Luntz and Counter-Luntz: The Word You’re Looking for Is “Dissent”

LuntzBlueRedLuntzIn 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 choosing 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 unrepentant 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 valiant — 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 misadventures of those original Dissenters ultimately gave rise to the Anglophone tradition of republic and constitutional government.[3]

An observer no less acute than the renown 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 Christianity … by 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 Massachusetts.

The central quality is a commitment to the process of reconciling liberty with good order — not a bigoted 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 disease “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.

Footnotes
[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 passably 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.

Cruisin’ for a perusin’ once again at Dystopia Diaries

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  • GoodDoktorBad

    The word “protester” implies a sycophantic relationship  in which the “underdog” protests his domination. The protester is already down and pleading for mercy -unheeded. This is why protests are so often ineffective and are viewed with derision. 

    “Dissenter” seems to be more pro-active in its approach to perceived wrong doing. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then what is the sword more mighty than? Protesters…

    • sonicbphuct

      This is an interesting theme – and thanks, Liam for the discussion starter.

      I prefer the term “Demonstrator”  – as in, I will demonstrate how X is better than Y or worse than Z. When I first came to Europe 4 years ago, I was still protesting. Here they refer to a “Protest” as a “Demo”, which I though long about. During the Wisconsin struggle (even as it continues), I always felt the news did a disservice (when don’t they?) using the term “Protester” because what was *actually* occurring was “a demonstration of the people’s will.” In the same way that Walker “demonstrated” his will, rather than “protesting” those (supposedly) “fat cat bureaucrats”, so, too, were the people demonstrating their will.

      But dissent is also a good word. I had a friend that came to the states as a kid from the USSR (back when it was). He made the funniest comment: “I’m always jealous of people who’s parents were Hippies. Mine were only dissenters.”

  • Anonymous

    The word “protester” implies a sycophantic relationship  in which the “underdog” protests his domination. The protester is already down and pleading for mercy -unheeded. This is why protests are so often ineffective and are viewed with derision. 

    “Dissenter” seems to be more pro-active in its approach to perceived wrong doing. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then what is the sword more mighty than? Protesters…

  • Guest

    I think your Tocqueville quote up there really says it all.. the way I’ve been able to wrap my mind around this idea is to see our law and our form of government as a “better, new, improved” set of morals compared to Christianity, since we don’t officially have a state religion, but the effect seems to be the same.  When one lays out a set of things “not to do” rather than give human beings basic rights, it not only alienates the entire public eventually, but the public takes these “morals” and points fingers at everybody else, leading to the “good side” vs “bad side” mentality.  If anything it creates it’s own God-complex with the right to judge others based on crap that doesn’t really matter in the end.  It’s really quite a social phenomenon.  Being a believer in a God myself, I still can’t help but to believe those who originally came up with the idea of religion only had one thing in mind: to control the public disregarding our own human conscience, which in turn, only resulted in oppression and guilt and alienation of those who weren’t hiding it as well as they were.  It’s all about conformity, I guess.  So, yes, I believe I agree with you on the “dissenter” proposition… regardless of atheist, agnostic, believer, etc we can all agree to live and let live.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Your point that almost any thought system can be abused is spot on.  It really doesn’t matter whether you’re theist, atheist, agnositic or any specific point in between.  The point is to have a thoughtful engagement with the issue.  And though the historic Dissenters, though as I point out in the footnotes, were far from perfect, seem like a good possible starting point for Americans.

  • Guest

    I think your Tocqueville quote up there really says it all.. the way I’ve been able to wrap my mind around this idea is to see our law and our form of government as a “better, new, improved” set of morals compared to Christianity, since we don’t officially have a state religion, but the effect seems to be the same.  When one lays out a set of things “not to do” rather than give human beings basic rights, it not only alienates the entire public eventually, but the public takes these “morals” and points fingers at everybody else, leading to the “good side” vs “bad side” mentality.  If anything it creates it’s own God-complex with the right to judge others based on crap that doesn’t really matter in the end.  It’s really quite a social phenomenon.  Being a believer in a God myself, I still can’t help but to believe those who originally came up with the idea of religion only had one thing in mind: to control the public disregarding our own human conscience, which in turn, only resulted in oppression and guilt and alienation of those who weren’t hiding it as well as they were.  It’s all about conformity, I guess.  So, yes, I believe I agree with you on the “dissenter” proposition… regardless of atheist, agnostic, believer, etc we can all agree to live and let live.

  • rtb61

    More accurate to call it right wing panic mode politics. With each and every passing day it is readily apparent that the public mind scape is being refashioned by the internet. The mass media version of the minority psychopaths funded by corporations is being undermined and is coming to a bitter end, bitter because it is becoming more visibly autocratic in it’s practices and it’s rhetoric is becoming more violent and exclusionary.
    So as to be expected the right wing corporate sound volume is going up as it’s power weakens but make not mistake there is a principle of ruthless and bloody violence at it’s core, a willingness to kill millions to increase it’s power and profits, whether by wars built upon illusion, questionable pharmaceuticals and treatment of symptoms rather than providing cures (even the chemical creation of symptoms), polluting the environment to the toxic harm of everyone even their own families and of course the corruption of democracy and politics.
    Is it likely that violence of the right’s rhetoric will become real public violence, truth is it already has in reaction to protest’s against corruption in politics’s, in the police targeting people with pre-emptive arrests for non-crimes and, in the public psychological and even physical torture of those they arrest. The question is how much worse will it get, the answer to that is, how much worse will we allow it to become. Targeted civil disobedience has always been the key, locking the police up in their own estbalishments before they can deploy, shutting down the propaganda channels of corporate mass media (shout them down where ever they try to set up) and disruption of the political charade that are the various houses of government (don’t let them get into the building to write corrupt laws and or don’t let them leave).

  • Anonymous

    More accurate to call it right wing panic mode politics. With each and every passing day it is readily apparent that the public mind scape is being refashioned by the internet. The mass media version of the minority psychopaths funded by corporations is being undermined and is coming to a bitter end, bitter because it is becoming more visibly autocratic in it’s practices and it’s rhetoric is becoming more violent and exclusionary.
    So as to be expected the right wing corporate sound volume is going up as it’s power weakens but make not mistake there is a principle of ruthless and bloody violence at it’s core, a willingness to kill millions to increase it’s power and profits, whether by wars built upon illusion, questionable pharmaceuticals and treatment of symptoms rather than providing cures (even the chemical creation of symptoms), polluting the environment to the toxic harm of everyone even their own families and of course the corruption of democracy and politics.
    Is it likely that violence of the right’s rhetoric will become real public violence, truth is it already has in reaction to protest’s against corruption in politics’s, in the police targeting people with pre-emptive arrests for non-crimes and, in the public psychological and even physical torture of those they arrest. The question is how much worse will it get, the answer to that is, how much worse will we allow it to become. Targeted civil disobedience has always been the key, locking the police up in their own estbalishments before they can deploy, shutting down the propaganda channels of corporate mass media (shout them down where ever they try to set up) and disruption of the political charade that are the various houses of government (don’t let them get into the building to write corrupt laws and or don’t let them leave).

  • Anonymous

    Your point that almost any thought system can be abused is spot on.  It really doesn’t matter whether you’re theist, atheist, agnositic or any specific point in between.  The point is to have a thoughtful engagement with the issue.  And though the historic Dissenters, though as I point out in the footnotes, were far from perfect, seem like a good possible starting point for Americans.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I sured loved me some o’ that word point, didn’t I?  Eek.  Sunday mornings . . .

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Wow, I sured loved me some o’ that word point, didn’t I?  Eek.  Sunday mornings . . .

    • GoodDoktorBad

      Nice work Liam…

  • Highonfailure

    People give the republican base way too much credit. The base being defined as the average American, not the wealthy rich who the Republicans actually support..

    These people are being manipulated to vote against their own progress. Besides the religious folks who love the anti abortion laws being passed. The majority of them have no stake in taxes being cut for the wealthiest, for the EPA being defunded.

    Their solely voting on the repblican mantra of any govt is bad! USA-USA-USA bullshit.. Why do we even respect these people? Their being manipulated on fear, and by believing in the Teams (Democrat-Republican) nonsense. And by allowing this to happen, nothing progresses and we only follow further into the sink hole.

  • Highonfailure

    People give the republican base way too much credit. The base being defined as the average American, not the wealthy rich who the Republicans actually support..

    These people are being manipulated to vote against their own progress. Besides the religious folks who love the anti abortion laws being passed. The majority of them have no stake in taxes being cut for the wealthiest, for the EPA being defunded.

    Their solely voting on the repblican mantra of any govt is bad! USA-USA-USA bullshit.. Why do we even respect these people? Their being manipulated on fear, and by believing in the Teams (Democrat-Republican) nonsense. And by allowing this to happen, nothing progresses and we only follow further into the sink hole.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Yeah, I certainly don’t have the sum total of my final thoughts on this thing completely fleshed out.  But it’s clear to me that, like it or not, the most gullible segment of American society are also the most electorally influential.  No getting around that central fact.  I’m not only “With Stupid”, I’m fucking “Chained At The Hip to Stupid.”

      My current thinking is that the best we can hope to do is make a real effort to look past the way they’ve allowed themselves to be humiliated, and try to find some worthy, honorable characteristics.  I think it’s fair to say that the essentially non-ideological American approach to governance does have some potentially redeeming qualities.  It could inocculate us against the worst of the Soviet-style excesses.

      Problem is, that un-reflective, un-thoughtful brand of non-ideology leaves them wide open to abuse by Machiavellian perverts like Luntz.  This gaffe was an opening bid to appeal to the more positive aspects of the American character.

  • Anonymous

    Nice work Liam…

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I certainly don’t have the sum total of my final thoughts on this thing completely fleshed out.  But it’s clear to me that, like it or not, the most gullible segment of American society are also the most electorally influential.  No getting around that central fact.  I’m not only “With Stupid”, I’m fucking “Chained At The Hip to Stupid.”

    My current thinking is that the best we can hope to do is make a real effort to look past the way they’ve allowed themselves to be humiliated, and try to find some worthy, honorable characteristics.  I think it’s fair to say that the essentially non-ideological American approach to governance does have some potentially redeeming qualities.  It could inocculate us against the worst of the Soviet-style excesses.

    Problem is, that un-reflective, un-thoughtful brand of non-ideology leaves them wide open to abuse by Machiavellian perverts like Luntz.  This gaffe was an opening bid to appeal to the more positive aspects of the American character.

  • Sonicbphuct

    This is an interesting theme – and thanks, Liam for the discussion starter.

    I prefer the term “Demonstrator”  – as in, I will demonstrate how X is better than Y or worse than Z. When I first came to Europe 4 years ago, I was still protesting. Here they refer to a “Protest” as a “Demo”, which I though long about. During the Wisconsin struggle (even as it continues), I always felt the news did a disservice (when don’t they?) using the term “Protester” because what was *actually* occurring was “a demonstration of the people’s will.” In the same way that Walker “demonstrated” his will, rather than “protesting” those (supposedly) “fat cat bureaucrats”, so, too, were the people demonstrating their will.

    But dissent is also a good word. I had a friend that came to the states as a kid from the USSR (back when it was). He made the funniest comment: “I’m always jealous of people who’s parents were Hippies. Mine were only dissenters.”