Those Saucy Satirists
Why are comedians and satirists dominating the truth-telling function in America these days? I'm speaking of people like Bill Maher host of "Politically Incorrect" (who nearly lost his job for being truthful), the comedian Al Franken, and the economist Paul Krugman who seems to be upsetting the journalistic status quo with his New York Times column. The mischief-making Franken, however, is whom I want to talk about here. In case you've missed the entertainment, Franken is a former Saturday Night Live character, and now the boisterous bête noir of the Right. Full of moxy, wit and grit, Franken is a potent contrast to many mealy-mouthed politicians on the Left. Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right is his recent bestseller. (See the NYT's book review ) The hyperbolic title speaks volumes about his methods, but don't be fooled into thinking there is no substance. (Thanks to a fellowship, his research team was from Harvard.) In his books, Franken usually singles out one particularly naughty character within the conservative conclave (e.g. see his previous book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations) and this time is no different. He focuses his disgust on Bill O'Reilly and his popular show ironically tag-lined "The No Spin Zone".
To our spectator's delight, the Fox network – which created the O'Reilly Factor sensation – made the bone-headed decision to sue Franken for using the term "Fair and Balanced" as his subtitle claiming it was a copyright infringement of their tagline. Fox was literally – and I hear literally – laughed out of court, and of course the publicity did wonders for book sales. Franken couldn't resist the cheeky act of thanking O'Reilly publicly for the windfall his litigiousness triggered. (I know I couldn't). I guess O'Reilly/Fox wasn't as astute nor disciplined enough to figure out how to fight these media wars. Limbaugh certainly wasn't that stupid when it was his turn which is something that Franken grudgingly respects him for.
Performance art aside, Franken does talk about some important things in his books. For instance, he debunks the – myth of the liberal media' using non-partisan studies and analysis. He brings to the surface how conservatives use the Orwellian play-book and manipulate language to distort meanings and create associations (like using the words Al-Queda and Iraq in the same sentence, over and over, until people assume these two things are connected.) In an interesting Fresh Air interview, Franken also explains the obvious: ring-wing media and radio shows across America – numbering in the thousands – are so popular because "demagoguery is interesting...Bullying and blustering people is entertaining." Speaking of bullies, Bill O'Reilly is taken to task over lies about past accomplishments (he never received a Peabody media awards) and how he mislead everyone about his impoverished background when in fact he lived an upper middle class life with many advantages (which his Mom was proud to corroborate, god bless her). Fresh Air also interviewed Bill O'Reilly after the Franken interview. If you don't know what this man's character is like I suggest listening to Terry Gross's aliant attempt in having a civilized conversation with him. To put it bluntly, he was a total ass.
I enjoy this dirt and Franken's pugnacious, underdog spirit as much as the next person. And my Canadian disposition relates to the use of comedy to speak unspeakables. The searing satirical genius of South African playwrights, pre-Apartheid, also comes to mind. But Franken may be doing less than he thinks in countering conservative forces. As Franken himself points out "liberals want information" whereas "conservatives want ammunition." Franken may be providing new information, but he is doing so using right-wing methods and tactics. This is fine and good, and half of me applauds the fact that someone is doing this, but I then recall Gandhi's observation that "means are ends in the making." Upon closer analysis, there is a much deeper war going on between worldviews, and this war needs to be won with different tools of discourse and entirely new frames of reference.
Finding New Frames
A "frame" is mental structure that we use in thinking. These frames are made up of metaphors, and most of our thinking is unconsciously influenced and structured by these. (Try not to think of metaphors as the literary embellishment that we're taught in English class, but rather as the essential building blocks compromising language and thought. As cognitive linguists are proving, almost all thought is metaphorical. More on this another time.)
We take these frames for granted, but metaphors are incredibly important levers in politics. While we've always known that, research within the cognitive sciences can now give us more precise insight into how this works. George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, is our best guide in understanding how certain metaphors affect political discourse. His work in Morality Politics (together with Mark Johnson) surfaced two different worldviews cleaving the conservatives from progressives. These worldviews are based on opposing models of an ideal family. The conservatives' political framework is based on a strict father family, whereas the progressives see the world through a nurturant parent family metaphor. Each family model has distinct moral systems, and Lakoff is the best person to explain what these are and how they work. An example of a well-chosen metaphor and frame in action from Lakoff's must-read article:
"On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words "tax relief" started appearing in White House communiqués. Think for a minute about the word relief. In order for there to be relief, there has to be a blameless, afflicted person with whom we identify and whose affliction has been imposed by some external cause. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, thanks to some reliever... The relief frame is an instance of a more general rescue scenario in which there is a hero (the reliever), a victim (the afflicted), a crime (the affliction), a villain (the cause of affliction) and a rescue (the relief). The hero is inherently good, the villain is evil and the victim after the rescue owes gratitude to the hero...The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. It presupposes a conceptual metaphor: Taxes are an affliction, proponents of taxes are the causes of affliction (the villains), the taxpayer is the afflicted (the victim) and the proponents of tax relief are the heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude. Those who oppose tax relief are bad guys who want to keep relief from the victim of the affliction, the taxpayer."
So you can see the kind of heavy lifting a good frame can achieve in politics, but it requires a long term investment which the Republicans have done. "Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them" says Lakoff in another article by Bonnie Azab Powell . "Conservatives understand what unites them, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas." Meanwhile, the progressives just don't get it or fully understand the tremendous structural disadvantage poor framing gives them. You can also see now why I questioned Franken's tactically defensive approach using Republican queues. As Lakoff puts it, "If you have been framed, the only response is to reframe. But you can't do it in a sound bite unless an appropriate progressive language has been built up in advance."
Intervening, though, at the metaphorical level can be incredibly high leverage for accomplishing political goals and engendering systemic change. Sophisticated long-term thinkers know this intuitively. One of the big surprises of the 1990s was the increasing power and clout of NGOs (non-government organizations). They were successful because they spoke to people's emotion in language people resonated with, and they skillfully tapped into powerful symbols. Going back to an earlier blog, the NGOs knew how to use the tools of soft power, and the introduction of new metaphors is a prime example of what's in this toolbox. NGOS and much of global civil society are still ahead of governments and the private sector on this front.
Not surprisingly, Lakoff is also entering the framing game. He and some colleagues have started the Rockridge Institute to readdress this gap within the progressive camp. "It's one thing to analyze language and thought, it's another thing to create it. That's what we're about" says Lakoff. This idea, however, extends well beyond what's needed in America to global issues as well. For instance, this struck a chord with me: "Defeating radical conservatism gives us a negative impetus, but we will not succeed without a positive vision and cooperation... Movements, on the other hand, are based on shared values, values that define who we are. They have a better chance of being broad-based and lasting. In short, progressives need to be thinking in terms of a broad-based progressive-values movement, not in terms of issue coalitions." Time to think about movements again. Time to identify the movements I'm already in. Time to get in the framing game myself, and find ways to invest in this kind of hard thinking and activism. If I'm in the business of helping people create better futures, this is an important part of the system to focus on.
The New Newspeak
All of this reminded me of another chap whose centenary the world just celebrated. "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it... Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes." This is the beginning paragraph to Orwell's short 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." It's amazingly current – a curious mixture of donnish rant on the dismal state of published writing with a few intellectual gems scattered through it. For instance, "in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties." Substitute British Rule with Iraq war or countless other contemporary developments and we see not much has changed. I might qualify that by saying what has changed is the scale and pervasiveness of newspeak. Check out wikipedia's entry for newspeak to see what I mean, and try to be aware of the daily diet of unhealthy euphemisms and double-speak we receive through media channels.
"If thought corrupts language", said Orwell, "language can also corrupt thought." While Orwell may have been pleasantly surprised with the fall of Communism and the failure of a totalitarian Big Brother to emerge, he would have been horrified at the level of corruption of both thought and language. But I think Orwell would have encouraged us not to be defeatist about improving the situation, which is why he'd be very interested in what Lakoff is trying to do. "I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable... not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority." But the best thing we could do, as individuals, is to be careful in how we communicate because "to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."
Oh, one last thing... Do George Lakoff a huge favour and stop saying tax "relief" even if this is just a conscious action of a minority.