Occupy This Rhetoric

Happy rich man holding moneyI just read an article online about how Republican Governors, at their Association meeting, were being taught to talk to people involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Given the almost unlimited diversity of how humans communicate, a phrase like “talk to” means many things, depending on the context. It might mean, for instance, “find out how someone is feeling”, “express sympathy for”, or “give a warning to”.

In this case, it seems to mean “try not to piss off”.

The implication of the article was that Republicans will not agree with the OWS movement, though that was more implied that asserted. A deeper implication of the article was that in spite of disagreement, they have to talk to OWS. There are probably many ideas floating around that Republicans don’t agree with, such as returning to the gold standard, but they don’t feel obliged to respond to those ideas. (As an example, Ron Paul is actually running for President, allowed to stand on the stage, and he advocates the gold standard, but he’s just ignored.)

The fact that Republican Governors, or Republicans in general, are being taught how to talk to OWS appears to indicate that OWS has acquired an influence that can’t be simply ignored. I like that idea, though I will like it better if OWS ever acquires a coherent strategy for doing something more than merely expressing anger.

The man teaching these political communication skills, Frank Luntz, is quoted as saying, “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.” From this statement, it strikes me that Luntz believes capitalism is such a good thing that it’s frightening to even consider criticizing it. It sounds like Frank Luntz never heard of child labor or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

So as Luntz teaches Republicans to talk to OWS, his main goal is to give the appearance of having a conversation—of listening, in other words—while not revealing that no listening is actually happening. As a clear example, he says of the word “capitalism”: “I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market’. The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral.” Notice that Luntz’ replacement phrases have either free or freedom. In America, we have no clear idea of exactly what freedom is, but when we heard the word we raise our fist and yell “Yeah!”

Most of the tricks that Luntz suggests involve a similar technique, using a different language to create a mental framework that will lead people away from thinking about the truly incredible disparity of wealth and power in this country. In reality that gap is so enormous—and getting larger—as to leave a thinking, moral person standing stark naked stunned.

But Frank Luntz is not such a person, so here are some of his suggestions (I’m putting the phrases into sentences afterward):

  • tax the rich: instead say “take from the rich”—We cannot take more money from people who own four houses.
  • government spending: instead say “waste”—Don’t waste money on veterans’ benefits.
  • bonus: instead say “pay for performance”—The CEO was paid an extra $100 million for his performance.

Luntz also suggests trying to use a general point of view that pretends to understand, to create an illusion of having a connection with people sympathetic to OWS. If you believe that everyone  who works in a rich country should be able to live a decent life, Frank Luntz will claim to agree. “First off, here are three words for you all [Republicans speaking to OWS]: I get it . . . I get that you’re angry. I get that you’ve seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system.” Then he recommends suggesting Republican solutions, apparently not having heard that Republicans want to give even more tax breaks to the super rich.

Another aspect of that same shift in point of view is to talk about “careers” instead of “jobs”. That particular piece of advice indicates just how far removed Luntz is from the world of the working people who he is trying to fool into comradeship. A man who installs windows in new houses does not refer to his career, nor does a woman who works in the deli at the supermarket, but they are both glad to have jobs. And they would both be glad to earn a better salary, have health insurance, and afford college tuition for their kids, not just come home tired from work to hear on the news that they pay a higher percentage of their salary in taxes than a CEO. In fact, Frank Luntz does not get it.

Luntz also told his audience of Republican Governors not to use the word “sacrifice” because “There isn’t an American today in November of 2011 who doesn’t think they’ve already sacrificed.”

Yeah, Frank, or maybe some have sacrificed just a little bit more than others.

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