Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Dark Side

Lately, your correspondent has felt rather like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, sneaking around in the heart of the Death Star while warning his young Jedi pupil to beware the “dark side” of the Force. The freshman writing course I'm teaching this fall revolves around the theme of “spin” (that being the native language here in DC) and my ostensible goal is using that theme to help the students become better thinkers and writers. But suppose the course actually means handing the next Darth Vader his first light-saber! Is the risk worth taking? (Cue sound of Vader’s respirator.)

Maybe, in that metaphorical Star Wars universe, we might best regard Frank Luntz as Darth Sidious. Disguised as the friendly Senator Palpatine, wise counselor to the royal family, he smugly seeks to corrupt the Republic from within. Your correspondent assigned his book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, to show students what goes into the “sausage” of political message-making. Surprisingly, the students mostly like Luntz, and accept not only his observations about what works, but his sunny, disingenuous justifications and explanations for why it does so.

Consider for example, the ten rules for successful communication with which Luntz begins his book. He boils them down to “simplicity, brevity, credibility, consistency, novelty, sound, aspiration, visualization, questioning, and context.” Viewed one at a time, it’s hard to argue with any of them; each seems like unobjectionable common sense. But when taken together, and in the context of his explanations for why they work, they reveal a darker picture.

Simplicity and brevity—Common sense would dictate, as does Luntz, that message-making means skipping the fancy language. His first two rules recommend using small words for the sake of simplicity, and short sentences for the sake of brevity. Why? “You can argue all you want about the dumbing down of America,” he explains, “but unless you speak the language of your intended audience, you won’t be heard by the people you want to reach.” Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry both fell into the trap of overly intellectual language, he says, which distanced them from middle American voters.

Credibility and consistency—Luntz’s third and fourth rules argue that “credibility is as important as philosophy,” and “consistency matters.” In other words, it’s more important to seem truthful and consistent than to be thoughtful and flexible. Voters have repeatedly punished candidates who seem inauthentic and whose messages vary according to the situation. The “message discipline” of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush exemplify these virtues, Luntz says, even though both were criticized for being inflexible and repeating themselves.

Novelty and sound—Consistency doesn’t rule out trying new ways of saying things, Luntz’s fifth rule suggests. “Americans are easily bored,” he writes. “If something doesn’t shock or surprise us, we move on to something else.” Paying attention to the sound of language can help keep people interested, his sixth rule says. This can mean using either poetic or deliberately broken English. Luntz especially likes phrases that jump out and ring with alliteration (“We need reconciliation, not revenge,” he suggests to one politician), as well as language that seems authentically ungrammatical and colloquial.

Aspiration and visualization—The seventh and eighth rules tell us to help people envision a better future. Fancy language may be a turn-off for voters, he says, but that doesn’t mean political phrase-makers should be afraid to shoot for language that puts a lump in your throat and a gleam in your eye. John F. Kennedy mastered this, as did Ronald Reagan—painting a picture of a better future that all can aspire to. One important way to do this, he says, is to offer concrete images that will allow people to imagine themselves in a picture in which they’re doing better and feeling better.

Questioning and context—By asking questions (Rule nine), and framing the issue in ways of our own choosing (Rule ten), Luntz says, we both engage our audience and influence the way they respond. Reagan, for example, memorably asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago,” and delivered his “morning in America” message after framing Jimmy Carter’s presidency as one of gloom and impotence.
It all sounds like good practical advice. And, of course, if you’re trying to sell a message, you could do a lot worse than listen to Frank Luntz. As he says, he’s tested all this in focus groups, polls, and other demographic studies. But despite his many professions of love and respect for the English language and American common sense, his ten rules say something different—that your typical American is uneducated, uninterested, easily distracted, unreflective, self-centered, ill-informed, prone to self-deception and daydreaming, and easily manipulated. His refusal to own up to this is the basic hypocrisy of his book. Even freshmen writers should be able to see that.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Geoffrey Nunberg vs. Frank Luntz

For the next month or so I will be blogging about two books: Talking Right, by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, and Words that Work, by pollster Frank Luntz. Nunberg's book, as its subtitle explains, is his analysis of "How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show." Luntz's book is a how-to for would-be spinners, subtitled "It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear."

They're required texts for a course I'm teaching on "spin," and they make for an interesting pair. Nunberg, an academic and commentator on language for NPR's "Fresh Air," sets out to explain the reasons that liberals have been playing defense for the last quarter-century when it comes to explaining themselves and their ideas to the public. Luntz, a high-profile conservative pollster for political and business clients, is more interested in the practical business of message-making. But the books were written about the same time last year, touch on many of the same issues, and help explain each other.

Taken together, they offer a pretty good look at how spin works—what makes it different from plain old prevarication, and why we should care. They're particularly useful if you want to try to decode the noise surrounding the long run-up to the 2008 elections. I'll use chapters from these books as a jumping-off place as I try to work out my own take on the subject. Let me know what you think.

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Ethnic cleansing"

The first time I heard the term “ethnic cleansing” was in the early 1990s, in one of those so-called driveway moments that National Public Radio boasts about during their fundraisers. A correspondent told the story of a promising young basketball player taken into custody during the worst of the killing in the former Yugoslavia. The young man swapped sports talk with his captors (all shared a love for the game), and was then led away, never to be heard from again.

As I sat there in my driveway listening, tears trickling into my beard, the car still running and my own clothes still sweaty from a recent pickup basketball game, a sense of that war came home for the first time. Fifteen years later, it still lingers.

Today, that killing is largely forgotten in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq debacle; the Balkan states promote themselves as bargain travel destinations for tourists who can’t afford western Europe. But the term that war spawned remains with us. News accounts from Iraq and Darfur often use “cleansing” to describe the killing of people guilty of nothing except belonging to a different ethnic or religious group. It has even become an awkward verb—“to ethnically cleanse.”

In the process, something subtly awful has happened: the quotation marks have disappeared from around the words.

What gave the term its power in the 1990s was the horror it conveyed. Ethnic nationalists in the Balkans had adopted it as a handy way to avoid talking directly about the atrocities they committed. It was a phrase seemingly straight out of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” where he wrote about terms like “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers” being used to disguise mass atrocities.

No one was fooled. Writers for our news media, all having read their Orwell in college, picked up on the irony immediately and put the term out in the open, for all to see. At the time, it became a kind of ironic emblem for the internecine slaughter, its power to evoke horror a tribute to the immediacy of great journalism.

What has happened since, though, is pure journalistic laziness. Subsequent ethnic purges have typically been labeled “ethnic cleansing” too, only without the quotation marks, and with the sense of shock and irony stripped away.

Recently, discussing Orwell’s essay with a class of college freshmen, students too young to remember the Bosnian war, I discovered that they all knew the term, but not where it came from. They took it at face value, as if it were a mere synonym for ethnic warfare. In Iraq, they told me, the Shi’ia were trying to “clean” the Sunni out of certain neighborhoods. They said this without any sense of irony. They’re good kids, not amoral monsters—I blame careless journalism for their mistake. What’s happening today isn’t an ethnic cleansing, it’s an ethnic purge, or an ethnic killing. A good journalist should be able to describe it concretely, not in shorthand.

What’s happening in Iraq and Darfur today deserves a plain description. Better yet, it deserves a name that evokes its own particular horror, not a mere label of journalistic convenience. Just as we wouldn’t refer to what’s happening in Iraq as a “final solution,” out of respect for the particular horror of the Holocaust, “ethnic cleansing” shouldn’t be a synonym for all future ethnic purges. It belongs to the history books now, and the particular horror that swept over the Balkan states after the collapse of Yugoslavia—if only out of respect for the unmarked graves there.