Friday, September 21, 2012

Where is Spartacus when you need him?

I just read an article for school  by Sue McGreger called Critical Discource Analysis— A Primer, which was quite timely since this is the week that Mitt Romney's secret video came out on the Mother Jones Web site

In front of a room of wealthy potential campaign donors, among other things, Mitt said, 
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it … These are people who pay no income tax," Romney said. "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
McGregor suggests that "CDA is concerned with studying and analyzing written texts and spoken words to reveal the discursive sources of power, dominance, inequality, and bias and how these sources are initiated, maintained, reproduced, and transformed within specific social, economic, political and historical context" (3).  And what a perfect collection of spoken words to work with! 

Let's analyze using McGregor's  three levels of analysis (4). But I would prefer to take them out of order.

Let's look at (c) first: "the larger social context." The cable network Stars has been running a series about ancient Rome called Spartacus. In it, the nobility of Rome plot against each other and vie for dominance over their rivals. They do this plotting, as well as every other activity including having sex with each other IN FRONT OF their slaves, just as one might carry on in front of the coffee table! The series is very well researched, and I'm sure they are probably accurately representing the arrogance of the class, in which there is no need to be "careful" around the help, since they can always be terminated (literally) if they simply react to what is going on in front of them.

Anyway, I bring that up because if you keep that in mind as you watch the video from which the quote is extracted, you will see "servants" busily filling people's water glasses, clearing tables, and doing other "servantly" things— all while Governor Romney is conversing with his wealthy potential donors and talking about people whose economic status is quite possibly the same as these hard-working, low paid laborers. So here is the context: Governor Romney is speaking with the upper echelon of society— literally the 1%. And he is speaking to them as equals, which, of course they are, while ignoring the servants.

Next, let's look at (b) "Discursive practice." Mitt is defining "all the social positions they occupy in life" (McGregor 4), in this case, "they" referring to both his audience and the "other." He is setting up the classic "us against them" scenario. It's as old as society itself. "Let THEM eat cake." "We" are the responsible, respectable, elite. "They" are the lazy, irresponsible, freeloaders, who don't contribute to society. "We" includes all you out there in the dining room and me (Mitt) up here (ironically, with his hand out for campaign donations). "They" are an abstract stereotype designed to be used as a scapegoat for whatever ails society at the moment, "who might also be filling your water glass, Mitt thinks, "as you listen to me deride them".

Finally, let's consider (a) the actual text. First, let's extract some telling pronouns. him, they, them, they, them, they, their. He's certainly concerned with some "other."Have any doubts? How about "those people." Apparently, not "us." So how many of "them" are there? Roughly 47%. They are characterized by:

1) standing by the President " matter what," so they are obviously not critical thinkers. After all, if the President committed some "high crime or misdemeanor," those people would still stand by him.

2) they are "...dependent upon government." This gets a little confusing if in fact you are a critical thinker, because we are all dependent on government, even if only to make sure the shipping lanes are free so we can continue to get our petroleum fix, but of course, there is much, much more that government does for us— even the 1%. But Mitt's on a roll, and if he quickly moves on to the next point, these folks won't really analyze what he just said (not that he gave it any thought ether).

3) "who believe they are victims." I get the sense from the tone of this rant that Mitt believes the 1% are victims of these freeloaders, as well as being victims of big government, taxes, and regulations. I guess the 47% don't have a monopoly on victimization.

4) "who believe that government has a responsibility to take care of them" I can site literally dozens of instances where corporations and wealthy people have expected the government to take care of them. How about all those multimillion dollar oceanfront homes that get wiped out every hurricane season only to be rebuilt using government-subsidized flood insurance? Or how about the wealthy investor group that builds a stadium in the heart of the city in exchange for huge tax breaks and subsidies? How about huge federal subsidies to the oil industry even in years of record profits? 
5) "who believe they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, you name it..." Well, OK. He's more familiar with his audience than I am. Maybe they really don't think health, food, and shelter are human rights. Maybe only 47%  of the country does.

6) "These people who pay no income tax," Actually, many people in his audience probably don't pay any income tax either, because they live off of dividends. They pay capital gains taxes instead. Others exempt from income tax are those who are retired and receive less than $25K if filing singly and $32K if filing married (from the SS Web site). And those who are actually so low on the pay scale that they don't make enough to pay income tax are still paying payroll taxes, sales tax, state and local taxes... So here is an instance where Mitt is actually using language to "make unbalanced power relations and portrayals of social groups [that] appear to be commonsense, normal, and natural when in fact the reality is prejudice, injustice, and inequities" (McGregor 5).

7) "My job is not to worry about those people." THOSE PEOPLE. The workers. The laborers. The commoners. The peasants. The servants. The slaves. The other.

8) "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Because they aren't us.

Obviously, Mitt knows better. He knows there are many Obama supporters who pay income taxes. He knows that there are hard-working people who don't make a lot of money. He encounters common laborers frequently, like those who installed the elevator in his garage, those who fill his boat with gas, his landscapers... he can see how hard they work.

So is he intentionally creating a scapegoat to encourage his wealthy prospects to part with some of their capital gains? Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, like the ancient Romans in the Spartacus series, he just doesn't notice the slaves and servants around him.

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