'A Nation of Victims' from The Nation
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A Nation of Victims
by Renana Brooks
George W. Bush is generally regarded as a mangler of the English
language. What is overlooked is his mastery of emotional
language--especially negatively charged emotional language--as a
political tool. Take a closer look at his speeches and public
utterances, and his political success turns out to be no surprise. It
is the predictable result of the intentional use of language to
President Bush, like many dominant personality types, uses
dependency-creating language. He employs language of contempt and
intimidation to shame others into submission and desperate
admiration. While we tend to think of the dominator as using physical
force, in fact most dominators use verbal abuse to control others.
Abusive language has been a major theme of psychological researchers
on marital problems, such as John Gottman, and of philosophers and
theologians, such as Josef Pieper. But little has been said about the
key role it has come to play in political discourse, and in such "hot
media" as talk radio and television.
Bush uses several dominating linguistic techniques to induce
surrender to his will. The first is empty language. This term refers
to broad statements that are so abstract and mean so little that they
are virtually impossible to oppose. Empty language is the emotional
equivalent of empty calories. Just as we seldom question the content
of potato chips while enjoying their pleasurable taste, recipients of
empty language are usually distracted from examining the content of
what they are hearing. Dominators use empty language to conceal
faulty generalizations; to ridicule viable alternatives; to attribute
negative motivations to others, thus making them appear contemptible;
and to rename and "reframe" opposing viewpoints.
Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech contained thirty-nine examples
of empty language. He used it to reduce complex problems to images
that left the listener relieved that George W. Bush was in charge.
Rather than explaining the relationship between malpractice
insurance and skyrocketing healthcare costs, Bush summed up: "No one
has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit." The multiple fiscal
and monetary policy tools that can be used to stimulate an economy
were downsized to: "The best and fairest way to make sure Americans
have that money is not to tax it away in the first place." The
controversial plan to wage another war on Iraq was simplified to:
"We will answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the
American people." In an earlier study, I found that in the 2000
presidential debates Bush used at least four times as many phrases
containing empty language as Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Senior or
Gore had used in their debates.
Another of Bush's dominant-language techniques is personalization. By
personalization I mean localizing the attention of the listener on
the speaker's personality. Bush projects himself as the only person
capable of producing results. In his post-9/11 speech to Congress he
said, "I will not forget this wound to our country or those who
inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in
waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American
people." He substitutes his determination for that of the nation's.
In the 2003 State of the Union speech he vowed, "I will defend the
freedom and security of the American people." Contrast Bush's "I will
not yield" etc. with John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can
do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
The word "you" rarely appears in Bush's speeches. Instead, there are
numerous statements referring to himself or his personal
characteristics--folksiness, confidence, righteous anger or
determination--as the answer to the problems of the country. Even
when Bush uses "we," as he did many times in the State of the Union
speech, he does it in a way that focuses attention on himself. For
example, he stated: "Once again, we are called to defend the safety
of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this
In an article in the January 16 New York Review of Books, Joan Didion
highlighted Bush's high degree of personalization and contempt for
argumentation in presenting his case for going to war in Iraq. As
Didion writes: "'I made up my mind,' he had said in April, 'that
Saddam needs to go.' This was one of many curious, almost petulant
statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I've made
up my mind, I've said in speech after speech, I've made myself clear.
The repeated statements became their own reason."
Poll after poll demonstrates that Bush's political agenda is out of
step with most Americans' core beliefs. Yet the public, their
electoral resistance broken down by empty language and persuaded by
personalization, is susceptible to Bush's most frequently used
linguistic technique: negative framework. A negative framework is a
pessimistic image of the world. Bush creates and maintains negative
frameworks in his listeners' minds with a number of linguistic
techniques borrowed from advertising and hypnosis to instill the
image of a dark and evil world around us. Catastrophic words and
phrases are repeatedly drilled into the listener's head until the
opposition feels such a high level of anxiety that it appears
pointless to do anything other than cower.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, in his extensive studies of "learned
helplessness," showed that people's motivation to respond to
outside threats and problems is undermined by a belief that they
have no control over their environment. Learned helplessness is
exacerbated by beliefs that problems caused by negative events are
permanent; and when the underlying causes are perceived to apply to
many other events, the condition becomes pervasive and paralyzing.
Bush is a master at inducing learned helplessness in the electorate.
He uses pessimistic language that creates fear and disables people
from feeling they can solve their problems. In his September 20,
2001, speech to Congress on the 9/11 attacks, he chose to increase
people's sense of vulnerability: "Americans should not expect one
battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever
seen.... I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children. I know
many citizens have fears tonight.... Be calm and resolute, even in
the face of a continuing threat." (Subsequent terror alerts by the
FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security have maintained and
expanded this fear of unknown, sinister enemies.)
Contrast this rhetoric with Franklin Roosevelt's speech delivered the
day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He said: "No matter
how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the
American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute
victory.... There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our
territory and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in
our armed forces--with the unbounding determination of our people--we
will gain the inevitable triumph--so help us God." Roosevelt focuses
on an optimistic future rather than an ongoing threat to Americans'
All political leaders must define the present threats and problems
faced by the country before describing their approach to a solution,
but the ratio of negative to optimistic statements in Bush's speeches
and policy declarations is much higher, more pervasive and more
long-lasting than that of any other President. Let's compare "crisis"
speeches by Bush and Ronald Reagan, the President with whom he most
identifies himself. In Reagan's October 27, 1983, televised address
to the nation on the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, he
used nineteen images of crisis and twenty-one images of optimism,
evenly balancing optimistic and negative depictions. He limited his
evaluation of the problems to the past and present tense, saying only
that "with patience and firmness we can bring peace to that
strife-torn region--and make our own lives more secure." George W.
Bush's October 7, 2002, major policy speech on Iraq, on the other
hand, began with forty-four consecutive statements referring to the
crisis and citing a multitude of possible catastrophic repercussions.
The vast majority of these statements (for example: "Some ask how
urgent this danger is to America and the world. The danger is already
significant, and it only grows worse with time"; "Iraq could decide
on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a
terrorist group or individual terrorists") imply that the crisis will
last into the indeterminate future. There is also no specific plan of
action. The absence of plans is typical of a negative framework, and
leaves the listener without hope that the crisis will ever end.
Contrast this with Reagan, who, a third of the way into his
explanation of the crisis in Lebanon, asked the following: "Where do
we go from here? What can we do now to help Lebanon gain greater
stability so that our Marines can come home? Well, I believe we can
take three steps now that will make a difference."
To create a dependency dynamic between him and the electorate, Bush
describes the nation as being in a perpetual state of crisis and then
attempts to convince the electorate that it is powerless and that he
is the only one with the strength to deal with it. He attempts to
persuade people they must transfer power to him, thus crushing the
power of the citizen, the Congress, the Democratic Party, even
constitutional liberties, to concentrate all power in the imperial
presidency and the Republican Party.
Bush's political opponents are caught in a fantasy that they can win
against him simply by proving the superiority of their ideas.
However, people do not support Bush for the power of his ideas, but
out of the despair and desperation in their hearts. Whenever people
are in the grip of a desperate dependency, they won't respond to
rational criticisms of the people they are dependent on. They will
respond to plausible and forceful statements and alternatives that
put the American electorate back in touch with their core optimism.
Bush's opponents must combat his dark imagery with hope and restore
American vigor and optimism in the coming years. They should heed
the example of Reagan, who used optimism against Carter and the
"national malaise"; Franklin Roosevelt, who used it against Hoover
and the pessimism induced by the Depression ("the only thing we have
to fear is fear itself"); and Clinton (the "Man from Hope"), who
used positive language against the senior Bush's lack of vision.
This is the linguistic prescription for those who wish to retire
Bush in 2004.
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