Sep 28, 2009

After a Long Vacation

I wish it were more like the sleep of Rip Van Winkle. The world has not changed. Awake and returning, I just know more about it.

For example, yesterday in the Los Angeles Times Op-ed pages, Frank Luntz--the man who successfully changed the exact phrase "Estate Tax" into the negatively charged "Death Tax" (which must have sent currents of damaging electrical energy along the decomposing spine of Thomas Jefferson)--Frank Luntz, sounding oh so sympathetic and sincere, wrote about how "The angry, fearful American" has changed from optimist to frantic raincoated Howard Beale, mad as hell and not wanting to take it any more. According to his research, 72% of Americans are mad as hell, 57% think their children will have a worse world than they, and only 33% think their children will have it better. The paper version of the op-ed was "The angry, fearful American" but on the LAT website it this has been changed to "What Americans really want." Perhaps the first title had too heavy a connotation--think of "angry, fearful Indian" or "angry, fearful Negro."

He has interviewed, he says, 6400 people from all areas and ethnic and political backgrounds, has taken instant responses over the past 100 days, and here is his conclusion: "that intense despair and loss of confidence exactly reflect what we're seeing and hearing in healthcare town halls." Further, he says, the focus on the loud extremist voices don't see the significance: "a once optimistic people now filled with rancor and vitriol." (He never mentions the incivility, the racism, or the angry charges that Obama is a Hitler, a maniacal Heath Ledger Joker, a grass skirted witch doctor, or worse, a monkey.) Politicians shouldn't criticize the outbursts, he says, they should respect them and listen to them carefully. So should business executives.

He goes on sincerely to make a few points: that his surveyed people choose as their highest priority as "restoring personal responsibility'; that wrongdoing isn't punished; that "enforcing rules and letting failures fail" would prevent mistakes; that business executive shouldn't "skunk" their employees and walk off with millions. In fact, he says, his surveys have shown him that never has the gap been so large: "employers resent the lack of loyalty and commitment from their people; employees resent the lack of job security and the need to work longer and harder for less."

I wonder what American doesn't feel similarly? My gawrsh, you think that Frank has seen the light? That he finally has become progressive, looking for ways to make the American worker more secure (by providing health care for all Americans for instance) or asking for tighter and stronger enforcement of regulations? maybe for salary caps? Yes, yes, he is looking for Bank of America to fail, right?

It's almost convincing until you realize that this is the rhetorical tactician whose twists and chiseling of words to make them emotionally loaded with fear or distortion--see "death tax" above and a bushel of other words and phrases in his recent revision of Words That Work: It's Not what You say, It's What People Hear.

And Luntz creates their fear. In the current health care debate he wrote an important memo of rhetorical prescriptions for conservatives, "The Language of Healthcare 2009." Read it through. You will find that his talking points showed up at town hall meetings all over. You can find the memo here. Try this one on for size: 'it is essential that 'deny' and 'denial' enter the conservative lexicon immediately because it is at the core of what scares Americans most about a government takeover of medical care." Sound familiar?

Or how about talking point #13: "Maximize your attacks on the Democratic plans by choosing the BEST words . . . 'Washington Takeover' beats 'Washington Control.' Takeovers are like coups--they both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom. What Americans fear most is that Washington politicians will dictate what kind of care they can receive."

Luntz tips his hand when he says that an "incredible 88% believe in the adage 'live free or die'." It's at that point that I understand how selective his audience sample probably is: he's not talking to progressives, liberal democrats, or beleaguered minorities; he's not even talking to thinking independent middle class folk.

No, he's talking to the very crowds that he has helped create over the past fifteen years: mad as hell white suburbanites who feel their impending minority status creeping up, who still believe, as Mark Twain once remarked, that they are merely temporarily embarrassed financially, and that it's only a matter of time until the American greed dream will be theirs. In other words, if they were corporate executives, they would be skunking their employees and walking away with millions with no qualms.

So a piece which on the surface appears to appeal to the good nature of most Americans is merely a dramatic exercise. This is the puppet master who wrote the script surveying the puppets who learned it from their blanket emails and right wing swift-boaters. This is Frank Luntz listening to the echo and then turning to us to insist that the echo comes from a vast reality. This is seductive rhetoric here, folks. While he may have picked up buzz words that appeal to both left and right don't believe for one minute that this is anything but sophisticated manipulation at a higher level. It's still the same word game.

I'll try not to go back to sleep.