“With words we rule,” declared England’s Benjamin Disraeli. The Tory PM’s 150-year-old notion is popular these days as Steve Harper and his pal George Bush spout misleading slogans to hide their antiquated, anti-people actions. Want to allow big polluters to let their emissions rip? Want to scuttle the Kyoto Accord on cutting greenhouse gases? Well, just bring in environmental non-legislation and call it the “Clean Air Act,” (Harper) or the “Clear Skies Initiative” (Bush) and who’s going to notice?
Both Steve and George are following the advice of Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz, who says that if they want to succeed, politicians should use words starting with the letter “r” or ending with “ity”—words such as “reform,” “responsibility” and “accountability.” Luntz adds that right-wing pols can attract female votes by dosing their speeches with words like “listening” and “children.”
Maybe Luntz’s obvious contempt for people’s intelligence is what led Harper to junk the Liberals’ $5 billion national child care plan and instead mail out monthly $100 cheques for every kid under six. That’s just $23 a week, not much help when licensed child care in Halifax—if you can find it—costs $25 to $35 per day. Harper calls his plan “child care choice.” Nice-sounding catch phrase, Steve. But where’s the choice for most families who need two incomes to get by?
In his book The New Doublespeak, William Lutz writes: “Our public language has become a language of deception that masquerades as openness, a language that, like an actor, plays a role to achieve an effect on an audience, and once that effect has been achieved, leaves the stage, removes its costume and makeup, and then goes on with its real business.” For years, politicians spouting simplistic slogans have slashed social programs most people want while handing out tax cuts that mainly benefit the rich. Paul Martin’s tax cuts totalled a whopping $250 billion and now, Harper promises more “tax relief” to ease the “tax burden.” His words are deceptive. As Globe and Mail business columnist Eric Reguly points out, “total corporate tax revenue is about 30 percent of total personal tax revenue. In the early 1960s, it was 60 percent.” That means, Reguly adds, that the share of taxes individuals pay has doubled in the last 40 years. Will the Tories fix this imbalance? “Forget it,” Reguly answers. “If anything, the pendulum is swinging even farther in corporations’ favour. They will pay relatively less, you will pay relatively more.” And then, I would add, Harper will claim there’s no money to eliminate child poverty or help lift thousands of aboriginal people out of third-world living conditions.
The right-wingers’ success in hiding their corporate agendas with nice-sounding catch phrases has some liberal-lefties struggling to come up with persuasive ones of their own. Instead of “tax relief,” how about shifting the debate to “tax fairness”? Instead of a “free trade agreement,” why not call it a “corporate rights pact”? And when right-wing politicians natter on about “security” and call for tighter border controls and a bigger military, why can’t progressive people point out that the real threats to our security come from global warming and the continued privatization of health care and education? It’s true, left-wingers need their own sound bites to counter the slogans from the right. But I’d say we lefties also need to support the politicians who support us by challenging the corporate media’s constant repetition of right-wing slogans. For example, the next time you read or hear about the Tories’ “Clean Air Act,” write or phone to complain. It’s not a “Clean Air Act.” Its proper name is Bill C-30 and when the opposition parties kill it, as they should, you can bet Steve Harper will stump the country saying his opponents are against “clean air.” That claim won’t stick if the mainstream media refuse to parrot Harper’s misleading slogan.
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