These first appeared on Bartcop Entertainment.
Intro: I wrote this for the Gore/Dayton 2000 Campaign in Minnesota and slighlty rewrote and submitted it to the Democrats recently. Both times it was ignored; one of the reasons I'm not a Democrat. I offer it here edited a little but with orginal the original examples, since you're going to make 'em all local anyway. (Note: Gore won Minnosota, incumbent Sen. Grams lost to Dayton and McCollum won her House seat.)
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Make if from the heart and your passion will come through.
How to Write Letters to the Editor from the San Diego Libertarian Party.
Tips on writing effective letters to the editor from the Tools for Activists section of the environmental group.
Next week: What to say and how to say it. Vocabulary from Newt and talking points from all over.
"Of course, in my mind I've renamed D.C.'s airport Iran-Contra International." -- Micheal R Weholt
In the Illuminatus Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (among other things, former editors of the letter column of Playboy) came up with the term fnord, which is a word put in a newspaper article that you can't see but instantly provoke a negative emotional reaction to the content of the article. While the Illuminatus Trilogy is fiction, mostly, the concept of words that provoke an emotional reaction to the rest of the content is legitimate. All words have connotative as well as denotative aspects, but some are deliberately used to color speech. On the right, a dittohead can mutter "political correctness" or "feminazi" or many many others and the actual facts presented don't mean anything. The point is already made just by repeating the word. The left has it's own terms (left as an exercise for the reader) as do many other ways to slice opinionated cognative dissonance.
Establishing emotional associations to overlay factual discussion isn't a recent rhetorical trick. Any good writer knows how to use words to create emotional links (Shakespeare is especially good that this, and you often don't even notice). Ad campaigns rely on appeals to the emotions. Political spin is often just using emotion-laden words to justify an action that would otherwise be abhorrant (eg calling the procedure partial-birth abortion to justify putting the mother in danger), or is using emotion-neutral words to dampen what would otherwise cause your stomach to churn (eg collateral damage to refer to civilian casualties).
In the half-decade prior to 1978, the liberals were riding high here in the US. The good guys had just precipitated the first resignation of a president, the ever-slimy Richard Nixon; the War In Vietnam (excuse me, police action...) had just come to an inglorious end, yet an end nonetheless. We had elected Jimmy Carter, a moral man, as president, and he was appointing good people. The Clean Air and Water Act was finally making rivers safe to drink from again, and so on.
Then, as now, the far right couldn't stand it when they were out of power, and were determined to take the reigns of control no matter what the cost to America. The coalition of center-left movements that had coalesced around the anti-war movement was falling apart without the war. Enter Newt Gingrich, running for Congress in Georgia. His Ph.D. demonstrated that he had survived academia, which has it's own language set, and he wanted to bring that level of rhetorical manipulation to the political arena. Here is the list that Newt gave to all the Republicans/conservatives/hate radio/speech writers:
|Good Words according to Newt||Bad Words according to Newt|
eliminate good-time in prison
pro- (issue): flag, children, environment, reform
|abuse of power
anti- (issue): flag, family, child, jobs betray
"compassion" is not enough
punish (poor ...)
Not precisely fnords ala bleeding heart, Newt and co. managed to turn the dialog in his direction. It took a while to mold a gullible public spending 3 1/2 hours a day listening to Rush and the rest of the day repeating Drudge over a beer and Newt didn't get to be Speaker of the House until 1994.
Meanwhile, here are some of my own additions and suggestions, augmented by similar arguments gleaned from Rackjite, bartcop, Joseph Duemer and so on.
One of the easiest things to do is simply reverse everything they say. Listen to the fnord they're using and turn the tables. You have the advantage of being factually correct as well as morally sound. If they start going on about "liberal news media" you can point out that lie, and simply append "conservative" and "Republican" to "news media" or "the local paper". Indeed, if they slip in the fnords (and I bet they can't even define most of them; ever ask a dittohead to define "liberal"? They would never have passed third grade...), do the same in reverse: append "conservative" to lots of the negative issues and "liberal" (or "center" or "bi-partisan" or "heroic liberal") to all the positive issues.
Bush lied to our troops. Where is Bin Ladin? Where are the Weapons of Mass Destruction?
Moral relativism (aka the double standard; the right likes to use this one, and I love to shove it back in their face
bin Laden-loving (W's first major business partner was a brother of Osama. His father has worked for bin Ladens in the Carlyle Group and others)
Christian ("Jesus was a liberal. Why aren't you?")
Republicans are soft on crime... when it's theirs (I love to accuse Republicans of being soft on crime, whenever they defend Nixon or try to change the subject of Bush's scandals with an 'everyone does it' argument).
Whining, right wing whining
George W. French (Bush lied to our troops! The French were right and the oily Bush administration was lying... again.)
Corporate media, conservative news media, right-wing media elites
Deficit-loving Republicans, tax & spend Republicans. (eg, Republicans cut their taxes and spend your money)
Fundamentalist social agenda, right-wing social agenda
The Taliban wing of the GOP
The Republican privatization plan for Social Security.
Income gap [Note: when Republicans respond by calling this "class war," respond with, "the class war started in the boardroom."]
Massive corporate fraud
Lack of corporate governance (W was handling governance on the Harken Board of Directors...)
The economic assault on ordinary families
off-shore corporate tax havens (one of those costs more than all the welfare cheaters...)
Losing the war on terror. The same day we invaded Iraq for the second time in 12 years, we invaded Afghanistan for the second time in 18 months, and al Queda is still there.
A woman's right to choose
The discredited War on Drugs
And when they call you a liberal, repeat-after-me: "That's right! I'm proud to be a liberal. Liberals stand for accounting reform, a woman's right to choose, the sanctity of Social Security, responsible and effective national security, working families . . ."
The shame of being a conservative has never been greater.
Rush Limbaugh is for people who aren't mature enough for Barney.
And so on. The arguments of the dittoheads have been honed by some of the highest paid hatemongers (eg spin control artists) over hours and hours of air time. It's time to take back the vocabulary, use fnords to our advantage, and force people to think about what they're talking about. They probably won't, at least not right away, but the effort is worth whether choosing your words carefully for a formal letter to the editor/web article/essay or more informally in a face to face discussion. You're at a disadvantage: You can be pursuaded by a reasonable argument. Your argument must be reasonable AND evocative.
"Torkild, you have never been forced from the safety of what you percieve to be your reality. You are locked too deeply into your concepts of you you think you are. You must step out of it and see yourself from a different percpective."
Torkild laughed, "My reality serves me fine."
"Of course it does. Ignorance allows the belief in perfection. You never need to question. At the same time, never to question is one of the few real sins for which your soul can be damned."
-- The Web Of The Spider, W. Michael Gear, p537
One of the important things to remember about the extreme right: They hate you. Their world is soley defined in black and white terms (which is what makes them extremists in the first place) and any shade of gray makes you one of... Them. Most, even most conservatives, are not extremists, but too many are. The people who shielded and are proud of right-wing Christian terrorist Eric Rudolph are far too common. There is no reasoning with them, but at least you can show some gumption and stand up to them with facts. Failing that, use fnords. It won't change their mind, but you can have fun watching their faces turn red. And maybe you'll convince someone who's not so extreme as they'd like to believe. Slowly, perhaps, but we're the good guys, remember?
One of the fun things to do is respond to the outrageously stupid comments, spin control and/or outright lies of the far right. All too often, these disinformation campaigns come directly from Republican National Committee Headquarters and identical letters/commentary appears in papers all over the country, signed by supposedly local writers who may or may not exist. These are designed to stroke the, er, ego of dittoheads while providing rhetorical ammunition in drunken arguments and in general to perpetuate a Big Lie. They're really good at it, and spend a lot of money so the conservative news media doesn't dig too deep. The Daily Howler and Media Whores Online do a pretty good job dissecting some of the larger stories. But even the smaller ones don't stand up to the light of day. Here's one example, and how I might reply in a letter to the editor.
Recap: The "Rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch was called into question by this Guardian article (the conservative US news media just bought whatever Rummy said with no thought of journalistic follow-up questions), and a Canadian story quoting an eyewitness is here.
The articles referenced in the conservative spin document don't exist on-line anymore; the Scheer articles are not on the Star Tribune site (since it's been more than three weeks) but presumably they're responding to Scheer's May 20th article archived on alternet.com Saving Pvt. Lynch: Take 2. Scheer's May 30 article in The Nation reprinted a few days later in the tardy STrib entitled Pentagon Aims Guns At Lynch Reports, which offers facts, investigations and cites eyewitness accounts. Meanwhile, The Green Bay Press Gazette article, at best a second-hand account by a worried mother, isn't online 6/15/03, a day after it was cited in the commentary.
This first appeared in the Mpls Star Tribune on Saturday, June 14. It's signed by a "Minneapolis grant writer" but it wouldn't surprise me to see an identical or near-identical counterpoint in many other newspapers. Usually, these kinds of disinformation campaigns (that is, lies to cover up other lies) are orchestrated at the National Republican level. This article demonstrates one of the rhetorical tricks used a great deal by dittoheads: They take the truth, randomly make assumptions with no proof or logic, and then use the assumptions as hard facts to slam their ideologically driven conclusions home. I will quote the first few and last few paragraphs, with my commentary following.
Italics mine. It's nice that he cites two articles, and indeed there is "something hollow about the whole thing", but what he is trying so hard to avoid are the facts and eyewitness accounts of Scheer's articles. Schersten is devoid of facts, and doesn't provide any counter evidence. This is why he has to start off with his emotion-laden conclusion.
Italics mine. First, the description of Scheer's article as "lurid, gleeful" reporting of a BBC report (notice that he doesn't actually comment on the report itself) is, at best, a personal opinion. I didn't see anything gleeful in it, and the details were less "lurid" than your average caller to hate radio. His characterization doesn't hold. Further, the CNN article he cites comes to the exact opposite conclusion he does. Entitled BBC reporter defends Lynch documentary, the reporter answer's "no" to whether the rescue was real. "The Americans had a legitimate right in getting Lynch out of the hospital in Nasiriya." He goes on further to say,
"Where we took issue with the official version as put out by Central Command, in Doha, [Qatar], to the world's press, was the way the Americans did it. They went in, all guns blazing, helicopters, a great, heroic rescue mission.
"The contention of the Iraqi doctors we spoke to was, well, actually they didn't need to do that, they could have come and got her. And in fact, one of the doctors said the day before the Americans conducted this very elaborate rescue mission, they had actually tried to get Lynch to the Americans, by putting her in an ambulance, taking her to the front line. In the course of that journey, according to the doctors, that ambulance came under fire from American forces, and they had to take her back to the hospital."
Italics mine. This paragraph is a complete lie. The suggestion has not faded, and Scheer doesn't hint at anything. Scheer presents facts, building on eyewitness accounts. Schersten's view cannot be upheld by mere innuendo.
Italics mine. Here is the crux of the discussion, and the point where a letter to the editor would revolve around. Let's examine the critical fact that Shersten wiggles around: The doctors did try to deliver Pvt Lynch to US forces at least a day before her official rescue. Whether they got particularly "close" (close enough to be killed by rifle fire is close enough for me) or whether the US forces knew that the ambulance they were shooting at held a seriously wounded American doesn't change the need for a full investigation. Further, Schersten is outright lying when he says that the "doctors themselves aren't claiming it" since they are. Quoting from Scheer's first article:
'"The most important thing to know is that the Iraqi soldiers and commanders had left the hospital almost two days earlier," Houssona said. "The night they left, a few of the senior medical staff tried to give Jessica back. We carefully moved her out of intensive care and into an ambulance and began to drive to the Americans, who were just one kilometre away. But when the ambulance got within 300 metres, they began to shoot."'
Italics mine. One of the points of the articles was that the risks were not real, and "In all, 12 doors were broken, a sterilized operating theatre contaminated, and the specialized traction bed in which Lynch had been placed was trashed." No mention of gunshot damage. Further, the Greed Bay Press Gazette article cited (a second hand report at best) is not valid 6/15/03, the day after the counterpoint appeared. In fairness, searched for the article on the web from some other source, and found nothing. I'm sure the worried mother backed up her son; good for her. But it's bad journalism allow it to be used as supporting evidence.
Skipping down to the end...
Italics mine. It's a standard practice from the cynical right (and usually a total lie) to claim some sort of change. "Old lefty" doesn't mean much, even in the unlikely event it's not just a false claim. "Extreme anti-war" is meaningless, since a) there's nothing "extreme" in wanting to protect our armed forces from being fired on by our own troops and b) holding Bush and Rumsfeld accountable for their handling of the conflict is hardly "anti-war". Indeed, wanting to know the truth about our leaders is "pro-America", and Schersten is equating "pro-American" with "anti-Bush". Ah, a glimmer of truth there.
Italic mine. Here are some fnords. Wholly loaded words that shift the debate from the rational to the emotional. First, Schersten has gone from commenting on one person's articles to making this a whole "us vs. them" debate. Facts don't matter, what's important is that you're one of "us". "They" (that is, you and me), are "shrewd" AND "shrewdly motivated" AND have "these clever gods", neatly elevating Scheer to Godhood. Gosh. Is Schersten replacing the Trinity with the Quadrinity? How sly. Is "shrewd" one of the new fnords, with a negative connotation? Aren't we all "motivated", shrewdly or not, to hold our politicians accountable? I want to be shrewdly motivated to find the truth, don't you? Further, the most overarching claim is that Bush and co. want to control Iraq's oil, but that's hardly "colonizing" the country. In this sense, "colonize" is a fnord, a word with an emotional attachment that far outweighs whatever the word actually means.
Italics mine. "They" again, wanting to believe the truth rather than managed lies. "Aching" for the truth, no less. And the issues will disappear in his dreams... or if all people are as gullible as dittoheads.
Then, after an essay that doesn't present ANY hard data to counter any of the eyewitness accounts that are so damning to the dittohead flag-waving, he completely reverses the facts to lie:
Italics mine. He has admitted that he had jumped to conclusions, and the only way his rhetoric is "obvious" or "undeniable" is if you take all his "maybe"s as completely true. Once again, the extreme right has obscured the truth with a personal attack. No wonder good people don't want to run for office. It's like Junior High School with a drunken principal and the bullies running the school newspaper.
I've had a letter published recently, so writing to the Star Tribune won't do any good. Still, here are some of the ways I might respond (and I was pleased to see some similar letters in the Sunday (6/15/03) letter section (might have to register to read them).
Possible response one, using point 6 Compare and Contrast, from Part 1 of How To Write A Letter To The Editor
A good editorial/opinion section will present a wide range of opinions, and balance out an editorial with a counterpoint and/or letters. You can tell a bad editorial page if most of the columnists agree with the editorial and most of the letters agree with the columnists.
There are numberous legitimate reasons a newspaper doesn't print a letter, and I don't blame them for not running my epistles every time I take finger to keyboard. Nonetheless, as I've described in previous columns, your letter is more likely to be printed if you are grammatically correct, polite, factual, short and to the point.
The newspaper will write its own headline for any letter.
My local newspaper is the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It's a pretty good newspaper, but tends to lean a bit to the right nowadays (and you can tell by how many dittoheads start off their letter by accusing them of being liberal...) and is usually a day or two behind in publishing stories or columnists that appeared in other papers first. I regularly write letters and call Lou Gelfand, the paper's reader representative. Lou is pretty good, and his column in the opinion section of the the Sunday paper is worth reading, though he definitely has a right wing slant.
What follows are some of my letters to the Star Tribune, as I wrote them, not necessarily as they were published. I also included my phone number and city (though they know who I am...) I usually don't keep a clipping or the whole paper, so most of the historical perspective is from memory, which is why I'll run these in reverse chronological order.
[Sent 5/29/03, with the subject line "Bush lied to our troops"]
This was published June 2, 2003, unedited (minus the reference urls) with the headline "1 vote for impeachment". The reference urls were not only for the newspaper, but for anyone else I might copy the e-mail to. I haven't checked, but newspaper articles tend to get archived quickly and might not be up.
As usual, I got several responses. From the left, people called and left messages on my answering machine, identifying themselves and thanking me for "a wonderful letter". I had a greater than usual number of "uh..." hangups, and an insulting postcard from someone, unsigned. With very few exceptions, whetehr they agree or disagree with your position, a liberal will identify him or herself, but the cowardly conservatives will be incredibly nasty and scatalogical and refuse to identify themselves. This time, I didn't get any death threats.
[Sent 5/21/03 with the subject line, "Being ashamed", after a GOP state legislator made Trent Lott-like remarks and was defended by the racist right and a Democratic staffer (not even an elected official) correctly called the remarks racist and the Dems tripped over themselves apologizing.]
This one did not get printed, but several other letters made the same point. Iirc, there was a counterpoint that defended Lindner and took Harvin to task in this same period.
[Sent 5/14/03 with the subject line "Spurned by a Republican". I couldn't resist contrasting the Republican-dominated legislative session with Bill Bennett's self-inflicted wounds.]
This didn't get published, though other letters commented on the subjects at hand.
[Sent 4/27/03 with the subject line "Lindner's free speech" after a letter writer defended the legislator's racist remarks.]
Surprise! This one didn't get printed either.
[Sent 3/12/03 with the subject line "Kersten should be fired". This was an important one, as I caught one of the most egregiously awful members of the Taliban Wing of the GOP in an lie so bad she should be fired for it. Hence all the supporting urls (which I didn't expect them to print); I wanted them to give Kersten the bounce.]
This one they printed, but edited. They didn't print the supporting urls, of course. They didn't print the ending lines (and I forget if they printed the first line about not expecting morals from conservatives), and I did a column for Bartcop-E on the subject already. The editors did change "Kersten out-and-out lied" to "Kersten misled", which was pretty bad, though it they did keep the part about her needing to be fired. And, while I don't think they fired her, her role at the paper has diminished and I haven't seen her column on the main editorial page since. I don't recall that the paper ran a correction for the horrible mistake she made.
Corrections: Doing the aforementioned article for Bartcop-E, I discovered a bit of discrepency in my letter. While Kersten's column was completely wrong and it was irresponsible of her to ignore Ashcroft's cutting of the anti-terrorist budget, his budget cuts were proposed after Moussaoui's hard drive wasn't searched. Ashcroft was to blame for shifting money and personnel away from terrorist investigations and under Janet Reno, Moussaui's hard drive would have been searched, but I should have been clearer.
I'll keep printing more of my letters, used and unused, going back in time until either I run out or they subject matter gets too old to bother citing. I hope potential letter writers use my experience to help them get their point across in a way that newspapers can handle.
Possible response two, using point 9, When Appropriate, Use Humor
Possible response three, using point 2, Be Specific.
If anyone's in the Mpls-StPl area, I encourage you to respond to the right-wing lies that appear in the local papers. While you may use the examples I wrote here, I encourage you to write in your own voice about the issues that concern you.
Continuing with a selection of my letters... I've written a fair amount of political letters over the years, and I archive all the important e-mail I send (following my own advice; point 14). Hope you don't mind my taking some Bartcop-E space so these see the light of day and/or you can see how I construct a written argument (as opposed to a chatroom or even blog, which is more like a spoken argument). I'll probably use them on my web site archive of this series.
Again, what follows are some of my letters as I wrote them, not necessarily as they were published.
[Sent 2/9/03, with the subject line "Hitler vs. Noriega"]
This didn't get published, but astute Bartcop-E readers will recall that I expanded this into a Bartcop-E column so the Strib's loss was your gain.
[This was not a letter to the editor, but a submission for an announced retrospective on the 70s. Sent 4/17/03]
I don't know whether the project was abandoned or it was just off in a corner and I missed it, but I don't think they printed this one either.
[Sent 4/8/03 with the subject line "Cult Warning Signs".]
Interestingly, the Strib didn't print this, but Bartcop did, one of the reasons I often Copy him and/or Media Whores Online. (And searching for the url, I see it got reprinted in the local weekly paper's City Pages Babelogue as the Quote of the Day.)
[Speaking of Media Whores Online, I sent them this on 4/6/03 after one of their vacations.]
MWO didn't print the letter, but that's okay.
[This was sent to Sen. Joe Lieberman 3/18/03.]
Never heard from him, and iirc he voted for the resolution to attack Iraq, and the name The Cover Up War didn't catch on. On the other hand, all my statements about Bush's lies are slowly being proven even to the most knee-jerk dittohead (not that dittoheads care about the truth).
[Last one for this go 'round. I think I picked up the story (about a country station deciding to play the Dixie Chicks after all) on MWO and as a fellow radio producer felt I had a better in with the station manager Dale C of station KFKF (I don't recall his full name, but his e-mail address was published). This is an example of point 5 in my original article: State your qualifications if useful to the letter. Mailed 3/16/03.]
Never heard from him, though the Dixie Chicks album sales and concert attendance were not hurt (and may have been helped) by Big Brother trying to make enemies out of a group of good singers.
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