Sensationalism and the smooth language of deceit are nothing new in the world of politics. One need not explain the proliferation of language games in the month before election day – a politically charged time in which everything is a code word for something else, and truth seems hard to find. However, the wholesale co-opting and reversal of a canon of keywords and phrases commonly associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s by the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative creates a problem greater than that of the proper use of the English language. In the case of MCRI, the messages the initiative’s backers convey to voters are so maligned with conflated antonyms that the group’s actual arguments cannot be reasonably deduced.
The MCRI campaign favors incendiary statements that spark the ire of uninformed voters and deny them a reasoned presentation of fact. Brian Pannebecker, the co-chair of the Macomb County MCRI, declared in a letter to the Escanaba Daily Press that Michigan “still (has) a state policy that discriminates against more-qualified applicants in favor of less-qualified Blacks.” His reductionist diatribe appears to incite racism to rally support for Proposal 2 – not exactly the colorblind worldview that the MCRI’s homepage conjures up. Pannebecker’s letter veils and simplifies the facts, but other MCRI productions simply ignore them.
Pro-MCRI advertisements prey upon popular ignorance of the history of civil rights legislation and misconstrue the nature of the University’s current affirmative action system. A three-part radio ad series produced by MCRI adheres to a rough triumvirate of values that set the standard for all MCRI productions: “fairness,” “equality” and the old political staple, lies. The second ad in the series speaks directly to claims that MCRI confuses voters with its deliberately imprecise use of Civil Rights-era language. It espouses that “Proposal Two bans government quotas and restores fairness” – a declaration that is incorrect and irrelevant to the proposal, since outright quotas were banned by the Supreme Court in Bakke v. Regents of the University of California in 1978. The statement is not only intentionally deceptive, but it is iterated strongly in every MCRI radio ad to lend the distortion an aura of legitimacy.
The third radio ad, titled “I’m Proud,” perverts the facts of the Jennifer Gratz case and appeals to human hearts by suffocating the demands of reason. Featuring Brad Gratz, the proud father of Jennifer Gratz, the ad espouses the story of how the hard-working Gratz was “denied admission because she had the wrong skin color.” The ad ignores the fact that Gratz was offered a spot on the waiting list but never accepted it. Incidentally, all Michigan residents who accepted a spot on the waiting list in the year Gratz applied were admitted to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. These facts are minor trivialities if one isn’t using a single person’s experiences to spearhead a statewide effort. But when that is the case, the distortion becomes nefarious.
MCRI touts “I’m Proud” as the ad that is “so effective our opponents don’t want you to hear it.” The ad is effective – if deceiving listeners into believing a documented lie can be called effectiveness.
The facts of the political battle that MCRI is waging should be clear enough – arguments against any type of government-supported affirmative action policy have been around for decades. However, the initiative’s use of factually incorrect statements and grossly misrepresentative polemics – using language commonly associated with pro-minority and pro-affirmative action groups – undermines the democratic process at large. The rhetoric of MCRI leaves the burden of proof on the electorate, which makes the process of becoming an enlightened voter more precarious than ever before.
Fortunately for voters, more truthful resources are available. In light of the semantic battles surrounding the MCRI campaign, the University’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems has produced a “Decision-Making Guide to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.” The guide seeks to provide an “objective and non-partisan, easy-to-use and personalized tool” allowing readers to make sense of the “competing and conflicting claims” surrounding the proposal. Furthermore, the University’s Center for the Education of Women has produced studies predicting the effects of MCRI on employment, education and contracting.
These considerations of the de facto consequences of the proposed amendment should be what dominate airwaves – not sentimental linguistic equations engineered by Papa Gratz that substitute the politically charged “had the wrong skin color” for the more mundane “forgot to mail in her waiting list reply card.” It seems the MCRI campaign shies away from telling the truth because the truth – a hard-knock lesson about the consequences of one’s action, or rather, inaction – doesn’t necessitate a change as radical as amending the state constitution.
Slick semantic substitutions by proponents of MCRI build a crooked and self-sustaining argument that rests on a foundation of lies. The campaign’s obfuscation of its own already questionable tenets – dirtying its politics with sensationalist lies that confuse rather than explain – should be enough to make voters wary.