Thursday, February 28, 2013

The War of Words

There is definitely a "war of words" between reactionaries and progressives, and our side is losing. That is pretty sad, considering that most of us are "words people." Not only do most of us earn our daily bread by the written or spoken word, but we are generally better educated, well read, and articulate than our opponents. And yet, we keep letting our adversaries impose their nomenclature on the most crucial debates of the day. No matter how much we protest, the mainstream media always seem to adopt the right's shorthand frame of reference rather than ours.
[Mayhap that says something important about the quality of today's journalism, but that is a topic for another post.]

The popular terms are almost always loaded with value judgments that allow opponents to put us on the defensive. Take, for instance, the general acceptance by the communications media, and even "progressive" politicians, of the term "entitlement"  to characterize the terms of the debate over Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other items of our shredded and inadequate safety net. To my way of thinking, an entitlement is something that you possess without having done anything to earn it, such as "picking the right parents," marrying the boss's daughter, or gaining legacy admission to a university otherwise beyond your capability. Put in baseball lingo, it is like waking up on third base and assuming that you got there by hitting a triple. [The most extreme cases wait confidently for the umpire to call a balk on the pitcher, so they can stroll home unimpeded.] The term "entitlement"is actually the polar opposite of programs that people have earned by a lifetime of labor, and that they and their employers have contributed toward financially for that same length of time.

Equally egregious is the alacrity with which progressives and the mainstream media have accepted "Obamacare" as a shorthand term for discussing the Affordable Care Act. Like entitlement, it began as a term of derision and a weapon with which to bludgeon the president and other progressive candidates during the recent election campaign. It is still a term of opprobrium designed to coerce state officials into refusing to participate in the insurance exchanges that are the "building blocks"--inadequate as they most certainly are-- of the nascent health care system. [Here in Wisconsin, our esteemed governor Scott Walker has just announced his decision to refuse to participate, turning down the federal money attached. He will soon announce his own plan for Wisconsin, which promises to be a bonanza for everyone but patients].  It is also clearly designed to mobilize resistance to the individual and employer mandates that are equally as crucial to the success of the ACA.   

Then there is the "fiscal cliff," the "sequester," the "Grand Bargain," "Fix the Debt,"and all the other terms thrown around with reckless abandon by those whom Paul Krugman calls "fiscal scolds" and "austerians". The simplistic analogy between the family household budget and that of the federal government ranges between pathetic and absurd. It holds water only "if those households can print dollar bills in the basement," as John Buell so succinctly puts in in The Progressive Populist. "A sovereign government the debts of which are denominated in its own currency," he adds "can never default unless it chooses to do so."  And if my household had the kind of taxing power conferred on the federal government by Article I, Section 8 and the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I would have exercised it more times than I can count. Whether those who constantly invoke that analogy really believe it themselves is highly unlikely, but it is difficult to underestimate the knowledge base and reasoning ability of either Congress or Wall Street. Either way, the analogy serves as a tried and true smokescreen for right wingers, an excuse to diminish or eliminate government programs. "The real north star of Ryan's policy record," as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has cogently observed, "isn't deficits or spending, though he often uses those concerns in service of his real agenda. It's radically reforming the way the federal government provides public services, usually by privatizing or devolving those public services away from the federal government."

This deliberate falsification in the right-wing labeling of crucial public issues is long and growing. Here are some that I find especially widespread and pernicious:

Pro-Life or Right to Life
Although some "pro-lifers" admit of exceptions [e.g.rape, incest, serious defects in the fetus], or broaden their concerns to include opposition to capital punishment, torture, or abuse of women and children, the core belief remains opposition to abortion in any form. Moreover, the rebuttal most commonly used to describe the other side, namely "pro-choice," has inadvertently handed the anti-abortion forces an additional weapon by claiming that most women who resort to abortion do so frivolously or callously.

Death Tax
Inheritance or estate taxes do not fall on the deceased, but rather upon the unearned income of their beneficiaries. In any case, the tax threshold is set so high that it reaches only the super-rich. Those beneficiaries whose inheritance falls below that threshold are not effected at all. Even Andrew Carnegie, who vehemently opposed the federal income tax, argued that those who were unable or unwilling to dispose of their wealth through charitable contributions, deserved to have it confiscated and applied to the general welfare.

Right to Work
Unable to bring back indentured servitude, employers used every possible device or method to ensure that workers had to bargain for wages, hours of labor, working conditions, or benefits as individuals, not as members of a labor union or other type of employee organization. Against overwhelming odds, and with help from progressive politicians, many unions succeeded in gaining the right to bargain collectively by the post-World War II era. Since that high point in the early 1960s, however, employer organizations and "free-market" ideologues have succeeded in rolling back the calendar to the Gilded Age,destroying the majority of private sector unions and are utilizing
every means possible to eliminate public sector bargaining units as well. To buttress their case against public sector unions, they have worked at labeling teachers, policemen, fire fighters, social workers, emergency relief personnel, and other civil servants as public employees--a diabolically clever attempt at constructing a double-double entendre.

Voter Fraud
Despite the fact that every serious, non-partisan study conducted by such unimpeachable institutions as the Brennan Center of the New York University Law School, the League of Women Voters, and the Public Policy Institute have found that claims of illegal voting to be virtually non-existent, the Republican Party launched a massive campaign during the 2012 elections to require photo IDs, limit provisional and absentee balloting, complicate registration and voting procedures and various other measures to discourage or prevent voting by those most likely to vote Democratic. [See, for example, my earlier posts on Voter Suppression and the need for a national voting law.] Although most of these were temporarily blocked by the courts and the Justice Department, it is obvious that right-wing Republicans are preparing to mount an even more momentous campaign in 2013 and beyond. In the most basic sense of the term, they are clearly out to destroy our democratic system, which has taken more than two centuries of struggle to establish.        

Right to Bear Arms 
It is painfully obvious that we will never come to anything like a consensus over the meaning of the Second Amendment.That is not surprising since even the people who wrote it and ratified it did not agree on its definition. Is the right to bear arms an individual one or a collective one? The best way to begin the dialogue is to start with matters on which there is majority agreement and work out from there. According to a January NTTimes/ CBS News Poll, 53% would agree to a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons, 74% favor prohibiting the sale of high-capacity magazines, 92% would support background checks on all potential gun buyers, and 78% feel that there should be a nationwide data base of all gun sales. Not surprisingly, households without guns favor these measures a good deal more than those who keep guns in their homes, while women are more supportive than men. The NRA has succeeded in making this seem an "all or nothing" issue, which it clearly isn't.  

 Demographic. Inner City. Urban
The latest in a long line of code words used to describe racial and ethnic minorities and poor people in general.  They are designed to mask the real meaning and motive of right-wing Republican efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters by Voter ID laws, gerrymandering of Congressional districts, eliminating same day registration and voting, as well as organized registration and voting drives, curtailment of early voting and provisional ballots, reducing the hours for voting. and the number and locations of polling places  As I have already shown in my earlier posts, many of these are simply rehashes of the voter suppression laws of the Jim Crow Era.       

Corporations as "Persons"   
 This is essentially a perversion of the Fourteenth Amendment which made former slaves citizens of the U.S. and of the states in which they reside, prohibiting the states from denying them either due process or equal protection. The concept of "corporate personhood" dates from the Supreme Court's 1886 decision in Santa Clara County v.The Southern Pacific Railroad Company. But it was not part of the Court's official decision, but rather a , "headnote" written by the court reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis, former president of the Newburgh and New York Railway Company. [Headnotes are "not the work of the Court, but are simply the work of the Reporter, giving his understanding of the decision, prepared for the convenience of the profession."] The claim that "corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States" comes from the brief filed by counsel for the Southern Pacific and was never discussed by the members of the Court. In fact, Chief Justice Morrison Waite expressly stated at the outset that the Court did not wish to consider or discuss the issue because "we are all of the opinion that it does." At best then, the supposedly sacrosanct doctrine that corporations were protected from state regulation by the 14th Amendment was only the court reporter's rendition of the personal opinion of the Chief Justice who claimed to speak for the entire Court on an issue which they never even discussed. It was not part of the Court's official decision and appears only in Davis's headnote in the United States Reports, which the other justices may--or may not--have even read and which has no legal status. In Connecticut General Life Insurance Company v. Johnson (1938) Justice Hugo Black held that "the history of the amendment proves that the people were told that its purpose was to protect weak and helpless human beings and were not told that it was intended to to remove corporations in any fashion from the control of state governments...The language of the amendment itself does not support the theory that it was passed for the benefit of corporations." Writing in 1949, Justice William O. Douglas said that "the Santa Clara case becomes one of the most momentous of all our decisions...Corporations were now armed with constitutional prerogatives."

 Money as "Free Speech"
 This pipe dream was made real in the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on 21 January 2010. The justices divided 5-4 on the question of whether corporations could use money out of their treasury to support or oppose specific candidates during an election. The conservative majority consisted of Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, while the dissenting minority was composed of Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. (To show that it was not favoring corporations, the majority also included labor union as if their ability to raise money was the equal and opposite of corporations. In what universe is that real?) The ruling ignored numerous precedents in which earlier Courts had barred corporations from electioneering, while overturning most of the provisions of the existing McCain-Feingold Act. The majority opinion went so far as deny that corporate electioneering would even give the appearance of impropriety. In his 90 page dissent, part of which he actually read from the bench, John Paul Stevens asserted that the decision "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution....A democracy cannot function efficiently when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold." Because several of the candidates backed by corporate money failed of election in 2012, some critics have expressed relief and argue that grass roots mobilizing can effectively counter corporate money every time.. But 2012 was only the first round. They will get better at it, believe me. If it takes a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, then lets get busy enacting one.          

What can progressives do to counter this manipulation and distortion of language in the service of reactionary politics? Obviously, there is no quick or easy answer, but I think that following excerpt from "Language Versus Lies" by Scott Russell Sanders in the latest issue of The Progressive is a good place to begin:

                We can examine every slogan and label critically, those we use ourselves as well as those 
                encounter in the public arena. We can challenge euphemisms. we can insist that torture
                is torture, murder is murder, poison is poison. We can expose verbal tricks. We can defend
               the names of things we value from those who would corrupt them. We can maintain, for example, 
              that corporations are legal constructs, not persons, and therefore not entitled to the rights of human 
              beings, regardless of what a slender majority on the Supreme Court might argue.We can explain that 
             "outsourcing" means the elimination of jobs in one place by moving them to another place, usually 
             abroad, where labor is cheaper and safeguards for workers and nature are weaker. We can show what 
             the coal industry calls "mountaintop removal mining" is is really "mountaintop devastation    
            mining,"  because the forests, animals, topsoil, and stone blasted from the peaks and dumped into 
            waterways are not simply "removed," as a hat or lid of a pot might be, but are permanently shattered, 
           fouling streams, destroying habitats and erasing beauty. We can explain that "death taxes" are not 
           levied on the dead, who have passed beyond reach of the IRS, but on the heirs who did nothing to earn 
          the money; and they are levied, moreover,on only a tiny fraction of estates, the gargantuan ones, which 
          typically accumulate tax-free in shelters available only to the super rich. We can observe that abortion 
          opponents who advocate the "right to life" of fetuses rarely show equal concern for the needs of the 
          resulting children, let alone for the fate of the millions of species that are being driven to extinction by 
          the relentless growth of human population. But we need not give in to lies. We need not surrender 
         language, the greatest of all our common creations, to charlatans. We can defend the things we love,  
         and  language itself, by striving to speak and write clearly, accurately, and honestly.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Casting Abraham Lincoln as a Ghostly Shill

How far will corporations and their advertising stooges go in their pursuit of a buck? To quote Buzz Lightyear: "to infinity and beyond." I frequently revise my list of the most self-serving, tasteless, and arrogant commercials. I must tell you that the current advertising campaign for "The Lincoln Motor Company" has catapulted to the top of my list, and I sincerely hope that there will be nothing in the near future to challenge its hegemony. 

History and common sense both tell us that Lincoln, the man, and Lincoln, the automobile, never crossed paths. We know that the "Great Emancipator" was assassinated in 1865, while the first automobile of that name did not appear until 1908. We are also are aware that Lincoln, the automobile, has been the luxury division of the Ford Motor Company for most of the past century. Thus the full page ad that "The Lincoln Motor Company" took out in the December 10, 2012 New York Times is "something of a puzzlement," to quote the King of Siam. It is introduced with the headline "Hello, Again," in boldface type. The text begins with the obsequious and putative self-deprecating declaration that 'It takes a special type of ego to presume that the world needs another luxury car." In fact, "it's a bit like the kind [of ego] that interrupts your otherwise meaningful pursuit of current events with a full page ode to our intentions." How does the reader really know that he or she has that "special type of ego": To really see, look inward." [Obsequious is not a strong enough word, but I can't think of any other that doesn't involve affection for unspeakable body parts. Even Narcissus would hesitate.]

Besides, it continues, "sometimes ego isn't as self-serving as it sounds," because "true trail blazers follow their inner light." You have to be "pretty confident to create what has never been done. It is true in history, invention, art, you name it. Even automotive design...The Lincoln Motor Company is undoubtedly traveling down a different road, and only those who have what it takes to be a "true trailblazer" deserve to take that same route."[ As the old saw says, "it takes one to know one."' The ad mildly chastises Henry Ford for trying "to create the most popular car in the world," while praising his son Edsel for taking "a fundamentally different approach at Lincoln." In a self-conscious attempt at candor, the ad concedes that "the cars Edsel created were different" and that 'truth be told, not everyone liked them." Nevertheless, the ad continues, Edsel dedicated himself to an uncompromising belief in design...because he knew the best way to serve the driver was to design the best possible car." Those who liked them "found four-wheeled kindred spiits that spoke to therm." Sometimes, it pontificates, "it is worth sacrificing the lukewarm affection of some, if it means forging a remarkable bond between man and machine."  "Edsels's ego was the self-sacrificing kind (???) that served only one thing--the needs of the individuals who drove his cars." This is how Lincoln started. This is how we will become great again.              

Despite its strong beginnings, the ad confesses,"our once great company eventually lost its way. Which is why we're introducing a full-blown reimagining of the one you once knew--or in many cases, never knew." [After all, Edsel died in 1943.] During that brief hiatus, however, "we've picked up a few things about making cars. To think smaller. Smarter. More nimbly." We have refocused "on the things that made us great--starting with a new design studio."  Over the next four years, the company pledges to release "four disarmingly new models," reinvigorate dealerships, and elevate our owner services to be on a par with the world's most exclusive concierges." In short, We have reinvented the wheel by placing you at the center. Ultimately, they proclaim, "this is an investment hell-bent on rewarding not us, but the individual," so that "you'll find a refreshing respect for your time, whether you are shopping for a Lincoln or driving one." You will be treated "as a client, not as a customer," and you will "get the distinctive sense that there are people at Lincoln who actually care."  Their goal, the ad frankly asserts, "is not a car in every driveway [take that, Herbert Hoover and Henry Ford], our name in every household, nor to be all things to all people. Simply, our goal is to be everything for a certain few.     

Translated into realspeak by analyst Bill Vlasic, in the Times "AUTOMOBILES" section, however,this imperious argumentum ad nauseam reads "Ford Redoubles Effort to Reawaken Its Sleepy Lincoln Brand." In the highly competitive world of luxury cars, Vlasic flatly states, "the Ford Motor Company's Lincoln brand has long been stuck in the slow lane, with stodgy models, older buyers, and a distinct lack of pizazz."  Left in the dust by BMW, Lexus, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln ranks eighth, and falling, among luxury cars sold in the U.S. It accounts for just 3 percent of Ford's total sales, down from 8 percent in the early 1990s."There is nothing more frustrating for us," according to James D. Farley, the newly named chief of the Lincoln Revival Team,"than to have someone who loves their Ford car and S.U.V., but goes out to buy a luxury model from another brand because we don't have one." [I am fairly certain that those Americans not looking to buy a third car--and a luxury one at that--can think of a million things more frustrating.] The big question is, according to the marketing firm Trout and Partners, "how can Lincoln convince people it is more than a gassed-up Ford.?"  The answer, as Vlasic interprets the gist of the Lincoln advertising campaign, is "upgraded customer service initiatives, a new brand name that plays down the Ford connection and an unusual advertising campaign that features Abraham Lincoln, the president for whom the brand is named."  Its 300 leaders "are learning the new tenets of luxury service at training sessions nicknamed the Lincoln Academy. A 108-page manual of 'luxury truths' details the new approach to pampering potential buyers, ranging from how to welcome them at a dealership to celebrating the anniversary of their purchase."  

This "rechristening," involves television spots that begin "with an image of Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all." It also presumably involves improving the automobiles themselves, as well as "a revamped Web site that links consumers to a Lincoln "concierge," who can arrange test drives or set up appointments at dealerships."  The latter will also feature "a consultant available 24 hours a day for live discussions about the products and to streamline the buying process. Prospective buyers will be given "an opportunity for a 'date-night with Lincoln' [surely the car and not the president, although who can doubt the marvels that adverting technology has in store for the future?] which includes a two-day test drive and a free meal at a restaurant."  A newly formed team of 200 people "is intent on establishing the Lincoln Motor Company as a boutique luxury line known for personalized service." Every customer who reserves the pioneering MKZ model, "will be presented with an elegant gift upon receiving the car"--a choice of fine wines and Champagne, custom-made jewelry or sunglasses, or a one-night stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel.                      

But all of this would be simply an modernized version of the obscene excesses of the decaying Roman Empire or Gilded Age America, if it weren't for its use of Abraham Lincoln as a metaphor for its cars. "The name Lincoln has a very strong meaning for this country," says Farley, chief of the Lincoln Revival Team.  "What he stood for as president was independence [I don't think that Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee would agree] fortitude and elegant thinking." Needless to say, "any connection with the new Stephen Spielberg film about the widely admired president, is both fortunate and coincidental...We didn't plan it that way, but sometimes it's better to be lucky."  Lets see. What is Lincoln's most popular nickname? HONEST ABE? 

THE OFFICIAL 2013 LINCOLN MKZ COMMERCIAL begins with the image of a tall man in a frock coat, complete with stovepipe hat, floating toward us out of the mists of time. The reverential voice-over assures us that "this is about moving forward by looking back" Amid the collage of seemingly disconnected images that follow are brief glimpses of Lincoln with frock coattails flowing and looking thoughtfully out to sea. As the narrator breathlessly intones some gobbledegook about "setting precedents for presidents," there are flashes of FDR, Dean Martin, and [I think] Clark Gable. Go Figure! The narrator concludes by saying "This is about going places where others aren't. Introducing The Lincoln Motor Company." My favorite Lincoln commercial, however, shows a young couple driving a 1940s model over an idyllic country road, while an evanescent image of "the man" floats tantalizingly over the surrounding countryside.

Curiously enough, there was no image of Lincoln in the company's horrendous Super Bowl commercial that one critic pronounced "an immediate contender for the titles of the worst Super Bowl commercial of all time and worst car commercial of all time, an unlikely and breathtaking confluence of failures."  Maybe they should have invoked the blessing of the president who saved the Union and freed the slaves.