Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Class Warfare Brand

One of the things that bother me most about American politics and the news media is that conservative forces always seem to be controlling the narrative. As bad as Republicans tend to be at policy, compassion, moderation, and common sense, you’ve got to admit that they’re great at branding. Terminology and concepts that should have equal weight on either side of an issue have a tendency to become tethered to purely conservative ideologies. The phrase “class warfare” is a terrific example of this, and it tends to come up every time policy debates turn toward exploration of the possibility of raising the marginal tax rate on the top one percent of income earners, or of eliminating tax breaks on things like corporate jets. Somehow, that same term doesn’t gain as much popular traction when certain politicians stonewall efforts to extend unemployment benefits, or when unions are stripped of their collective bargaining powers. “Class warfare,” we are evidently meant to conclude, can only be conducted by the poor against the rich, never the other way around.

Thus we have Rush Limbaugh responding to the president’s mention of those tax breaks on corporate jet owners by calling it “dangerous!” and “full-fledged demagoguery!” and claiming that Obama’s “aim is for one group of Americans to hate and despise another!”

How can the effort at narrowing the gap between rich and poor be class warfare if decades of efforts at widening that gap weren’t? What could the president possibly be doing here to make one group of Americans despise another? He’s not changing the landscape of class distinctions in America; he’s just bringing attention to some of its features. If Limbaugh’s concern is that hatred will arise from nothing other than more information, there’s probably something wrong with the reality that is being described. If anything is going to breed hatred and despisal by one group against another, it’s not going to be successful efforts to make the rich take up a fair share of the tax burden. Rather, what will breed hatred is being witness to rich people repelling those efforts and holding fast to the most inequitable elements of American society.

Warfare, you see, is something that happens between two different nations or groups of people. If anyone wants to breed hatred and promote class warfare, it’s people like Rush Limbaugh who seem hell-bent on making the differences between the two groups of people in the United States as stark as possible – one group owning everything, the other nothing. So it is outrageous that he is able to throw those pejorative terms entirely onto the other side of the issue and paint multi-millionaires as the sole victims of unprovoked class warfare.

How are Republicans able to get away with this at every mention of labor policy or class inequality when the claim is so patently absurd? Skillful branding and manipulation of language can go a long way towards making simple acts of conscience appear to be villainous and persecutory. Does the Democratic Party have no public relations people whatsoever, no one who can introduce vivid and effective language on the right side of a topic before it is co-opted by the political right? How awful they must be at PR by comparison when they can’t even use it to promote the truth or the action that better advances the public good, while their opponents can paint lead to look like gold and then sell it to a desperately impoverished metallurgist.

All right, so once again the conservative wing has established the narrative and decided the course of the conversation. This is where it’s time to become proactive and change what it is they’re saying, so they look like the manipulative misers they are, rather than noble martyrs. Glenn Beck has described the corporate jet tax conversation as “unprecedented class warfare!” I would like to see someone respond, “You’re goddamn right it is!” It’s a war we’re engaged in, and you know what? That has great potential to be a good thing in the mind of the public. My dictionary shows that “war” can be defined as “a sustained effort to deal with or end a particular unpleasant or undesirable situation or condition.” How about we put the bitter, self-serving complaints of the right in that context? That would be good branding, and then Beck and Limbaugh would be decrying an unprecedented effort to deal with the unpleasant condition of a broadening gulf between rich and poor, the undesirable situation whereby the rich are given every effort to deepen and extend their wealth, while the poor struggle fruitlessly to find work and keep in their homes.

Being more of the latter class myself, I am afraid I can’t bring myself to be so nuanced, though, in response to the rest of Glenn Beck’s comments about the president’s discussion of corporate jet tax breaks, so don’t read on if you’re offended by strong language. Beck has said that it shows Obama’s “sheer, unadulterated disgust for the wealthy, the successful and anyone who’s ever tried to do anything with their life here in America”

Fuck you, Glenn Beck! How dare you indict anyone else for not inhabiting the same deluded fantasy-land that you’ve built with your $65 million personal wealth? As someone who’s trying desperately to do something with my life here in America and finding that my constant, crushing poverty adds more than a few layers of difficulty to my struggle, I powerfully resent the implication that an effort to get the most obscenely rich members of our society to give back something substantial constitutes a punishment of the ambitious. Your greed and that of those like you is what punishes my ambition, and what’s more, it makes my own personal promotion of class warfare seem ever so justified. Fuck you, Glenn Beck, if you think your success is a testament purely to your hard work and that the poverty of 36 million Americans is underpinned by laziness, and if they all just stepped up their efforts, they could have an eventually-disgraced television show and earnings of up to $11 million a year. Fuck you and your brand of class warfare.

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