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.

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.

It’s the Water, Stupid

October 15, 2010

It’s Blog Action Day, and that’s a very good thing. Bloggers all over the world, including this blogger, are educating themselves about water: who has it, who doesn’t, and why it matters.

Three points stand out to me.

  1. People who live as I do—in the US, in a house with indoor plumbing (Don’t laugh! It’s not that common worldwide.)—use much too much water. We take water for granted, I believe. That’s why I recommend that you take five minutes of your time to use the Water Footprint Calculator. By answering a group of questions about your water usage, you will learn where you fit into the big picture. I found out that my family uses about 200 gallons less per day than the average family—but, no cause for applause there, since  we still use 943 gallons per day! I also learned some tips for how we can lower that number, such as installing low-flow shower heads and faucets.
  2. People who live in developing countries, such as Africa, don’t have enough water, especially clean water. They aren’t in a position to be thinking about low-flow shower heads; they’re too busy walking miles each day to the nearest source of water, just so they can walk miles back home while carrying it. And, unlike mine, their water has a great chance of being contaminated. According to charity:water, “Unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of diseases and kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war.”  People living under these conditions need an immediate solution, and I think the best one is a village well. You can find out about how to help a struggling community get one.
  3. The people like me, with water to spare, and the people who desperately need water, are related. By cutting down on my water use, I can help keep the environment clean, save energy resources, and save money. With the money I save, I can help people who are in imminent danger of dying because of water-related illnesses. My low-flow faucet for their well. What’s the key to improving the lives of the many?  The key to preventing 80 percent of their deaths? It’s the water, stupid.

Now, sign the petition from Change.org.

Thank you.

Petitions by Change.org|Start a Petition »

Why Volunteer?

September 28, 2010

I am currently doing volunteer work for two candidates for office in November: one for my town, and one for my state. Some of my relatives and friends wonder why I do this. Here’s why (and why you should think about doing it, too).

  1. It’s tangible. If you are the kind of person who thinks about politics, and reads about politics, and talks (or complains) about politics, volunteering for a campaign is a way to actually do something about politics. Come Election Day, you will be have tangible actions to look back on, not just abstract ideas about what your candidate should or should not have done. Regardless of the results, you personally will have made a difference and met a goal.
  2. It’s educational. You may not be the chair of the DNC, but you can feel like a big fish in a local campaign office pond. You can learn about how politics really happens—the meetings, the phone banks, the door-to-door contacts, and the data collection. Did you know that each town has its own law about how many days before an election residents can display political yard signs? I learned that at my local campaign headquarters.
  3. It’s a social activity. How many times a day do you hold your tongue when you hear other people discussing politics? At your local campaign office, you are always among friends. You can speak your mind and know that the heads surrounding you will nod in agreement. At least on the big issues.
  4. It’s important. Getting out the vote is the be-all and end-all. Voting is the single most important way to change what you want changed in government. Sometimes, a vote is a total thumbs-up. Sometimes, it’s more of a lesser-of-two-evils affair. But voting is always better than not voting. So, volunteering to help get out the vote is like voting times two. You vote yourself, and you help ensure that other people vote, too.
  5. It has fringe benefits. When you volunteer at a campaign office, the people who work for the campaign are very nice to you. They need you, and they want you to want to come to the office and help out. Volunteering can be an ego booster if that’s what you need. And you might even wind up on You Tube.

Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) is causing a lot of commotion in the Garden State. Yes, New Jersey is in serious financial trouble, but no, the Christie budget is not the proper solution. As then presidential candidate Barack Obama said in September 2008, of candidate John McCain’s call for a budget freeze, making broad, one-size-fits-all budget cuts is akin to “using a hatchet where you need a scalpel.”

A hatchet is a tool associated with violence; a scalpel is a tool associated with healing. Governor Christie’s plans to defund libraries, Revolutionary War landmarks, public parks, programs that help poor students attend college, and psychiatric hospitals does violence to the cultural and intellectual life of New Jerseyans.

By making such decisions while also choosing to give tax breaks to the wealthy in New Jersey, Gov. Christie is sending the false message that the few who have amassed fortunes matter more than the many who seek self-actualization. By openly expressing disgust for teachers and state workers, Gov. Christie is sending the false message that the working class is the enemy of the state.

On Saturday, May 22, 2010, over 30,000 New Jerseyans gathered in Trenton to take a unified stand against this anti-intellectual approach to balancing the budget. Speakers representing teachers, union members, and students all expressed the need for a new movement—a workers’ movement—to save New Jersey from losing its middle class.

There are ways to use the scalpel in New Jersey. The brutality of Governor Christie’s plan is not necessary. On May 22, 2010, the people stood up for the path of healing.

This afternoon I spent a hour or so on a lovely “main street” volunteering with a wonderful group of smart, dedicated people who work for LGBT equality. We were asking passersby if they support openly gay people serving in the military and, if so, whether they would sign a petition calling for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

About half of the people I encountered on this brisk but sunny day were willing to sign the petition and expressed sentiments such as:

  • I’m sure they can fight as good as anybody else.
  • Oh, yes, I’m in favor of that.
  • Oh, certainly. That law is so silly.
  • I don’t like the military, but if they want to serve . . .

You get the idea.

The other half, who didn’t sign the petition, fell into several subcategories:

  1. The people who didn’t even see or hear me because they  were looking at the sidewalk and/or listening to an Ipod.
  2. the people, both male and female, whose faces turned cold and stiff the minute I said the word “gay.”
  3. The people who reacted with more than a disapproving look.

The third subset was the most fascinating to observe. One man sneered—yes, he actually sneered—and said, “I’m not interested in that,” as if being interested in civil rights would make him a homosexual. One woman said,”No, no, no,” and then kept shaking her head back and forth, even when she was well past me, trying to shake off the entire subject, I think.

And then there was the man who closed his car windows. His car was stopped at the light on the corner near where I was standing with my trusty clipboard and pen. A teenage girl in the passenger seat called out to me, “What does your petition say?” and I started to answer her: “it’s about letting openly gay people serve . . .” when I realized that the man, whom I assume was her father, was using his remote button to close all the car windows. The girl, and the kids in the back seat, were still looking at me as the car pulled away when the light changed.

So, this is to the man who closed the windows: It’s not going to work, mister. You can’t be everywhere at all times to close every window on your kids’ questions. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, ” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and justice eventually seeps through closed windows. Remember,

First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you,
then they fight you,
then you win.
Mahatma Gandhi

An Activist Among Us

December 17, 2009

. . . after traveling all across the state this year and meeting so many people who have suffered or seen family members die because they lacked insurance, I could not look them in the eye and say that they and people like them should wait until a better bill comes along. This legislation is far from perfect, but it will make affordable insurance available to millions of people who do not have it now. It will save lives and reduce suffering. It will pave the way for further reforms down the road. And, if we lose now, we will not only miss this opportunity to begin reforming health care but will find it much harder to attain many other goals we share.

–Roxanne Pauline, Dec. 15, 2009

I interviewed Roxanne Pauline back in September of 2009 while she was waiting for a town hall meeting to end, so that she could distribute fliers and stickers and buttons about health care reform. Roxanne devotes much of her time to organizing events that educate people about politics. Activism, she says, is in her blood. It’s what she does, and she does it very well.

Like many activists, Roxanne comes from a theater background. Because of that, she has no qualms about talking with people, creating performance art pieces to get her message across, or dealing with the press. She is also very good at getting people’s attention, and that’s what educating the public about the issues requires.

This past year, Roxanne’s message has been about health care reform. She’s for it. She is a volunteer with MoveOn, Healthcare for America Now (HCAN), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and her state’s activist health care group. But even within those organizations, she stands out as a pro.

Roxanne’s own family benefited greatly from past health care programs, such as Medicare, which supported her chronically disabled brother until his death this year at age forty-four. She believes that now is the time to make changes to our broken health care system and that, if we fail to pass legislation this year, we won’t have another chance for a long, long time.

So, Roxanne plans and executes event after event. Rallies, vigils, public presentations in front of elected officials’ offices—everything she does has the goal of providing people with more information about reform and giving them an opportunity to talk about their questions and concerns.

She says she did not have any bad experiences with opponents of reform during the crazy town-hall month of August. While acknowledging that some people just like to scream and often don’t even understand what they are screaming about, she adds that, when a supporter and an opponent start to really talk, they find common ground. Neither one wants anything bad to happen; they just have different opinions about what the “bad thing” would be. And most of those opinions are taken from sound bites generated by the media.

That is why Roxanne did something “pre-media” to advance the health care reform debate. She staged readings of HR 3200, similar to the kind of reading of a bill that would have been done by a town crier in the village square back in the days when most citizens were unable to read. Yes, HR 3200 is over one thousand pages long, but Roxanne found many volunteers, mostly actors, who were willing to take on sections of the reading.

At a reading in Scranton, PA, the Scranton Times Leader reported that, “While the reading is going on, the organizers are encouraging attendees to discuss health care under a tent.”

Roxanne is the one who arranged for, and probably helped put up, that tent. Discussion and debate are important to her. She believes health care reform is everybody’s issue. And she says that everybody can contribute to the cause by following their talents. Make a poster, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, make a video, or talk to your neighbors.

She’s still at it today, planning a reading of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, focusing on the fact that “Bob Crachit is not a fiction. He is living . . . all over the USA.”

Not everybody can do what Roxanne does, but isn’t it wonderful that she, and many others like her across the country, are doing it? I hope you feel inspired right now, and I hope you will join me in saying, “Thank you, Roxanne.”

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good health insurance plan.