Saturday, August 18, 2007

What's in a name?

This past week, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer dedicated time to shining some light on the net results of the No Child Left Behind law. I probably don't need to tell you too much about what they uncovered. Suffice it to say, there are still a few children getting left behind.

What really caught my eye about the NewsHour piece though, were not the myriad ways in which the law has failed to achieve its goals (and if you didn't see the program, you really should), but rather a single tangential point that one of the teachers made:

Early on in the third installment of the special report, correspondent John Merrow visied a handful of the nation’s very best teachers. One in particular, Anthony Cody, jumped out at me. Despite being one of only 2% of teachers who are nationally certified, Mr. Cody quit out of sheer desperation.

As was the case with so many of his colleagues, it was easy to see why he was so frustrated with the No Child Left Behind law. But the one frustrating thing for him that really interested me was not that the new system is a colossal failure, or that it's limiting teachers' ability to do their jobs, but that teachers like Anthony Cody feel they can't criticize the law.

Why? Because it's named too well. Who could argue with a plan to 'leave no child behind'?

As Mr. Cody points out, "If I say that No Child Left Behind sets unrealistic goals, then the very name of the law says that, by implication, I'm leaving children behind... I’m not interested in leaving anyone behind.”

This is a powerful concept: if you name an idea well enough, no one can oppose it- no matter what the substance is.

This is a phenomenon that's existed in American politics since the very beginning. It is, in fact, why our two political parties are called "Republicans" and "Democrats". Republicans were trying to suggest that their opponents didn't believe in a republic- that they wanted a monarchy or sovereign states or something. The Democrats countered, naming their party in such a way that suggested that their opponents were un-democratic.

But for a more recent example, just think about our long-standing debate over abortion:

People who want to ban abortions are called “pro-life”. The implication being, anybody who disagrees with them is “anti-life”. And that is the position liberals are stuck defending before the debate even begins.

That’s a strong name.

So what about "pro-choice"? It is perfectly in line with their position. But does it say anything pointed about the opposition? The fact that pro-lifers are "anti-choice" is a given. That is, in fact, the whole point of the debate. They're out there specifically protesting the right to choose.

Liberals aren't out picketing life. They’re not protesting birth or motherhood. But that's the corner they've gotten themselves backed into.

Without sounding like I'm offering an opinion on the debate itself (something I am loath to do), I would suggest that the "pro-choice" crowd should choose a less accurate and truthful title and settle on one that does more to box their opponents into some awkward place.

So, cynically speaking I guess, I'm saying the name "pro-choice" doesn't make conservatives look immoral or corrupt enough.

A better choice, for example, might be "pro-rights"; with the idea being that "pro-lifers" are a bunch of people who don’t believe in rights (a notion no red-blooded American will ever be comfortable with).

The name would have sufficiently summed up the pro-choicers' stance, protecting 'the right to choose', while also taking aim at the opposition's seeking to take away that right. At the very least, it would co-opt the conservative "right to life" sound byte.

Politics is, after all, the art of being tolerably disingenuous. And Republicans are masters at this.

Democrats, on the other hand, couldn't sell a popsicle on a hot day. (Not even a really compelling and timely popsicle.)

During the stem-cell debate, for instance, the Democrats allowed the Republicans to trademark terms like "snowflake babies" (referring to the fertilized embryos) without having something equally cute and compelling to fire back with.

Where was the comeback? Did somebody's aide forget to photocopy it?

Or when the recent Immigration Bill came up, the Democrats got completely stumped by, "illegal is illegal".

They were speechless… and they had the better argument- vastly better. They just couldn't figure out how to sell that argument in three words.

Why on earth not?

Here’s one right off the top of my head, "Racist is Racist". The last thing anybody wants is to appear racist on national television (just ask Trent Lott). And racisim was obviously the only substantive part of the "deport 'em"argument.

The stakes are really high these days. They've always been high. It's time to start actively shaping the national debate. And that process has to be begin with slogans, names, and perhaps even a few more clever liberal bumper stickers.

So Democrats, here's what I would say to you:

In the future, presidents will get elected, laws will get passed, judges will get appointed, and wars will get started because somebody figured out how to sell an idea- and for no other reason whatsoever.

Make sure it's your idea.

You have a couple weeks left on vacation. In that time, I hope you make a list of names. At the very least, hire somebody competent to do it for you. Get big tobacco's PR people... they're looking for work.

Because, when push comes to shove, if nobody reads your legislation, and nobody hears your speeches, you better have a pretty unbeatable slogan. You better have a name that does eighty percent of your work for you.

Otherwise, you're just that discount, off-brand toothpaste, that works just as well, but nobody ever buys.


abby said...

answering the question, "do you think No Child Left Behind is working?" is somewhat like answering that question , "Do you still beat your wife." You're damned whether it's affirmative or negative.

Food for thought: Many pro-lifers do actually see pro-choicers as being anti-life. From the pro-life perspective, pro-choicers are advocating legalized murder. To pro-choicers, this may look like rhetorical trickery. But to pro-lifers, it may look like an apt reflection of the debate.

Harrison Lewis said...

You're right. I don't the pro-lifers chose the name for rhetorical purposes alone- not by any means. The fact that they see pro-choice as being anti-life is what adds so much fuel and emotion to the fight.

The point was just that it has a powerful rhetorical effect that "pro-choice" does not.

'Choice' in other words is whimsical, convenient, and fun.

'Rights' are inalienable and central to democracy.

I just think it was a poor choice.