June 28, 2006

NPR Hosts War of Words Debate

Yesterday National Public Radio ran this segment on the language being used by both sides in the debate over the Iraq War and the 2006 election. It was a clash of the two language heavyweights mentioned in my September 17, 2005 post entitled "War of Words," Jedi Master George Lakoff for the Democrats and Darth Lord Frank Luntz for the Republicans.

Lakoff, author of the influential book "Don't Think of an Elephant!" put his linguistics skills to work immediately, saying that the U.S. is no longer fighting a "war" in Iraq. He said the U.S. won that war three years ago when it defeated Saddam Hussein's army to capture Iraq. Since then, according to Lakoff, the U.S. has prosecuted an "occupation" of Iraq. He said there is no way to win an occupation, it merely ends when the occupier decides to leave.

Lakoff's terminology seemed to get to Luntz, who said it would be a "challenge" if Iraq were framed in terms of an "occupation" before the 2006 election. Ironically, Luntz stated that Lakoff kept repeating the word "occupation" in order to have it sink in to the American conscience. Both the host of the program and Lakoff called Luntz on this, noting that, with Luntz's help, the Republicans for years have been disciplined Storm Troopers in the art of repeating phrases like "cut and run" so that they become part of the vernacular, which, in the words of the host, gives the creator of the phrase an immediate advantage in the political argument. My Sept. 17 post contained several examples of these loaded GOP phrases, such as "death tax" and "pro-life." With Lakoff's help, the Democrats are merely playing catch-up.

When one takes a step back from the flying fur and spewing vitriol that is America's political debate to listen to the actual words being used and the frequency with which they are being used, something magical and fun happens. It's like cracking the Matrix, removing the wool from one's eyes, pulling the curtain away from behind the Wizard, and stripping the Emperor of his new clothes all at once. And that is where the truth lies.


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