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Selling Policy with Catchy Language

Increasingly catchy terminology is used to package government missions and policies. Consider "war on terror" and "no child left behind," for instance. Linguist Geoff Nunberg offers his thoughts on the subject.

06:16

Other segments from the episode on August 5, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 5, 2005: Interview with Brian Holland, Lamond Dozier, and Edward Holland; Commentary on language; Review of the film “Broken Flowers."

Transcript

DATE August 5, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Commentary: Slogans in politics
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

GSAVE is out and war on terror is back in. The global war on terror is the
catch phrase the administration started using to describe our response to the
9/11 attacks. GSAVE, an acronym for global struggle against violent
extremism, was adopted recently by some administration and Pentagon officials
and signaled a change in policy. But the president this week came out on the
side of the war on terror. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts on
the use of slogans.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

Eighty years ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the art of building political
consensus rests on using symbols which assemble emotions after they've been
detached from their ideas. For those purposes, the phrase `the war on terror'
has a lot going for it. Whatever the facts of the matter, it compacts the
response to the 9/11 attacks and the military operations in Afghanistan and
Iraq under a single, pithy heading, and it adds the note of urgent purpose
that war always trails behind it.

But the reductiveness of symbols can make for some awkwardness when realities
become too obtrusive to ignore. That's presumably what led Donald Rumsfeld
and other senior officials to announce last week that the operant phrase would
henceforth be `the global struggle against violent extremism.' According to
General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the new
phrase was meant to suggest that the solution is more diplomatic, more
economic, more political than it is military. But in a speech in Texas
Wednesday, the president made it clear that he was having none of it. `Make
no mistake about it, we are at war,' he said and proceeded to use the phrase
`war on terror' five more times.

This isn't simply about whether we're in a war or not, but whether we need a
stirring slogan for it. The global struggle against violent extremism doesn't
exactly roll off the tongue. Staggers is more like it. It sounds like
something designed by a committee. It doesn't rebrand the administration's
strategy so much as unbrand it, using a generic wrapper that raises no
specific expectations. But that isn't how Bush operates. From `compassionate
conservatism' to the `ownership society' to `no child left behind,' this
administration has lived by slogans. True, there have been a few missteps,
like the `mission accomplished' banner that was posted behind the president
aboard the USS Lincoln in May of 2003. With the wisdom of hindsight, the
organizers of that event would probably have gone with something more
non-committal like `Way to go, guys.' But when it comes to the crunch, even a
reductive slogan is better than a forgettable one.

Politicians have been bandying catchphrases since the time of Cato the Elder,
who closed every speech he made in the Roman Senate with his hallmark
`Carthago delenda est,' `Carthage must be destroyed.' But there's something
wholly modern about the way people use language so widely to package missions,
policies and programs nowadays. The business of giving military operations
media-friendly names only began in 1989 when the first Bush administration
labeled its invasion of Panama Operation Just Cause. By contrast, back in
1957, President Eisenhower sent the Marines to Lebanon under the designation
Operation Blue Bat, a wasted naming opportunity that would bring a modern
Pentagon publicist to tears.

And it's only in recent years that legislators have been naming the bills they
introduce with an eye to the acronyms they form. You have the image of the
congressional staffers who wrote the USA Patriot Act sitting up till the wee
hours with a thesaurus until they came up with `uniting and strengthening
America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct
terrorism.' The Bush administration has merely taken packaging to a more
systematic level, wallpapering the backdrops at presidential appearances with
slogans like `Jobs and growth' when Bush pushes for his tax cuts or
`Compassion in action' when he speaks about AIDS.

This all has less to do with ideology than with a triumph of modern marketing
and, in particular, the idea that the right choice of words can trigger
associations at a deep, subconscious level that will put a product or policy
over in the public's mind. That assumption has made a media icon out of Frank
Luntz, the pollster who got the Republicans to rebaptize vouchers as
`opportunity scholarships' and to substitute `climate change' for `global
warming.' Luntz's influence has become so legendary that he's even been
credited with inventing the phrase `tax relief,' which actually goes back to
Al Smith.

In response, the Democrats have been trying to find their own magic words with
ubiquitous talk of messaging, narrative and framing. It's as if to say that
if voters haven't gotten the point, it's because what we have here is a
failure to communicate. There's no question that a good slogan can capture
the public's attention and that a bad one can leave you marooned on C-SPAN.
The Democrats would score a lot more points if they didn't insist on using
wonky locutions like `single payer' and `unfunded mandates.'

But for all the allure of notions like framing and messaging, it's actually
hard to think of many cases where a choice of language has ultimately made a
big difference in shifting public attitudes. `Healthy forests' and `no child
left behind' may suggest a new, more sensitive Republican Party. But the
majority of voters still give the Democrats the edge on the environment and
education. And despite Bush's tireless invocations of the `ownership
society,' the public's been cool to his proposals for privatizing Social
Security, even after the Republicans switched to talking about `personal
accounts' after `private accounts' turned out not to poll well.

The fact is that however suggestive they are, names and slogans can't
transform opinion once people sense that they don't correspond to perceptions.
You think of General Motors' futile efforts to rescue the moribund Oldsmobile
line in the 1990s. They kept saying, `This is not your father's Oldsmobile.'
But everybody could see that that's exactly what it was. That's the risk of
using slogans. They give people something to hold you to when reality comes
up short.

BIANCULLI: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and author of "Going
Nucular."

Coming up, a review of the new Jim Jarmusch film "Broken Flowers," starring
Bill Murray. This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: Jim Jarmusch's new movie "Broken Flowers," starring Bill
Murray
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Bill Murray teams up with indie director Jim Jarmusch in the new film "Broken
Flowers." It won second prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Film
critic David Edelstein says it's a perfect match.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

As each has grown older, the deadpan director Jim Jarmusch and the deadpan
comic Bill Murray seem to have realized that deadpan can be a defense against
emotion, a shield masquerading as cool. In Jarmusch's visionary neo-Western
"Dead Man" and Murray's gorgeous performance in "Lost in Translation," deadpan
suggests a profound alienation from a world that makes no sense. Now in their
collaboration "Broken Flowers," Jarmusch and Murray give us deadpan that
quivers with feeling.

"Broken Flowers" is Jarmusch's most conventionally entertaining film. But
it's still visually rigorous, full of pregnant silence and unfilled-in in a
way that's tantalizing. Murray plays Don Johnston--`That's Johnston,' he has
to keep telling people--who made a pile of money in software but whose hobby
was girlfriends, one after another. On the day his latest squeeze, played by
Julie Delpy, decamps because he can't commit. Don watches "The Private Life
of Don Juan" on his wide-screen TV in his huge, sterile house. And then this
aging Don Juan-ston opens a letter from an ex of 20 years ago with no return
address or postmark. It says he has a 19-year-old son who has run away to
look for him.

Don's pal, Winston, an expansive Ethiopian played by that soulful chameleon
Jeffrey Wright, is a family man with a passion for solving old-style, Sherlock
Holmesian mysteries. He pushes Don hard to go out into the world and find
that letter writer.

(Soundbite of "Broken Flowers")

Mr. JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Winston) I got all the info.

Mr. BILL MURRAY: (As Don Johnston) Well, that's very impressive, Winston. I
really don't know why you did all of this. What am I supposed to do about it?

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Winston) Look. In one trip. It's all planned, booked.
Reservations, rental cars, everything you need. All you have to do is give
them a credit card.

Mr. MURRAY: (As Don) What are you talking about?

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Winston) You go visit them. You go to their houses. You see
them. You bring flowers, pink flowers. You're just checking in.

Mr. MURRAY: (As Don) Just checking in.

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Winston) I even got maps. Everything you need. And I burned
you a new CD. See? It's traveling music.

Mr. MURRAY: (As Don) That I'll take.

EDELSTEIN: Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Frances Conroy and Sharon Stone are
recipients of those hopeful flowers. Each gives an indelible performance.
They respond to his surprise visit in different ways. But every sad, awkward
meeting gives Don a glimpse of someone he damaged and of a love forsaken.
Stone is the friendliest. She's a widow who organizes closets for a living,
yet there's something heartbreaking about her cheerful facade. Conroy is a
former hippie love child who's now a fragile, neurasthenic prisoner of prefab
McMansions that mock her utopian dreams. Lange plays an animal therapist,
apparently in hiding from the verbal deception of humans. Swinton's Penny is
a rural biker chick who's gone all the way into her anger. That encounter is
ferociously brief.

There's something a tad egocentric about the movie's scenario. We'd like to
think we left a mark on our exes, but most, if not all, are probably fully
engaged by their present lives and glad to be rid of us. As glimpses of
unfulfilled dreams and roads not taken, though, these scenes are small
miracles of pain and longing. When Don passes young men in airports or on the
street, he lingers over them. The world is full of sons he never knew.
There's an encounter with a kid played by the amazingly hypersensitive actor
Mark Webber that is as momentous in its monosyllables as anything Jarmusch has
done. This is the crowning performance in what I call Bill Murray's
loneliness trilogy, which consists of "Broken Flowers," "Lost in Translation"
and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." In his melancholy, he's funny. In
his funniness, he's adrift. The ironic hipster-clown is now God's loneliest
man. In "Broken Flowers," the roads that Don drives all look the same,
anonymous like his inner life. The music suggests a private eye movie in
which the gumshoe is going in circles. Will we get the Sherlock Holmes
resolution that his friend Winston craves? I'll tell you this. The ending is
madly unsatisfying yet dead perfect. This is an extraordinary film.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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