“Let them eat cake!”
And some more recent lies you’ve been fed.
During the French Revolution, the peasants were restless, food was scarce, and revolutionaries were out for blood. A servant appealed to Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, asking what her humble countrymen should eat in this perilous time of famine. She responded:
“S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche!”
Or “If they don’t have any more bread, let them eat brioche!”1 Did she say this cruelly and facetiously, or was she blissfully unaware of the common man’s existence? She was raised in one of the most esteemed royal families in Europe and married into another, so she wouldn’t have realized what a luxury rich ingredients like butter, eggs, and sugar were. Yet she was an unpopular queen who had the constant buzz of unsavory rumors around her, and *record screech* NONE OF THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
Historians aren’t sure how she became associated with the phrase, but we know she didn’t originate it. In 1765, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote an autobiographical account wherein he related the story of a princess callously uttering those words. It’s unlikely that the princess in question was Marie Antoinette—or as she was known then, Maria Antonia—since she was only nine and living in Austria.2 Rousseau’s writing was popular among revolutionaries, so it’s not hard to believe anti-monarchists saw this passage, realized it was great ammo against the royal establishment, and began circulating rumors.3 We all know what happened after that.
The Charrette is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Marie exits stage left. Enter Frank Luntz.
I wouldn’t bring a pen to a sword fight, but it’s fair to say that the written word impacts those who are willing to fight your battles. A poor choice of words isn’t the root cause of violence, but clever messaging and obscuring the truth can make people so angry that they will take things to the next level.
A perfect modern example of someone who understands this is renowned Republican strategist Frank Luntz. He’s not a household name, yet you know of his work. Luntz is famous for his focus groups, in-depth voter research, and experimentation with political messaging. He has come up with inflammatory terms over the years which—when strategically used by candidates—get voters fired up, posting angry tweets, and marching off to the polls in droves.
Death and taxes and death taxes
Unless your head was in the sand in the early 2000s, you got an earful about the “death tax.” The term itself, referring to an estate tax on inherited property, has been around since at least the 1940s, but Luntz reinvigorated the grim phrase around 2006. He discovered that while initially, 68% of focus group respondents opposed the estate tax, the disapproval went up to a whopping 78% after he started calling it the “death tax.”4
Another of his masterpieces is “border security” instead of “border crisis.” It makes it sound like Border Control definitely has things under control, right?5 He was also responsible for “climate change” instead of “global warming”—an stance he later disavowed after having to evacuate his California home due to a wildfire. You’ve probably been using these terms in everyday conversation, and they have been manipulating the political narrative for decades without your knowledge.
Word games and other slogans you’ve lost friends over
Think those are the only phrases to watch out for? Luntz and other consultants like him are still working for GOP and DNC candidates. Additionally, legacy news organizations have their own way of crafting language to fit a narrative. When we discuss politics, we never notice how much we repeat talking points crafted to control the conversation. Don’t believe me? Let me show you a few of my favorites—I don’t know if the following list had a professional consultant or marketing firm involved in their creation. Still, I’d wager a majority of them did:
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill — Whatever you think you know about this bill, you’re probably wrong. First off, that’s not its title. Secondly, it doesn’t mention “gay” anywhere in the text. Essentially, it says a teacher can’t teach about gender identity or sexual orientation in a manner inappropriate for kids in kindergarten through 3rd grade.6 Its most significant problem is that it’s vague and provides no guidance for teachers or administrators. You can—and should—read the bill here.
Groomer — The left got ugly with the previous example, so the right wasted no time returning the favor by using a historically nasty, homophobic slur to call anyone who opposed the bill a pedophile or child molester. Heartwarming!
Make America Great Again — If this slogan made your blood boil in 2016, imagine how you would feel—everything else being the same in 2022—if the roles were reversed and Trump was telling us how great everything is right now, but Hilary Clinton was telling us we needed to fix America. How much you like this slogan depends on whether you like the person saying it.
Defund the police — If you’re anything like me, you thought this catchy phrase was a popular opinion. It’s not—particularly among Black Americans. I’ll cite sources in the endnotes, but overwhelmingly, Black communities would prefer to see a stable police presence in their neighborhoods.7 As for those who still believe the police should be defunded, I suggest reading up on luxury beliefs.
War on Christmas — The only thing that seems worse than people trying to ruin an objectively delightful holiday is when pundits make it sound like “the left,” whoever that is, has launched a full-blown nuclear assault on your sincerely-held religious beliefs.
Pro-life — You’re anti-choice?! You mean you don’t trust women to make decisions about their own bodies?
Pro-choice — Oh! So now you hate babies?! You typical anti-life hack!
Fascist — When I did social media professionally, I posted my company’s mask and vaccination policy to our Facebook profile. Half the comment section called me a fascist. When we lifted the policy, the other half of the comment section called me—wait for it—a fascist.
Obamacare — Its real name is “The Affordable Care Act,” which has become more popular over time. But jazz it up with a celebrity couple name mashup, and voilà! The 59,948,323 people who voted against Barack Obama are like, “Thanks. I hate it.”
BONUS POP-QUIZ! Was it the “January 6th…” A) insurrection, B) riot, or C) protest? — I’d be willing to bet that if you chose A, you’re relatively progressive. If you B, you’re somewhere in the center. And if you chose C, there’s a 2-in-5 chance you were actually there.8
And of course, let’s not forget my favorite. This is a timeless classic used by liberals and conservatives alike. A trump card that will shut down any possibility of productive dialogue. The Cadillac of political rhetoric! The gold standard of destroying civil discourse…
“wOn’t sOMebOdY pLEaSe tHiNk oF ThE ChiLdrEn?!?”
It’s hard to argue when you suddenly look like the jerk who hates innocent, defenseless children. For centuries, people used children as bartering tools to win arguments, plead for mercy, and cast doubt on accusations. One of the many slanderous accusations heaped on the ill-fated Marie Antoinette was an incestuous relationship with her own son. When questioned, she stated:
“If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to answer such a charge laid against a mother… I appeal to all mothers here present—is it true?”
Of course, these appeals vary in their sincerity. As with most of Marie Antoinette’s adult life in France, it’s unclear how reliable the rumors surrounding her alleged promiscuity or her shady financial habits were. In all likelihood, much of this was vicious gossip used to undermine the monarchy and progress a revolution. Still, her neck was figuratively and literally on a chopping block. She lacked political finesse, so appealing to the mothers in the audience was her best bet at getting away unscathed. (And it almost worked!)9
While using children as a poker chip doesn’t always work in getting people to do what you want, it has a high success rate in making people angry.
I live in a blue city in a red state. As someone who is decidedly bluish-purple, I get caught in the crosshairs of polarized political dramas. One such a time was in early 2022 when Covid-19 numbers were climbing. The Salt Lake County and Summit County councils wanted to mandate mask-wearing—there were even pushes from parents to shut down schools. The Utah State Legislature forced its way into the fray and overturned both councils’ mandates.
Both sides had perfectly valid points supporting their arguments (and both had their moments of acting like sore losers). Nevertheless, can you guess which talking point they both brought up in abundance? Brace yourself—it was, “We’re doing this for the children!” In retrospect, we’re seeing that children were quite safe from the pandemic and weren’t major contributing factors to the spread of Covid-19.10 So why were they such a big talking point, exactly?
But you don’t really care for children, do you?
Too often, as adults, we unnecessarily drag kids into our own drama, whether it be our divorces, our insecurities, or our agendas. Since Tuesday, the day of the tragic shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, the won't-somebody-think-of-the-children talking point has been on my mind. I’ve cried my eyes out thinking about each of those cute children and their families.
I’m not a mother myself, so I only have an inkling of what it must be to start the day worrying about getting the kids to school on time, dealing with work, and thinking about dinner plans, only to be interrupted by the news that your child—someone who you love infinitely—is gone. You’ll never see them grow up, struggle to make decisions, learn about life, get married, or have their own family. How many of those parents yelled at their kid that morning and will spend the rest of their lives carrying that guilt? Did any of those parents pray for a baby for years until that desire was finally granted, only to have it taken away in a flash?
After that news broke, only seconds elapsed before people got online to snipe, blame, and shame each other for this horrible tragedy. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments I saw.11
“It’s obvious that Republicans just want kids to die.”
“The reason these kids are dead is because the left is so woke.”
“Our kids deserve better than your weak solution.”
I was particularly disheartened when Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke interrupted Governor Greg Abbott’s press conference on the shooting to say, “The time to stop the next shooting is right now, and you are doing nothing.” He went on about how the children of Texas deserved better, and so forth.
Let me be clear—of course our children absolutely deserve better than to be hunted down in their own schools. But these public declarations are less about “the children” or their humanity and more about signaling to people that you have the “right” ideas. Not long after O’Rourke’s confrontation with Abbott, he gave statements accusing him, ironically, of distracting people with “politics and theater.” O’Rourke was guilty of the exact same thing. It’s not like O’Rourke had to drive down there to make his point—he has 2.2 million Twitter followers after all—but this is dramatic and appeals to his “working class” image. I will be one of the first in line to tell you how much I dislike Abbott, but at this moment, O’Rourke and Abbott are no different. They are just different flavors of frosting on the same political cake who are ever cognizant of how a horrific event will affect the outcome of the Texas gubernatorial election.
Abbott and O’Rourke are using children to compete over different slices of the same exact same cake. And by its appearance, this well-crafted message seems to be working.
I intentionally stayed out of the gun control debate in this piece. I realize how complicated it is, but the main point I want to get across is how reductive and simplistic political rhetoric can be. I used to think I had all the answers on gun control issues until I was recently challenged on the subject. I now realize that this is why we need to come together and have good faith discussions—otherwise, we can never agree on the best solution.
This piece is free for anyone to comment on! So please feel free to discuss the points in this piece, whether it be rhetoric, gun control, the French Revolution, or even your feelings on cake vs. brioche. After all, that’s what a Charrette is all about.
And BTW, I promise to respond!
The original quote is “brioche,” a rich, delicious, fluffy bread leavened with eggs and butter. Most people translate the quote as “cake.” Nevertheless, I 10/10 recommend eating brioche.
Khurana, Simran. "The Quote That Cost Queen Marie Antoinette Her Head." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/let-them-eat-cake-quote-4002293
Cunningham, John M. "Did Marie-Antoinette Really Say “Let Them Eat Cake”?". Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/story/did-marie-antoinette-really-say-let-them-eat-cake
Mark Abadi. “Republicans say 'death tax' while Democrats say 'estate tax' — and there's a fascinating reason why”. Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/death-tax-or-estate-tax-2017-10?op=1
David Roberts. “The GOP’s climate change dilemma”. Vox, https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/6/21/18700218/republicans-climate-change-carbon-tax-grover-norquist-frank-luntz
Keep in mind K–3 classes aren’t being taught sex-ed. There’s no need to go into an in-depth classroom discussion of what Timmy’s dads do in their grown-up-only time if a kid asks why he has two dads. Don’t complicate that discussion. It’s also worth explaining how utterly vague this bill is and its potential to go sideways if, indeed, the intention was to discriminate against LGBTQ+ families. Suppose a teacher goes off in a 2nd-grade class using homophobic slurs and making the poor kid with two moms uncomfortable. In that case, the kid’s moms will have some sort of recourse.
This was a great explainer by Matthew Yglesias for Vox, which analyzed what the movement means and where the calls for defunding the police are coming from. Pew Research reported a significant drop in support for defunding the police. Gallup presented some interesting data broken down by race on attitudes towards the police—I was not expecting the last responses! And from one of my favorite journalists, Jesse Singal, a piece stressing the importance of the intersections of class and education when we talk about police reform.
86% of statistics are made up on the spot, but I’m pretty sure about this one.
I already linked to my source early on, but I’ll link it again here. I should note that Marie Antoinette was considered a very loving and good mother by all the historical accounts I am aware of.
I modified the language, and I’m not using screenshots or names to protect privacy.