'A Nation of Victims' from The Nation

Aurolyn Luykx aurolynluykx at yahoo.com
Mon Jun 30 15:25:59 UTC 2003

Aurolyn Luykx thought you'd be interested in this article 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
   dominate others.

   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'
   personal survival.

   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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