Over a lifetime spanning mucho decades I have learned many things. Life lessons one could say. Saying no to everything will make a child simply stop listening. God invented Darwin. Francesco Geminiani is the most underrated Baroque composer. And a Smith and Wesson beats four aces.
In the world of politics, especially the fractured and sclerotic sandbox of today, there are different lesson to be learned.
He Who Frames First Wins
Framing is the way in which an issue or subject is structured. Think of it as a verbal icon. George Lakoff a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley is famous for popularizing and expounding on the subject.
Framing has turned into a cottage industry with pundits, political consultants and think tanks spending inordinate amounts of time conceiving of frames for ideas, principles and policies that will, hopefully, win them converts, convince people of the efficacy of their positions (and vote accordingly) and marginalize the opposition or, at the very least, put it on the defensive.
Frames do not spring out of some mental womb fully formed. Many different frames are conceived of and floated to target audiences via focus groups or carefully monitored advertising. Most fall flat but inevitably one or two will resonate and, voilà, we have a winner. And this is a case where jingoism is not just a good thing – it is the only thing.
Not only can frames help in the arena of competing ideas and ideologies, but he who frames first will inevitably win. For when you frame first the other side is put on the defensive since framing is an offensive action. Those responding to a frame find themselves on the steep slope of the power curve and must spend inordinate amounts of time telling the target audience what is wrong with your frame and what the “real” frame should be. When the audience starts yawning, stops listening and returns to their television program, you have lost. You have lost the audience and thus you have lost the argument.
It is important to note that in creating a great frame, fear and loathing trumps logic and reason every time. It would be hard to forget that during the initial GOP movement to defeat the proposed Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) Republicans relabeled (framed) the included provision of paying doctors to discuss end of life issues with a seriously ill patients; advanced directives and the like. The GOP spin-doctors came up with the frame – Death Panels that is as ominous sounding as it was incorrect. Correct or not this frame diverted attention away from the real issues and dominated media coverage for weeks.
And as long as we are discussing death think about the conservative frame Death Tax as substituted for Inheritance Tax. Makes it seem wrong somehow doesn’t it?
A good example of a frame, and one that put the Democrats on the defensive for years, was the simple phrase Tax and Spend to characterize the Democrat’s fiscal policies. This frame is a simple phrase that rolls off the tongue easily and evokes a mental image of profligacy and irresponsibility. True or not this obviously was not the image the Democratic Party wanted to be associated with. Further this frame was expansive and all encompassing as it could be applied to the Party as a whole as well as to individual candidates.
During the George W. Bush administrations in just a short eight years, the GOP ran up the national debt by eleven trillion dollars and squandered the six trillion dollar surplus they had inherited from the Clinton administration (a swing of seventeen trillion dollars). In order to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the unfunded Medicare prescription drug plan a massive deficit was created (more expenditures than revenues). Thus the US was forced to borrow trillions of dollars from other nations, chiefly China. The Democrats fought back eventually and gained traction with the frame – Borrow and Spend Republicans.
Recently activist groups concerned with low wage workers (agricultural, home health care), new age socialists if you will, have been flummoxed as to how to get these workers their unpaid wages from overtime or from employers who take advantage of their immigration status or lack of English language skills to under pay them.
Many state and local governments are anti-labor and refuse to pass any legislation protecting wage earners. By framing the employer actions as Wage Theft some notable successes have been achieved because the authoritarian bent conservatives are more opposed to theft than promoting fairness.
The fact that many issues of public and social policy are never settled is what Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winning economist, professor at Princeton University and columnist for the New York Times, calls – Zombies. Zombies are things that are considered “put to bed”, but keep cropping up again and again. These issues are resurrected, albeit with different spins, often in spite of simply not being true. The list of Zombies is long and keeps growing.
A recent Zombie is the claim that government policies actively promoted by its agencies (the government sponsored enterprises of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Community Reinvestment Act overseen by HUD) was the proximate cause of the financial crisis and not the elimination or relaxation of oversight regulation. Marco Rubio, the junior Senator from Florida, was simply the latest in a long line to resurrect this myth in his counter to the State of the Union speech.
The Republicans are wedded to this myth because they were the ones who insisted on the elimination of legislation, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, and literally bullied regulators from enforcing the remaining legislation. This legislation, which goes all the way back to the great depression, was portrayed as no longer needed in the modern era.
Wall Street and the banks had learned their lesson the GOP legislators said, and since “they had skin in the game” (that is assets) they would do nothing to put these assets at risk. In actuality the conservatives wanted to remove as much restriction on Wall Street as possible for political monetary reasons – the Street is among their biggest contributors.
Rather than admit they made a mistake they took to dodging responsibility with the claim, “The melephant stepped on dolly and broke it.” And they were successful turning watchdogs into lapdogs. And not only did they refuse to pay the piper (witness the uproar over the bailout of Wall Street which led to the rise of the Tea Party) they now want to change history and avoid the actual blame.
Other prime examples of Zombies are evolution, raising the minimum wage and abortion. Evolution is a Zombie that is continually resurrected because of the intransigence of Evangelical Christians. These religious fundamentalists are a gift to late night comedy and they are a gift that keeps on giving. There is simply no end to the hoops they will jump through to make their point and some of it, no most of it, is simply hilarious.
The modern seminal point was the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Things seeming to be resolved after this famous case (which, by the way the fundamentalists actually won with the teacher, John Scopes, being fined one-hundred dollars) but a Zombie is never really dead. These Christian wing nuts continue to try and win this non-argument despite the acceptance of the concept of evolution by virtually every living scientist and overwhelming proof in both live organisms and fossils records. Their intransigence is based on the premise that evolution runs counter to the bible. More on this later.
There was a time when the Evangelicalists actively eschewed activism and avoided politics as they would a social disease. This changed in the early 1990s. Evangelists in Vista California ran well-organized and well-funded campaigns and won a majority on the school board. They then sought to impose their religious views on others by voting to change the curriculum and insisting that Creationism be taught.
Evangelical dominated school boards, at both the state and local levels (the state of Kansas and Dover Pennsylvania come to mind), kept trying to either eliminate the teaching of evolution or include a caveat that it is only a theory, thus not proven fact. In its place they would insert their made-up counter argument – Intelligent Design (a restatement of Creationism and a brilliant frame by-the-way). Frames and Zombie resurrection go hand in hand.
Here again is this refusal to accept an issue as settled when the decision goes against your beliefs or world-view, however irrational. This directly links back to framing when a think tank (an obvious oxymoron) established by this wing-nut lobby came up with the frame – Intelligent Design to replace the shop worn frame of Creationism. This new frame proposes that human life is so complex that it could never have evolved randomly and therefore a supreme being had to be involved.
The seminal aspect of this argument (if you can call it that with a straight face) is one of the primary underlying tenets of Evangelicalism – that of bible literalism, the belief that the bible is absolutely true. Remember, as Mark Morford said, like history, religion is written by the victors. “It is then revised by the power mongers, leveraged by the fearful and wielded as a nasty weapon by the conservatives.” At least 57 Texas school districts and three charter schools taught courses about the Bible in 2011-12, a number that more than doubled the districts teaching such courses in the 2006-07 school year.
This leads to the belief that the world is only about seven thousand years old, that life, as we know it, appeared a few thousand years ago and that man walked the earth contemporaneously with dinosaurs.
This lunatic fringe has gone so far as to build a theme park, the 27-million-dollar Creation Museum, which has proven to be very popular with the brethren and oh so profitable. So much so that a second park is under construction around the concept of Noah’s Arc, built is the “original” manner and “actual” size.
And these fanatics are absolutely incensed that graduates of their religious based high schools that do not teach evolution as part of their science curriculum are refused entrance to the California University system.
Attacks on abortion take several forms. Legislative attempts at the state and local levels to set rules, making it, not illegal but virtually impossible for any clinic to perform an abortions, or by redefining or denigrating the rational behind le-gal abortions. In a legislative attempt, an end-around play if you will, to obviate abortion, Cathrynn Brown, a state representative in New Mexico, has introduced a bill to make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion after being raped be-cause the fetus is evidence of a crime. The bill would make “tampering with evidence” a third-degree felony.
An example of the denigration is the oxymoron – Legitimate Rape. Todd Akin, a congressman running for the Senate in Missouri in 2012, claimed that women could not get pregnant when “legitimately” raped i.e. forcible as opposed to “consensual”, because their bodies would not allow it. And thus, by this twisted logic, an abortion brought about by a rape would never be necessary. And this wing nut didn’t even see the contradiction in his own utterance. This argument is too ignorant to even be called sophistic.
Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and a Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, opined that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Thus no abortion should be permitted. Both Akin and Mordock twisted themselves into verbal pretzels in an attempt to delegitimize and eliminate abortion even for sane and logical reasons.
Lastly, the republican assertion that increasing the minimum wage would cause employers to fire workers and reduce jobs has been definitely proven not to be true in study after study. Yet it is continually repeated, and believed, by conservative followers.
We Are Forever Blowing Bubbles
We all tend to live in bubbles, most of our own making either purposely or through inattention. We tend to associate with others of a like mind. We read publications and watch the news that tends to reinforce our worldviews. Bubbles are comfortable, warm and cuddly.
Why is this so wrong? Well it isn’t wrong, it’s dangerous. Why, because it leads us to ignorance of what is actually happening until the actual becomes so large or virulent that it threatens our health, or our lively hood, or our environment, or even our very existence.
What I am saying is that we must step out of our comfort zone, on occasion, and listen to the other side. Does this mean tuning in to Glenn Beck the self-proclaimed conservative rodeo clown, or buying one of Ann Coulter’s odious books? Not for me. I prefer to listen those conservatives who present ideas and conclusions that, while they may run counter to my own do so in an intelligent and reasoned way. David Brooks, George Will or David Frum comes to mind. And certainly not the PJ Media. These are the people sitting around in their bathrobes and slippers and disgorging stream of consciousness blather, which take on the cast of truthiness because it is on the Internet.
I have long believed that one cannot structure and defend a position in a vacuum for there is nothing to provide a reality check. It is akin to asking your wife in the middle of a school play (where your kid is playing a tree) – Are we having fun yet? This brings up the concept of neutrality and journalism. And here it is important to differentiate between the news and opinion pieces.
In the opinion pages I expect and want reasoned opinions. But does this extend into the reporting of the news? Shouldn’t the news be neutral and purely factual?
One can reasonably say that even if you tried to accomplish this neutrality, it is not an achievable goal. Bias creeps into not only the actual reporting of events, but what events are selected to be reported. The decision of the editor as to what is important and/or interesting is an inherent bias as much as the way the facts are presented. Selection, emphasis and weight all lead to, or stem from, bias.
Thus what we chose to read and watch leads to the construction and reinforcement of our bubbles. For some the bubbles actually suppress rational thought. An unnamed Hollywood big shot said; We pay all this money for our kids to go to private school and they go and make friends with the scholarship kids.
Never Argue With a Bigot or an Ideologue
Never argue with a bigot or an ideologue because they do not know what they do not know, they only know what they believe. This has become my mantra.
Over the years when I encountered extreme social conservatives, our cultural Luddites, I have tried reason and logic but it never works. Fear and loathing trumps logic and reason every time. Peoples emotional sides bullies their logical mind and they choose to ignore, selectively filter or change facts to suit their world-view. It is as if a cultural proctologist reached in and massaged their hate gland.
I have to keep reminding myself that Stupid is a condition – Ignorance is a choice. Gary Wills famously asked: Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than evolution still be called an enlightened nation?
Justice Kennedy said that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. All well and good, but to do this requires, among other things, the ability to think critically. Most important to critical thinking is that the information that fuels the thought process is real and verifiable. And either as free from bias as possible or with its bias clearly identifiable.
A question that begs answering is, what is fact? Without getting too epistemological it is interesting to think about how people today come upon and accept facts as fact. That is, something that actually happened as opposed to something that is alleged or believed.
An oft-repeated almost truism is that the victors write history. If bias affects journalism, written contemporaneously with the event, think how it affects history, written, most often, long after the actual events and relying upon the contemporaneous observations of others. Which observations are chosen, how are they interpreted and how are they placed into context determines history. Wham-O bias!
Theodore White, who was the China correspondent for Time magazine during WWII, wrote his book In Search of History, some three decades after the end of the war, because he came to understand the difference between the reporting he performed and history. As he said looking back on the events he witnessed “without bombs bursting in air” provided a very different view. So what are we to believe?
Information comes to us so much faster and with infinitely greater volume than ever before in the history of mankind. With the advent of modern communication, from the telegraph, the telephone, to television, and then the Internet, what is fact has become a double-edged sword when it comes to what is true.
Greg Guma said in a recent blog; “The problem is that it’s becoming more difficult to tell the difference [between fact and opinion] in an era when facts have been devalued. There are so many possibilities, the standard of proof appears to be getting lower, and theories tend to evolve, expand and mutate rapidly in unexpected ways as they circulate through cyberspace.” And I would add, speculation, conjecture or simple falsehoods are made true by constant repetition. A pundit recently said, “There is nothing so dangerous to the national well-being as an ideologue with a twitter account.”
As discussed above regarding bubbles, are biases inherently wrong? Certainly not wrong but dangerous. Dangerous because if we set-up “no by-pass filters” then our biases lead us down a dangerous road where the lack of understanding of what is actually transpiring outside our bubble will hamper our ability to understand it, to formulate a response and, in extreme cases, to function.
Witness Karl Rove’s meltdown on FOX News on election night 2012. Rove was so sure that Mitt Romeny would defeat Barack Obama, a view obviously formed within his bubble, that he refused to accept the fact that the network analysts called the election for Obama. The cameras followed him from the set and down a corridor into the analysts’ room where he raved that their conclusion simply could not be true.
The idea that the minority party represents the “will of the people” (not some of the people, but “the people”) is the seedling of a totalitarian mindset. In this mindset — democracy doesn’t matter, ideas are not to be discussed, and opposing views are not to respected. “What matters is that they alone have truth, they alone are metaphysically connected to the “mind of the people” can interpret their will, and because they have truth and speak for the people, others represent a threat and must be silenced and stopped.” So said James Zogby founder and president of the Arab American Institute which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.
Well Zogby nailed it. This totalitarian mindset that Zogby speaks of includes the Tea Party adherents like Senators Ted Cruz and Ken Lee, the bellicose libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul and ideologues from Sen. Mitch McConnell to Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. This mindset determines the rules within its own bubble and thus what is the truth. Joseph de Maistre said that “faith is truly faith only when it is blind; once it looks for justification it is done for”. This aphorism holds true for religious fundamentalists, political ideologues and bigots of all stripes.
Gene Altshuler is a progressive political activist and long active in local politics. He write a daily push blog, The Democratic-Chronicles, and has had numerous article published. He is the retired Partner-In-Charge of Advanced Information Technology at KPMG Peat Marwick.