketers that are paying an estimated $1 million to $7 million to become sponsors of Sharecare.com. The initial roster is composed of Colgate-Palmolive, for Colgate oral care products; the Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals division of Johnson & Johnson; the Medicines Company, a drug maker; Pfizer; Unilever, for Dove skin-care products; UnitedHealthcare, the health insurer; and Walgreen, for its Walgreens drug stores.

When will consumers wake up? Information offered by salepeople is inherently suspicious. The common good and big business are an unhealthy mix. While the home page of Sharecare.com may look tempting—shifting boxes with such labels as “How can I get my kids off of junk food?” and “What is a rebounder?”—the plot thickens once you click on a box. For example, in addition to telling you what a rebounder is, the answer, from a doctor whose Sharecare.com page you can access with a click, includes links to that doctor’s books, which you can purchase with yet another click!

Information plus an opportunity to purchase products may be the current American way, but I don’t think it’s the right way. When you have a health problem, you need uncluttered facts first. The decision to buy anything should come later, once you’ve completely educated yourself about what’s happening to your body. Combining the power of knowledge with purchasing power is an unhealthy mix. Shame on you, Sharecare.com.

On September 11, 2001, I was the most frightened I have ever been in my life. It had never occurred to me that a large-scale attack on high-profile symbols of my country would ever occur and, when it happened, I was filled with panic at the revelation of this completely new piece of life’s puzzle. I was alone with my seven-year-old child, in a mostly empty condominium development (it was a work day, after all) and I was pouring Lucky Charms cereal, for heaven’s sake. Within an hour, I was wondering if a police vehicle would soon be circling the development, with an officer holding a bullhorn, telling me how to evacuate the war zone.

As the day turned to night, and my husband came home, and the towers fell endlessly on television, my fear ebbed and flowed. It returned to its peak when my husband began to get his clothes ready for work the next day: “You’re going to work?!” I cried. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow!”

My fear level dropped significantly the next day, when he did in fact go to work, and I discovered that no more buildings had been violated during the night and no more lives lost. I talked to friends and relatives, repeating the same anecdotes about the previous day, while, on the television set, the towers continued to fall, again and again and again, until the sight of them falling didn’t produce as much adrenaline in my system as it had just twenty-four hours previously.

By September 13th, I was only experiencing brief moments of fear: the quietness of a department store parking lot, due to the lack of airplanes flying overhead, gave me a chill. But sadness was seeping into the hole that fear had blasted open inside me. I cried while watching an interview with the man who ran Cantor Fitzgerald, a business that lost hundreds of employees on September 11th. I cried at a local church service for victims of the tragedy who lived in my area.

In light of the recent activities designed by extremists to stoke fear in the average American, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between fear and September 11th.  I don’t think that fear is designed to stick around. It exists to get your blood up, get you moving, make you flee or make you fight, and then it cuts out. It’s too exhausting an emotion to maintain for a very long time. Just as we don’t remember pain—I can tell a fantastic story about passing my kidney stone, but none of the pain I felt at the time is accessible to me now—I don’t think we can remember fear. We can remember that we were afraid, but the actual terror, the sensation of panic—I don’t think that’s accessible to us after the fact.

So, according to my theory, maintaining fear takes effort, and that effort is what the aforementioned extremists are ready and willing to provide. “Never forget.” “Always remember.” I know that these “9/11” phrases refer to the dead, and I honor that. But, I also believe that, for some people, they are a code for “Never forget the  fear.” “Always remember the fear.”

When people are afraid, they don’t think clearly. They are prone to quick judgment. They are easily unhinged. They can be led astray.

Instead of seeing September 11th as a day on which to feed our fear, I hope that Americans will see it as a sad day, a day on which people with grievances (whether justified or not) made a very, very wrong choice about how to express their anger. As Timothy McVeigh did on another sad day. As Richard Speck did on yet another sad day. I could, of course, go on and on, back to the man the Bible calls Cain.

Fear does not deserve to be maintained; love does. Love is an emotion human beings can remember and conjure at will. This September 11th, act with love. Love never leads you astray.

Obama Behind the Desk

June 16, 2010

Barack Obama behind his desk

Last night, on June 15, 2010, President Obama gave his first speech to the nation from the Oval Office—a setting associated with somber situations and the need for national unity. The situation this time was the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, which is the result of our country’s complicity in corporate contracts as well as BP’s ineptitude and shameless lack of concern for the environment from which they take their immense profits. President Obama sat behind his desk, and he spoke about the seriousness of this catastrophe. He spoke about a national mission. He spoke about our addiction to oil. But it wasn’t enough.

I wanted him to sound tougher. Not John Wayne tough. Barack Obama-the-candidate tough would have been just fine. I wanted to get a sense that he’s as angry and sad and frustrated and distraught about this as I am. But I don’t think he sees that as his role; his role is to project the calm sense of forward motion that is required to solve problems. I want the problem solved, true, and I still have some faith that he might be able to get some things done that will solve some parts of it. (How’s that for a realistic assessment of the qualified power of government?)

Each of us, I hope, has someone we can vent to. We all need a person in our lives who can stand there and take our heat, hear us cry, stay steady while we scream, and still love us when we’re all done emoting. I have never expected my president to be that person. I have always proclaimed that the president is a person we hire to do a job. Do I expect my boss to be my confidant, my “Miss Lonelyhearts”? No. Nor do I expect him to be a churchgoer, a nonsmoker, or faithful to his wife. I simply expect him to do his job. And, when President Obama was behind that desk, I expected nothing more than for him to do his job, but . . .

Truth be told, I realize that I also did want him to mirror what I was feeling. That’s part of effective leadership—to let the people you’re leading know you’re acting, calmly and responsibly, but with acknowledgment of the crazed, irresponsible undercurrents that surround the situation. You have to somehow step in front of the desk while sitting behind it, step out in front of the country the way candidate Bill Clinton stepped out toward the audience at the infamous town hall meeting when I suddenly knew he would win the 1992 presidential election.

I want President Obama to solve our problems, first and foremost but—just as important, I now see—I need to know he feels our pain.

Bill Clinton's connection with the audience, 1996

Dissecting Rand Paul

May 20, 2010

Evan McMorris-Santoro at Talking Points Memo sums up Rachel Maddow’s interview with Rand Paul much better than I ever could, so I’ll just add my reactions to the exchange and share my findings about the latest good-looking, shallow Tea Party star.

Rand Paul thinks that businesses, such as restaurants, should not be subject to laws prohibiting racism. Why? Because businesses are privately owned, and the owners have First Amendment rights (i.e., the right to free speech).

Somehow, Rand Paul equates the right to free speech with the right to discriminate based on race, sexual orientation, etc. He’s confusing the right of a restaurant owner to say to a black patron, “I don’t like black people” with the right  of a restaurant owner to say to a black patron, “I don’t like black people, so get out of my restaurant.” The first instance is free speech; the second is a return to Jim Crow America.

“Should we limit racists from speaking?” asked Rand Paul. Again, he’s confused. He’s confusing speech with action. Racists can talk all they want. I’ll bet they can find lots of people to “talk racist” with at the next Tea Party convention. But racist people can’t act racist. That goes against the principles of Jeffersonian democracy.

But maybe that’s Rand Paul’s point, and maybe he isn’t really confused at all.

Here are some of the issues listed on Rand Paul’s web site:

  • Abortion. He’s against it.
  • Bailouts. He opposes them.
  • Campaign Finance Reform. He thinks it violates the First Amendment (free speech).
  • Guns and Politicians. He thinks the latter should make sure everybody can have the former. (Second and Fourth Amendments come into play here!)
  • Illegal Immigration. No amnesty! Secure the borders! (with hats off to the Tenth Amendment)
  • National Defense. His words: “I believe that the primary Constitutional function of the federal government is national defense, bar none.”
  • Privacy & Liberty. He opposes intrusion into the personal lives of Americans.
  • Sovereignty. He doesn’t think the US should fund or join international organizations.

So, Rand Paul says “No” to abortion, bailouts, campaign finance reform, immigration reform,  governmental intrusion into private lives, and efforts to make the US part of a global community. He says “Yes” to guns, borders, and defense with a capital D. And he is to the word “Amendment” what Rudy Giuliani is to the word “9-11.”

Notice that Poverty and Race are not included in Rand Paul’s issue list, and that Immigration is titled “Illegal Immigration” rather than “Immigration Reform.” Notice that he opposes intrusion into private lives, but doesn’t consider a “No Blacks Allowed” sign on a restaurant to be a violation of personal rights. For all his amendment spouting, the 14th and 15th Amendments don’t seem to matter much to him.

If you are familiar with my favorite film of all time, Nashville, you know about the fictional presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker. Like Rand Paul and other 2010 candidates, Walker is a reaction to the public’s distrust and dislike of the existing government. Rand Paul’s blurbs on his web site remind me of Hal Phillip Walker’s talking points: folksy, but ultimately inane. Unfortunately, Nashville ends without telling us if Mr. Walker gets elected. There is time to make sure that Rand Paul doesn’t.