American Dialects 26

Flying back from my uncle’s wedding in Oregon, I was sitting next to a towering 70-year-old former school teacher and superintendent whom I’ll call Mr. Montana.  He mostly ignored me while I read my book during the first half of the flight.

The second half was a whole other story as we struck up a conversation that turned immediately political.  He came across as a libertarian.  Perhaps a Reagan democrat.  Clearly suspicious of government in general and seriously pissed about high property taxes in Montana.  He viewed his new governor and senator as untried.

“Testor?  He’s untested.  Talks a good game, but all I see is rhetoric.”

Not so curiously, this was his main criticism of Barack Obama.  A young guy who clearly had a lot on the ball, but what has he actually done?  There is clearly a communications problem when after nearly a year and a half of campaigning, an intelligent and politically aware citizen doesn’t know Obama’s background.  As I shared with him some of my knowledge of Barack’s record, both in Illinois and the US Senate, he came to a grudging acceptance of my candidate’s bonafides.

My new friend wasn’t voting for Hillary or McCain and couldn’t get excited about Obama.  Clearly some work left to do on educating the American voter on who Barack is and what he stands for.  I would love to see his campaign invest a couple hundred grand of their war chest in a short documentary detailing his primary campaign while weaving in the stories many of us know from his two books and what he has done in Washington DC.

This is a no-brainer.

Put it on YouTube.  Offer it to the marketplace for air.  Barack would have a huge audience for that film, hungering to know who is and why he should be president.

As Mr. Montana clearly showed with his willingness to engage in debate with a man half his age and his political mirror-image, there are hearts and minds waiting to be won if we take the time to understand.

As we spoke over the next hour, I understood that he was really no different from me politically.  His ideas were progressive, but his framing was conservative.  He lambasted “unions” but was really talking about union leaders who had become corrupt and made his life hell when trying to administer a school district where some teachers needed to be trained or let go.  He actually believed in the ideas of unions and acknowledged the huge debt America had to the labor movement.  He was someone who had taught for 50 years and never read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, though he spoke eloquently to its precepts on many subjects.

This led me to believe that we were both Americans, speaking English, yet talking two different dialects.  It only took a short while for our conversation to become a Rosetta Stone, once both had laid aside the need to “win” our discussion.  It was almost a mutual armistice, probably because we were on a  plane.  You can only get so passionate in that setting.  The automatic politeness facilitated a conversation that led to mutual understanding.  We cracked the code of bridging the gaps in the silent majority.

I think I asked him at one point about social services when he had a particularly sharp comment for “welfare” recipients and teaching someone to fish.  I said, “Yeah, but we never taught them how to fish, we just gave them fewer fishes for a shorter period of time.”

He allowed that was true, but didn’t want government in the business of taking care of people beyond things like social security for retirement and national health care.  I offered the idea that if we fully funded the non-profit sector, then government wouldn’t be providing the services best distributed at the local level.  They would simply be setting a standard and funding the efforts in whatever way maximises effectiveness.  The non-profit sector has been very good at distributing social services at a fraction of the cost of government.

Likewise, a robust Fourth Sector (For Profit, For Good companies) with the right funding could quickly pursue the technology we need to transition to clean energy.  Subsidising Oil and AgriBusiness is not a good return on investment.  Subsidizing clean energy entrepreneurs and on-profit efforts provides a huge return on investment.  Slimming down the federal government, increasing state and local budgets and taking a more humble stance in the world all seemed doable by spending the money we already spend more effectively.  In fact, by doing things more efficiently and effectively, we would be able to alleviate the individual’s tax burden in the long run.

It all seemed like common sense to me, but no one had put it in that way to Mr. Montana.  Even now, the Rosetta Stone is fading, in terms of just how to position certain debates to maximum effect.

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26 thoughts on “American Dialects

  • JasonEverettMiller

    Didn’t really finish that one right.

    I meant to end with a request from fellow progressives for stories where they had a real conversation that led to mutual understanding with someone they consider their political opposite.

    With the tone and tenor of the democratic primary, it is easy to forget that there is a general election coming up with TONS of disaffected republicans ready to turn away from the neocon nightmare that America has become over the last 40 years.

    Their eyes have been opened, but no one is there to show them anything.

    • Hoo Hussein Hah

      On the matter of teaching people to fish, you could have quoted Obama, who said in his Wisconsin victory speech and in other speeches: “We are an independent and a self-reliant people. We don’t believe in government doing what we can do for ourselves.”

      I remember Chris Matthews talking about this with Pat Buchanan, and he said that when Buchanan heard Obama say this, “I thought Pat was going to jump up with his arms in the air and shout, ‘Si se puede!'”

      • Scalfin

        You could also have said that that’s all well and good, as long as you can afford a rod, bait, a spot where fish are, and enough sustenance to not starve while waiting for a bite.

        • Larry Geater

          I like the metaphore that says that the GOP tells people to pull themselves up by theri boot straps just after they stole the boots.

  • markg8

    Jason I use this on doorsteps all over suburban Chicago when canvassing:

    We had less than a trillion dollars in federal debt when Jimmy Carter left office in 1981.

    It took all of US History, over 200 years, under Democratic and Republican presidents – two world wars, the Civil War, the Spanish American war, the war of 1812, umpteen recessions and depressions – all the way from 1776 to 1981 to run up that tab up to less than a trillion dollars.

    Since then under Republican trickle down, supply side economics with huge tax cuts for the rich we’ve ballooned that debt to over $9 trillion in 27 short years. Now we borrow $300 billion a year from the Red Chinese to pay the Venezuelans and Arabs for oil. The second biggest single expenditure in our government’s budget every year behind the Defense Dept. is now interest on that debt.

    John McCain said in 2001 Bush’s tax cuts “offended his conscience”. Now he wants to make them permanent. Somebody’s gotta pay that debt and it’s gonna be our kids and grandkids.

    So yeah if you make over $300,000 a year your taxes are gonna go up under Democrats, I can almost guarantee it. But even billionaires like Warren Buffett understand that billions aren’t worth much if the dollar isn’t worth squat. Slashing taxes doesn’t work, it’s never worked, we aren’t growing our way out of debt we’re burying ourselves in it. There’s no free lunch, and Repubs have left our country in hock for at least a generation.

    It takes less than a minute to say those words, people listen, if they’re Dems they agree, if they’re Repubs they look like they’re gonna cry.

    • BH

      Somebody’s gotta pay that debt and it’s gonna be our kids and grandkids.

      Somebody here at TPM called that the “birth tax”. I think that’s a term we should use over and over again.

      • Wade Boggs

        Ben: “Birth Tax.” This is a brilliant turn of phrase, and it can begin to stick to help people put the trillions, and trillions, and trillions of wasteful federal spending into perspective. (Time is of the essence on this argument, b/c as they say: After a few trillions, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.)

        • markg8

          I don’t think birth tax is as effective as reminding or informing them that we had a $1 trillion dollar debt 27 years ago and now it’s $9 trillion. It really makes the point when you go all the way back to 1776 that we’ve never had such
          bad leadership. They can practically see George Washington and Abe Lincoln frowning at them saying “What are doing to the country we left you?”

          Republicans have always attacked Dems over taxes and won’t ever stop. I present it as the phony argument it is and get voters thinking about it. You mention birth tax and they’ll start listening to McCain say he wants to cut earmarks and think “well he’s the responsible one”.

          I want them to understand that slashing taxes for the rich is a failed policy. Nobody wants to pay more in taxes but those making over $300,000 a year most assuredly will. Despite the fact that I’m hardly ever talking to anyone making that kind of money it shows them I’m making an honest argument when I say that guy with the 3 car garage will pay more. And even when I’m talking to that guy guilt is a powerful motivator. It’s embarrassing to think George Washington is giving him the stink eye from the misty past and he doesn’t want to go down in the history books his great grandchildren will read as one of the “dumbest generation” who squandered our country’s inheritance.

          But it has to be done in a way that doesn’t drag them back to the ingrained “tax and spend” meme Republicans have successfully planted in so many skulls or you’re just making them think OMG Dem are gonna hike taxes thru the roof!

          And believe me it really does blow their minds when there’s a Dem on their doorstep hammering dismal Republican fiscal policy that’s bankrupting us.

          • BH

            I don’t think birth tax is as effective as reminding or informing them that we had a $1 trillion dollar debt 27 years ago and now it’s $9 trillion.

            The two go hand-in-hand. First, you drop the term “birth tax” to describe the Republican tax strategy over the last 30+ years. Then, when they ask you what you’re talking about, you give them the cold, hard facts. Get them interested first, though.

          • The Old Grouch

            “Birth tax” is a great marketing hook. That’s one area where the Republicans had excelled, right up until their product collapsed into a stinking pile of rubble.

            Your explanation is good, no doubt of that. “Birth tax” is just sticky enough to remain in people’s minds longer, and should be used as an intro to your more complete commentary.

          • Scalfin

            Just remember: the birth tax can be either paying off the debt or, if they say we’ll pay it off when Reagan’s ghost craps hundred dollar bills, the interest on all that debt.

      • DryEraser

        I’m recommending this post just for “Birth Tax” alone. I can’t wait to read other interesting encounters with conservatives.

      • JasonEverettMiller

        Love the birth tax. That kind of positioning obviously works for good and evil. We should definitely use it for good.

      • MsJoanne

        I, too, think “birth tax” is a great phrase if you follow it up with: Each and every child born into the US will immediately owe the government $X (what is it now, $15,000 per every living American?) and they haven’t even taken a breath yet – because the Republicans have borrowed and spent recklessly while cutting taxes to the most wealthy amongst us.

        Then drive home the specifics.

    • JasonEverettMiller

      if they’re Dems they agree, if they’re Repubs they look like they’re gonna cry.

      That is exactly the feeling I get as a fairly widespread national pulse. Your elevator pitch is clearly too grounded in most people’s reality that it is impossible to ignore. At this point, it is only those people on the extreme edges of political thought who can’t see the truth when they are whacked upside the head with it.

      Americans, for most of our history, were largely a reality-based people. That’s why there were so many riots. When was the last time we had a good Revolutionary-style riot? The Vietnam era I would say. Americans have been medicated and satiated by a corporate complex bent on domination. The Internet is the only thing that saved us from George Orwell’s nightmare.

      We have been well on our way toward complete control for quite some time or Sidney Lumet wouldn’t have made Network in 1976.

      I wrote a post about the military industrial complex and the military powers of presidency being completely contrary to what our founders believed in and intended. It was clear they wanted a huge amount of separation between the presidency and the ability to control and deploy our military.

      If we could turn our military capacity into an Apollo Project for Energy & Technology at the top and a non-profit driven American Renaissance being run from the bottom, this country would be on top again in a generation. It’s way past time we quit leaving 80 percent of this country behind.

      We can’t afford to be so cavalier with our most valuable resource. What else delivers more return on investment than a motivated and educated citizen? Can’t get that kind of return from oil or gold.

      The biggest untapped resource this country has is its legions of bright and capable working class.

  • DryEraser

    I met people I liked and trusted who are gun aficionados down here in Texas. I’ve shot some guns before (even though I don’t own one) at a garbage dumb and came to have a more libertarian stance on the gun control issue.

    I’ve also met an entrenched Republican who after a certain school shooting suggested that teachers packing heat would make for a safer school environment. And this person is well grounded and respected citizen from all other indications.

    I’m not culturally averse to guns but would like to a sane gun “control” policy.

    • JasonEverettMiller

      Exactly. The gun debate is just one area where the idiots are driving the topics for discussion. Why would we even have that debate? It’s idiotic. I am sure we can come to a common sense way to regulate guns if we stop listening to fools.

      • mageduley

        These are the same divisive issues that the GOP had flamed in the past to divide us. “Those liberals are going to take away your guns.” or “Those liberals hate the church.”

        Hence Obama’s cling to guns and religion statement. While unartfully done, the point was as true as it ever could be.

        Which was why, when Hillary came up with the “elitist” thing I was just dumbfounded. That is the kind of crap neocons have been using against us for years.

        McCain could do wonderfully just making TV adds with all Hillary campaign footage.

  • wwstaebler

    You are quite right about the number of disaffected Republicans each of already knows or will encounter. Therefore, each of us should be ready to participate in the kind of civil discussions you are talking about. But it is nervous-making, as it is so easy to alienate, however inadvertently. If only there were a talking points script for such a discussion that one could study in advance!

    • JasonEverettMiller

      I think one good rule of thumb I discovered was to not try to “win” the conversation as we are mostly accustomed to thinking of political debates. It was only after talking for a while that I discovered we were saying the same things from different frames.

      • Alex39

        That’s great advice. It’s got to be give and take. The persona you project is probably even more important than your explicit arguments.

  • markg8

    When I’m canvassing I always introduce myself as
    a Democratic volunteer first. Their preconceptions are pretty evident right there. I let them steer the conversation and go from there. But I always present my beliefs as heartfelt, looking them in the eye, if they dispute it, deny it or try to shrug it off and very few do, I tell them to go look it up, google “national debt clock”.

    And to anyone who isn’t phoning or canvassing for Dems right now, I ask you when you’re gonna start. You think we’re gonna kick their asses if we wait til September? You think Barack can do it on his own? We need a landslide. We need to win House seats that Dems have never won before. Get off this blog and get to work.

  • Cricket4

    My spouse and I, on our way back from visiting his family in Seattle, over spring break in March – I sat next to a schoolteacher from Detroit. She is/was a Romney Republican. She broke the proverbial ice because of the book I was reading. Soon after exchanges of what our professions were, we moved into politics.

    I was not driving. She was. She was vociferous in her dislike of Hillary Clinton. I defended a little. I hate to see any Democrat get rolled upon. Then she launched on Obama. I let her go on for a bit and then engaged her. I looked for the common ground. We talked about the condition of schools in America and the condition of education. We talked about her experiences as a teacher and the commonalties that she and I both had in terms of experience in American education.

    When we landed in Detroit to change planes, she gave me a hug. I was floored. I do not come across as a huggy, cuddly sort. She said that when Obama came into MI, she would go see him. That she would keep an open mind. My husband was stifling his very irritating, but knowing smile all the way to our connecting flight.