Occupy Language-A GreenWatch Special Section
Media and the Art of Influence
-by Jay Burney
The art of influence exists everywhere from the front pages and newsy teasers grabbing at us from every niche, to the shadowed recesses of the moments between moments on the video and internets tubes. Influence comes to us in the classroom, the workplace, the local barroom and the convivial kitchen table coffee klatches. We cannot be free of influence.
We experience this influence in all forms of the media. This public marketplace transcends mere advertising, which while on the surface may seem to occupy certain well-defined spaces, it does not.
We are saturated in media and messaging that attempts to inform our every waking and sleeping moment. This highly nuanced agenda setting works.
Fortunately, resistance is not futile. We, each of us, have the ability to think critically. In that fundamental context, language counts. Our critical thinking skills are informed by language. Language inspires learning, thinking, and action. Critical thinking is not a lost art. We can do this. This is fundamentally what humans do.
The Hidden Hands
Frank Luntz is someone that we should all know about. His job is to influence what you think. Luntz is a political pollster cum phraseologist who wrote earlier this year: “Words matter. The most powerful words have helped to launch social movements and cultural revolutions. The most effective words have instigated great change in public policy. The right words at the right time can literally change history.”
Luntz should know. His career as a consultant to Republicans focusing on messaging has been in the forefront of American thinking for over 2 decades. His expertise is in testing words and phrases that help his clients sell idea products and influence public opinion. Lets change that wording. He does not so much “influence” public opinion as he “creates” public opinion. Words count.
Early in Luntz’s career he worked with Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Western New York’s Bill Paxon, Tom Delay, John Boehner, and the conservative Heritage Foundation to help craft the 1994 “Contract With America”. This document, which was often called the “Contract On America” by an outgunned democratic political apparatchik, helped the republicans gain a historic Congressional majority. It catapulted Gingrich to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Now that that Newton is resurgent, Luntz’s work will continues to shape our opinions.
One of the early phrases that Luntz coined was “death tax”. Prior to Luntz’s language engineering it had been called the relatively ambivalent sounding “estate tax”. This allowed the government to collect a fee from property inheritors in order to cover public expenses such as filing and paperwork to insure orderly transitions of property. The wealthy class considered this an unfair burden and launched a campaign to transfer this responsibility to the general public.
The phrase “death tax” evoked a powerful emotional and primordial image that sparked voter resentment.
It worked. According to James L. Martin, chairman of the conservative 60-Plus Association- “Republicans employed the term “death tax” so aggressively that it has entered the popular lexicon”. It changed thinking and the political landscape.
Media makers including reporters and news editors consistently employed the phrase uncritically. This is one of the fundamental successes of Luntz’s social engineering strategies. The designed attitude adjustments created by the language engineering has been used to fortify the somewhat undemocratic “don’t tax the rich” meme that runs deeply through the furrowed channels of contemporary politics.
The anti-tax movement, couched in the vapors of the fragrant greases of accusations that taxing the wealthy is in fact “class warfare” inspired by social justice leaders, is financed by the likes of the fabulously rich Koch Brothers. Their media message money has paid off. Today America remains tightly bound in the gridlock characterized by political blood feuds pitting “no taxes” v. “cut social spending” programs.
Language counts here. Important social programs that uphold quality of life for most Americans have been characterized as “entitlements”. That carefully crafted word has invaded our ability to reason. Now it prejudicially occupies our minds regarding every social program extant, proposed, or considered. It consumes us with the profound implication that people are getting something for nothing. In fact programs such as Social Security and Medicare are programs that have been paid for over a lifetime of investments by the recipients. Most programs that are designed to improve quality of life including education, health care, and a vast variety of employment and social services are bought and paid for by decades of the blood sweat and tears of the taxpayers. Our society has built these important social systems and this sets us apart from many other societies across the globe. This is the kind of American Exceptionalism that counts. These social systems that provide access to quality of life for all people make societies around the world want to be like us and not hate us. This is the shining light that people will come to, to replicate, to make the world a better place for all of humanity. Implying that ANY programs that improve the quality of life for humanity is “getting something for nothing” is a shameless, disingenuous, and unambiguous strike against the 99%. It is a false equivalency that promulgates class warfare. And it works.
The free market fundamentalists use the entitlements platform to argue oxymoronically that while corporations are people, they should not pay taxes like most people. They assert that the wealthy class should not pay taxes because these kinds of expenses prohibit the profits for the 1% and that those profits will trickle down to the 99%. Will Rogers may have created the “trickle down” phrase, but former WNY Congressman Jack Kemp famously used it to great effect. Kemp may have misunderstood Roger’s intent because whenever I hear it, looking up involves getting some of that nasty trickle splashed on my face. I want a better life for my children.
Reformist voices on the other side of the coin represent that everyone including the wealthy, should “pay their fair share”. Elizabeth Warren, a leading progressive thinker, advocates for economic policies that that assert that no one in America has become wealthy on their own. No one should be excluded from paying a fair share of taxes. Warren makes the point that the 99% are significant tax-paying investors, fought for and died for our freedoms, and took all the risks to create opportunities for money to grow for the 1%.
She points out that taxpayer investments have allowed massive public spending including the building of infrastructure such as roads, sewers, water access, and the power grid.
What about “corporate entitlements”? TARP, and Wall Street and bank bailouts recently revealed to exceed $8 trillion are astonishing expenditures born on the backs of American taxpayers. What did the 99% get in return? Little access to wealth, no jobs, declining education, declining quality of life, decades of war, global depravation, and environmental destruction embodied in such things as catastrophic climate change.
Speaking of war, public spending for the military is one of the greatest creators of private wealth in the history of the world. This kind of closeted socialism of moving public wealth to the private sector are paid for in blood and taxes by the 99%, and create massive profits for the 1%.
The simple yet powerful reduction of complicated economic political theories to “trickle down” and to the next generation of phrases such “job creators” is incredibly deceptive. Deeper critical analysis almost always leads to the conclusion that tax breaks for the wealthy class do not lead to genuine job creation. Real, “on the ground jobs” that are “trickling down” are leading to a brave new world of lower wages, reduced benefits, less education, and the elimination of the middle class. America is beginning to look like the third world country. At the same time the corporate economy is booming and private wealth is skyrocketing. Shouldn’t the equation creating the third world be the other way around? Shouldn’t a rising tide raise all boats? I guess we all need boats. Not that we are entitled to them, but given our generations of investments, maybe we can find a way to have better access to boats that float.
Next time- A Profile of the Job Creators.