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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Luntz and Counter-Luntz: The Word You're Looking for Is "Dissent"

In recent weeks I've had number of interesting discussions with friends, Facebook and otherwise, about the bizarre shift towards totalitarianism in American politics.  Of course, no political movement is possible without a corresponding cultural alignment, and the most lamentable trend in this regard seems to me to be the ascendancy of misanthropic polemical whores like Frank Luntz, who function more or less as the shock troops against the American tradition of anti-ideology, perverting our traditional inclinations into a cult of Mammon.[1]

Wisconsinites, whom I believe to be reasonably typical victims of Luntz et alia, demonstrate some pretty mixed reactions to the word "protest", judging by some friends' anecdotes surrounding pre-recall canvassing going on in this state.  One friend's story particularly resonated with me:  a man who angrily turned a canvasser away from his door saying that he was tired of all that protesting going on in Madison, and thought the "Wisconsin 14" had shown bad faith by leaving the state to forestall passage of Governor Walker's union busting bill.  In his mind, the Democratic senators should have "negotiated" with Walker.

Pretty odd interpretation of events, from any review of the factual situation.  Being minorities in both houses, and confronted by a Senate majority leader who called for extra-legal vigilante groups to physically hunt them down, there was always exactly ZERO possibility of Walker negotiating in good faith.

Yet it does make good sense when you realize that what voters have no interest whatsoever in good policy or standards of debate.  This is the key to Luntz' "success".  Our main concern is to be on the "winning" side, even if our role is largely limited to chosing the instrument of our own destruction.  It's just the American way.  The flip side to the American virtue of an open-minded lack of ideological commitment is the willingness to rationalize any horrific perversion as a victory for the forces of "Good".  In fact, the more complete the perversion, the more "virtuous" the pervert.  And vice versa.

Case in point:  the fate of the words "protest" and "protestor" after the Vietnam era.  That age of unrepented sin continues to fester in the American soul.  Memories like the Kent State shootings, Mai Lai massacre and Weather Underground violence pile miseries so thickly upon one another that, in the absence of a prolonged and thoughtful examination of the events, the only way to throw them off and move forward seemed to be to simply pick a winning side and demonize the loser. 

And with the credit of the GOP, American foreign policy and the military industrial complex on the line, what do you figure the chances of a pile of wet-behind-the-ears college kids coming out on top were?  Someone had to take the fall, and it was America's conscience.  From then on, the word "protestor" would be a pejorative, conjuring images of greasy long-hairs living off their parents' largesse and whose primary purpose in life seemed to be holding picket signs and blocking traffic for God-fearing citizens trying to get to their offices down town.

So the word has to go.  Even if the denotation is still technically correct, and still retains some romantic charm for a subset of society, in the elections and debates that ultimately make real quality of life differences in America it is a turd.

My proposed replacement?  Dissenter.  Denotatively it also depicts a factual situation where a disadvantaged minority resist the impositions of the formally constituted authorities.  But in the deepest reaches of the American soul, it evokes memories of valliant--and ultimately successful--struggle against an arrogant tyrant almost as hated as Mao or Stalin.  The term "dissenter" in American and English history refers to the 17th century people who opposed the established church on grounds of individual religious conscience but also the state's venality and corruption.[2]  The adventures and mis-adventures of those original Dissenters ultimately gave rise to the Anglophone tradition of republic and constitutional government.[3]

An observer no less acute than the reknown Alexis de Tocqueville recognized America's primary ethic as a civil religion, and analyzed it in these terms:

"The greatest part of...America was peopled by men who...brought with them into the New World a form of styling it a democratic and republican religion."

In keeping with the inherent contradiction of a populist principle establishing a governing order, it was subject to numerous, sometimes conflicting interpretations from the very start.  For example, the colony which eventually became the state of Connecticut was established by a group splintering from the original Puritan colony of Massachussets. 

The central quality is a commitment to the process of reconciling liberty with good order--not a bigotted clinging to unquestioned dogma.  There is no reason at all a true Dissenter cannot be a principled atheist or upstanding agnostic as well as a righteous believer in any of the various faith traditions.  This is borne out by the respect for the original Dissenters retained among almost all ethnic and religious or non-religious of American society to this day.

Get it?  Judges and duly constituted tribunes of the people "dissent". In the public mind, only self-centered hedonistic collections of venereal disesase "protest".

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the winner, the rhetorically and morally acceptable face of the opposition to strong-arm junta tactics of the likes of Walker and Fitzgerald.  Thanks for the template, Frank Luntz.

[1]  Yes, I think that metaphorical construction is well warranted, given the parade of ethics violations that haunt Luntz' career.  Just one example:  In 1997, the American Association for Public Opinion Research formally reprimanded Luntz for his inability to provide the standard support requested for some of his more outrageous claims.  In my mind Luntz' role in American culture is best analogized to that of an aggressive bowel cancer.  But only because I can't think of a fouler aberration.

[2]  There are plenty of though-provoking analyses of the English civil wars and the competing strands of political thought that they gave voice to.  In no way can they considered to be an unalloyed triumph of Good over Evil--the Roundhead hero Oliver Cromwell's campaign to impose his notion of a "Godly Nation" on Ireland resulted in the extermination of approximately 1 out of every 4 inhabitants of that island between 1649 and 1653.  But it clearly laid the groundwork for the predominant mode of limited government in the English speaking world.  Simon Schama passibly recounts the contemporary British view of those events in the book and television documentary, "A History of Britain".

[3]  An ironic result of Cromwellian dispensation in Ireland was the destruction of a far more ancient tradition of constitutional monarchy, Brehon Law.  This is not the place to launch into a lengthy discussion of its merits and demerits, but it is worth mentioning that this system of jurisprudence amounted to the formal accumulation of precedent and interpretation of legal principles by a class of professional scholars which even kings could not flout without suffering painful sanction.  Laws were created solely by the process of refined interpretation of precedent, much like the English Common Law tradition, rather than by executive fiat.

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