Friday, September 03, 2004


Don’t Think of An Elephant—A Donkey Kicks Back

A review of

Don’t Think Of An Elephant! : Know Your Values And Frame The Debate
   By George Lakoff
   Chelsea Green Publishing
   144 pgaes; $10.00 paper
   Publication date: September 15

Originally published in Random Lengths News

For most political consultants, the framing of issues is an art. But for UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, it is a science. Whenever he teaches Cognitive Science 101, he introduces framing with a simple exercise—he tells his students, “Don’t think of an elephant!” And every time the result is the same.

“I’ve never found a student who is able to do this,” he writes in his new book, Don't Think Of An Elephant!—Know Your Values And Frame The Debate.

“Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame,” he explains, “The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.”

“So what?” you might ask. So this, Lakoff explains: Conservatives have spent the last 40 years developing and promoting their own set of issue frames, frames so powerful with endless repetition that they make it extremely difficult to effectively disagree. Liberals end up saying, “Don’t think of an elephant!” because they haven’t devoted similar resources to developing their own set of frames. And every time they say that…people think of elephants, not donkeys.

A second key fact about frames is this—when facts conflict with a frame, people throw out the facts and keep the frame. Frames live physically in our synapses, Lakoff explains. If you want the facts to sink in, you have to give people a different frame—a frame in which they will fit.

A key element to conservatives’ success is their constant harping on values. It’s not that conservatives have a monopoly on values—it’s that they use their values aggressively to frame their arguments. In his 1996 book, Moral Politics, Lakoff demonstrated how two competing family models were responsible for different moral systems shaping liberal and conservative positions across a wide range of issues. His current book applies that insight and integrates it into a comprehensive argument for how liberals can emulate conservatives’ success, relying on their own set of values instead.

Conservatives, Lakoff explains, rely on a “Strict Father” model, according to which, “The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.” And that is the job of the disciplinarian Strict Father.

In contrast, liberals rely on a “Nurturant Parent” model, in which, “Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.” Nuturance encompasses both empathy and responsibility, and responsibility also encompasses protection. So liberals aren’t neglectful of the world’s dangers—they just aren’t obsessed with them in the way that conservatives are.

We have all internalized some degree of both models, Lakoff explains. But conservatives devote a lot more energy to activating one model than liberals devote to activating the other.

In a relatively long first chapter, Lakoff summarizes the findings from Moral Politics, and presents a convincing overview of why and how they matter for both understanding and changing politics. He then moves on to several case study-style chapters—on the California Recall, same-sex marriage, terrorism, war and Bush’s deception in invading Iraq—where he really shows off the power of his approach.

A chapter on the California recall shows how GOP-favoring frames obscured multiple forms of Republican skullduggery, which made sense in another frame that Democrats failed to communicate—the Right-Wing Power Grab frame. A chapter on same-sex marriage focuses on the need “to fight definition with definition and sanctity with sanctity,” by defining marriage as “the sanctity of love and commitment.” A chapter on terrorism, written days after 9/11, is a tour de force explaining both the power and the tragic shortcomings of the Bush Administration’s Strict Father approach to fighting terrorists, while neglecting underlying causes that produce terrorists faster than they can be killed.

All this takes place in the first 80 pages, “Part I: Theory and Application.” The second part, “From Theory to Action,” half that long, is an exquisite tool kit for putting his insights to work, from the most general level to the specific.

Despite being short (124 pages in the book, proper) and simply written, Don’t Think of An Elephant! is so dense with insight it will repay countless re-readings in order to fully digest and incorporate everything Lakoff has to say. And despite being unabashedly pro-liberal, it has important lessons for everyone across the spectrum, including reporters. Lakoff writes, “it is the special duty of reporters to study framing and to learn to see through politically motivated frames, even if they have come to be accepted as everyday and commonplace.”

If frames control our thinking without our realizing it, then none of us is truly autonomous—and autonomy is a value that both liberals and conservatives share. For that reason, Lakoff’s book speaks to conservatives as well. A more conscious political debate, where both sides freely present their frames to the public, can only result in better debates, better decision-making, and a better democracy for all of us.

Is that a nurturant parent vision? Hell, yes, it is!

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


Swift Boat Lies Re-Fight The French Revolution

With the attacks on John Kerry’s service record by the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth" (SBVT), some people have lamented the fact that we’re debating a war that ended nearly 30 years ago, instead of talking about today’s issues, instead of talking about the future. Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is, this isn’t really about the Vietnam War. The bad news is, it’s about the French Revolution.

The French Revolution?

Yup! And I’m not talking about their refusal to support Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I’m talking about the real, original French Revolution.

The slanderous Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry provide a striking illustration of the large-scale structure of lies that dominate our era—a structure much deeper than superficial tangle of false and unsubstantiated accusations aimed at Kerry, even deeper than the tangled web of associations between those attacking him, going back decades into the early 20th Century. This large-scale structure has two main elements—the reactionary claim that liberals are traitors, and centrist claim that equates left and right as symmetrical distortions of the neutral truth, which have to be balanced off one another.

The first lie softens the ground, giving unwarranted credence to attacks on the patriotism of veterans—even war heroes—as unpatriotic, even traitorous, if they are critical of wars they have been sent to fight. The second lie creates a false equivalence between groundless, scurrilous attacks and solidly-supported facts, allowing the nation’s political discourse to be mired in fantasy accusations—which are, in a way, the essence of the conservative agenda.

The first lie—that liberals are traitors—lies at the heart of the attacks on Kerry. Attacking his heroism is the necessary prelude to attack him for his role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War—which conservative ideologues equate with disloyalty and treason.

The lie that liberals are traitors goes back at least to ancient Greece, but it got its definitive modern shape in response to the French Revolution. It hinges on the belief that authority is not to be questioned—an almost universal belief before the advent of democracy. Liberals, in contrast, believe it is patriotic to question authority, because authority is only legitimate if it arises out of being able to answer the questions put to it—and thus gaining our consent.

When Marie Antoinette was told that the people lacked bread, and she replied, "Let them eat cake," the reactionary defenders of the monarchy had no clue how this sounded to parents whose children had died of starvation. Instead, they convinced themselves that the Revolution was nothing more than a nefarious plot, a palace intrigue carried on by upstarts who had never even seen the inside of a palace. (In a sense this was quite understandable, Palace intrigues were the only sort of politics they knew—much like the Beltway politicos and cable talking heads of today.) To feed this conviction, there arose the myth of the Bavarian Illuminati as the hidden manipulators behind the Revolution, bent on world domination. Originally propagated by Augustin de Barruel, this myth became the prototype for modern conspiracy theories. Barruel had a strong but fleeting impact on American politics, helping to fuel one of the earliest anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner panics.

The real Bavarian Illuminati had been disbanded a decade before the Revolution—but no matter. It was based in Bavaria, not France—but no matter. It had never possessed any sort of mass political influence—but no matter. It was a convenient scapegoat, a way for monarchists to convince themselves that the people still loved their King and Queen, despite having cut off their heads, a way to convince themselves that democracy was nothing but a sham for would-be royal usurpers. The Bavarian Illuminati was the first example of the hated "liberal elite." It was only fitting that it did not exist.

If one believes that (sanctioned by divine will) King and France were one and the same, then indeed, the revolutionaries were traitors. But if we one believes that France and her people are one, then they were patriots instead—unless one believes the myth of the non-existent Bavarian Illuminati, a sinister, unseen force that lead the people astray.

Thus, two close-knit lies stand behind the claim that liberals are traitors. First, the reactionary lie that the king and the country are one. We see this lie today in those who claim that criticizing the President is tantamount to disloyalty, or even treason. Second, is the lie that people oppose the king (or President) not because of what he does wrong (impossible!), but because they’re under the spell of a shadowy liberal elite, that pretends to care about liberty and justice, but really only cares about power.

This lie is deeply embedded in the current attacks on John Kerry. Those attacks are focused on him because of his role as a one-time prominent spokesperson for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Indeed, one of the SBVT members, John O’Neill, was selected by Nixon specifically to go after Kerry at the time of Kerry’s highest visibility. Vietnam was a deeply unpopular war—as unpopular with the troops who fought it as it was with the American people. Because of this, a direct attack on Kerry’s role in VVAW would not be as effective as an attack on his stature as a decorated veteran. (Kerry himself has pointed declined to call himself a war hero. The real heroes didn’t come back, he has said.) Thus, there is no way to separate the two attacks, they are inextricably linked.

No doubt the Bush campaign machine would have had "independent" surrogates attack Kerry, just as it attacked McCain in 2000, regardless of Kerry’s involvement in VVAW. But this only reflects Bush’s vulnerability and lack of substance. The attack on Kerry taps into forces that go much deeper. And so we turn to VVAW, and the anti-war resistance within the military that it was part of.

As we do, you should note how the issues raised by the French Revolution live on. French reactionaries identified King, country and people—without, of course, caring what the people had to say—and portrayed the revolutionaries as unwitting tools of a shadowy foreign power: the Bavarian Illuminati. American reactionaries (they call themselves "conservatives," which is open to debate) identified President, country and people as well—again, without caring what the people had to say, and portraying anti-war protesters as unwitting tools of a shadowy foreign power: the "international Communist conspiracy."

Two things were different, though. First, the "international Communist conspiracy" actually existed, though not at all in the form that reactionaries—such as J. Edgar Hoover—imagined it. Second, America’s fighting men were part of the equation as well, symbolically fusing President, country and people. And, of course, loyally not asking questions. But that was a lie. They were Americans. They asked questions.

VVAW was crucially important. Its very existence challenged the lie that protesters hated or opposed the troops, as opposed to the war they were sent to fight, and the men who sent them to fight it. This lie was but another manifestation of the lie that liberals are traitors. The troops here represented the people, and the protester’s alleged opposition to them was supposed to prove their enmity to the American people. But the members of VVAW were openly and visibly both soldiers and protesters. Their very existence disproved the lie of liberal treachery.

VVAW was relatively small—perhaps one percent of those who served in combat in Vietnam—but it represented a much larger body of opinion in the ranks. Indeed, it’s one of the great hidden stories of our time that the Vietnam War ended in large part because the men sent to fight it turned against the war. There are numerous indications of this resistance. There was a nationwide network of GI coffeehouses just off-base where anti-war disaffected soldiers could get anti-war literature, and talk freely with one another about the war. There was also a network of GI anti-war newspapers, which were passed around within the military.

In A People’s History of the United States [excerpt], Howard Zinn writes, "Underground newspapers sprang up at military bases across the country; by 1970 more than fifty were circulating. Among them: About Face! in Los Angeles; Fed Up! in Tacoma, Washington; Short Times at Fort Jackson; Vietnam Gl in Chicago; Graffiti in Heidelberg, Germany; Bragg Briefs in North Carolina; Last Harass at Fort Gordon, Georgia; Helping Hand at Mountain Home Air Base, Idaho. These newspapers printed antiwar articles, gave news about the harassment of GIs and practical advice on the legal rights of servicemen, told how to resist military domination."

Over time, massive resistance developed to going to Vietnam, along with massive resistance to fighting, once there. Zinn notes, "As early as June 1965, Richard Steinke, a West Point graduate in Vietnam, refused to board an aircraft taking him to a remote Vietnamese village…. In early 1967, Captain Howard Levy, an army doctor at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, refused to teach Green Berets, a Special Forces elite in the military."

Resistance increased in step with major protests, such as on Moratorium Day, October 15, 1969. Some troops wore black armbands—the symbol of the anti-war movement’s resistance activities that day. Zinn writes,"A news photographer reported that in a platoon on patrol near Da Nang, about half of the men were wearing black armbands. One soldier stationed at Cu Chi wrote to a friend on October 26, 1970, that separate companies had been set up for men refusing to go into the field to fight. ‘It's no big thing here anymore to refuse to go.’ The French newspaper Le Monde reported that in four months, 109 soldiers of the first air cavalry division were charged with refusal to fight. ‘A common sight,’ the correspondent for Le Monde wrote, ‘is the black soldier, with his left fist clenched in defiance of a war he has never considered his own.’"

As time went on, this resistance grew even stiffer. Officers who insisted on taking resistant units into the field were often attacked by the troops under their command—what was called "fragging," after a common method—the use of a fragmentation grenade. The Pentagon reported 96 fraggings in 1969 and 209 in 1970—but these were almost certainly low-ball figures.

Resistance spread to the officer corps as well. Zinn writes, "In the summer of 1970, twenty-eight commissioned officers of the military, including some veterans of Vietnam, saying they represented about 250 other officers, announced formation of the Concerned Officers Movement against the war."

One motivation for Nixon’s shift from ground troops to air war was to get around this increasing stiff resistance to fighting a war that the troops increasingly opposed. But eventually, with the Christmas Bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong, even the elite B-52 pilots—men with ranks of captain and more—refused to fly some missions, which they regarded as illegally-ordered war crimes.

Naturally, the level of resistance within the military was always hidden from the American people. VVAW were the tip of an enormous iceberg, and so suppressing and discrediting them became a high-priority item for the Nixon Administration, just as discrediting them remains a high-priority item for the Bush Administration and other reactionary forces today.

On January 31 through February 2, 1971, VVAW convened what they called the Winter Soldier Investigation—an investigation into war crimes committed in Vietnam, based on direct testimony over 100 men. The term came was a reference, in contrast to those Tom Paine describe who deserted Valley Forge because the going was rough. "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman," Paine wrote. The Winter Soldier was conceived as the exact opposite—those who serve when it is most difficult.

"The Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) grew out of the moral outrage of American soldiers who had committed acts in response to official orders and policies that were criminal in nature," wrote William F. Crandell, who wrote and presented the opening statement.

In April, 1971, VVAW came to Washington, DC for a "limited incursion into the country of Congress," in what was known as Dewey Canyon III—so named after Dewy Canyons I and II—secret, code-named invasions of Laos. As apart of this action, John Kerry, then a VVAW spokesman, was called to testify before Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator William Fulbright.

Kerry’s testimony that day is the core reason for the SBVT attacks on him. It is presented out of context as if Kerry himself was personally attacking all those who served, making sweeping accusations about actions he could not possible have known first hand. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Four points from Kerry’s testimony deserve notice here. First, the "accusations" Kerry reported were not accusations at all. They were first-hand testimony he had heard—his report on others confessing to what they had seen first hand, and often taken part in. The war crimes these men confessed to were terrible deeds. But they were not terrible men. They were good men, which is precisely why they came forward when no one but their own consciences told them to do so. Because they were good men, those acts troubled them so deeply that they could not remain silent, even though it meant publicly confessing to horrendous acts.

Here are Kerry’s own words:

"I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago, in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit--the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

"They told stories that, at times, they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."

Such acts of public confession require enormous bravery—as anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by something they have done can readily attest. When Kerry summarized this testimony, he was honoring the courage of these men, by furthering the purpose that their testimony served—to give the American people a truthful, accurate picture of the nature of the war being waged in their name.

Second, Kerry told the Senators, "We are angry because we feel we have been used it the worst fashion by the Administration of this country." Thus, he explicitly denied the Administration’s attempt to identify itself with the troops under fire, and set the troops in opposition to the Administration instead.

No sooner did he do this, than he went on a third point—refuting attempts by the Administration to pit protesters—whom Vice President Agnew had called "misfits"—against the troops. "[T]hose he calls misfits were standing up for us in a way that nobody else in this country dared to," Kerry said.

Finally, Kerry concluded his testimony with the hope that those he spoke for would be able to salvage some meaning and purpose from their ordeal—to change the course of America, to admit our tragic mistakes, to learn from them, and never to repeat them again.

Thus, Kerry’s testimony went to the very heart of challenging the reactionary worldview. Authority did not descend from the President and some special secret knowledge ha alone possessed, it arose from the people, including specifically those who saw and participated in the horrors of war, who had those horrors seared into their memories forever.

Now, clearly, one does not have to agree with everything Kerry said—or indeed with anything Kerry said—in order to conclude that (1) He was sincere. (2) He made a principled argument. (3) He and those he spoke for had risked death and made sacrifices in service to our country that demanded a certain special respectful hearing for what they had to say. One could disagree with everything he said, and still respect his intentions, his arguments and his right to be heard.

However, such respect is incompatible with the fundamental lie that liberals are traitors. If one believes that lie as an article of faith, then any evidence to the contrary must be phony. And that is the essence of the attack on John Kerry, which easily bleeds over from attacking his testimony to attacking his military service as well—because it is not based on evidence, but on the need to prove what is already believed.

The Bush Administration today would have us believe that the torture at Abu Graihb prison was a series of isolated events, for which no higher-ups bear any responsibility. But Kerry’s testimony from 1971 helps to unmasks that lie. It provides us with an historical precedent. And it strongly suggests that those who engaged in torture were themselves also victims, "have been used it the worst fashion by the Administration of this country."

Such thoughts cannot be. They must be a lie. The King can do no wrong.

This is the reactionary mindset, given modern form in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Vietnam was just a replay, 30 years ago. Iraq is a replay today.

The attacks on Kerry are quite similar to the Bush Administration’s case for going to war with Iraq. A predetermined belief in what must be so works to twist and spin whatever evidence can be found, presumed, or even just imagined.

This leads us directly back to the second fundamental lie, which is reflected in the way the press systematically misjudges and misrepresents the issues at hand, elevating lies, supposition, speculation, and even hallucination, while denigrating cold, hard facts. For in fact, left and right are not mirror-images of one another. The Right stands for unquestioning loyalty. The Left asks, "Why?"

And when the Left asks "Why?" the Right screams, "Treason!"

Well, if this be treason, let us make the most of it.

Never stop asking "Why?"

Thursday, August 19, 2004


Who Spit On Vietnam Vets? Not Anti-War Protesters!

More than a year has passed since the invasion of Iraq. Virtually everything major the Bush Administration told us has turned out to be a lie. The only ones who proved truly accurate were those opposed to war. And yet, though the American people have turned solidly against the war, and Michael Moore has filled the theatres, his claims are scrutinized far more skeptically than anything coming from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice & company. There are many reasons for this, including the widespread perception that anti-war activists are unpatriotic—even traitorous—so nothing they say should be trusted.
This perception is fed by lies.

A prime example is the notion that anti-war protesters spat on returning Vietnam War veterans. This image is deeply ingrained in our culture, casting doubt on every word uttered by any opponent of any war. It is, however, a lie, as Jerry Lembcke convincingly demonstrates in his 1998 book, The Spitting Image—Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. (Text of a speech based on the book is available here.)

Lembcke’s book came out of research stimulated by the first Gulf War. There was a lot of talk then about how anti-war protesters didn’t want to come off as being against the troops. They didn’t want to be like those terrible Vietnam-era protesters, the ones who spit on returning troops.

Lembcke remembered things differently. He remembered serving in Vietnam as a chaplain’s assistant. He remembered returning—like thousands more who also served—to join the protesters who welcomed him with open arms. So he began digging for the truth.

The most damning evidence Lembcke found against this lie was reminiscent of the "curious incident" of the dog that didn’t bark in the middle of the night in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of Silver Blaze." Like the missing dog bark, there were no accounts of protesters spitting on veterans when the events supposedly happened—when the nation’s emotions were at a fever pitch, and any such story would have immediately caught on like wildfire. The stories only began to show up later, invariably in urban legend third-person, often in settings and circumstances where they could not have occurred—such as returning soldiers carrying arms, landing in airports where no troops returned. The stories only appeared after the mass media—subtly following Nixon’s lead—had replaced the image of the bad (anti-war) vet with the mad (crazed killer) vet.

Lembcke’s investigation is both fascinating and revelatory. He draws parallels not only to more mundane urban legends, but also to more sinister post-WWI German stories, part of the stab-in-the-back mythology on which the Nazi Party fed, and eventually gained state power. His findings are too rich to summarize here. Rather, I want to develop a point that applies to lies more generally.

It was mainstream culture and society which figuratively spat upon returning veterans—just as the government did, short-changing them on benefits, stonewalling them about post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of Agent Orange, and doing everything possible to shut them up when they spoke out against the war. The rejection never let up. When homelessness exploded as a national problem under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, at least a third of them would be Vietnam Veterans—a far cry from the post-WWII era when the GI Bill sent veterans to college, and helped them buy houses in suburbia.

The anti-war movement had every reason to embrace returning veterans—as indeed it did, routinely placing a contingent of anti-war veterans at the head of countless anti-war marches across the land. The movement also helped establish anti-war coffeehouses outside military bases, encouraged the publishing of anti-war GI newspapers, and helped resisters avoid combat—sometimes legally, sometimes not. But the government—and its supportive "silent majority" public—wanted no part of real Vietnam vets, who spoiled the noble propaganda war with their first-hand stories of chaos, confusion, corruption, and pointless slaughter.
The reality of this rejection was clearly too painful for many veterans to bear. Over time, the figurative spit-in-the-face from the government and their own hometown communities was doubly transformed—into a literal spit-in-the-face from the one group it was safe to blame, now that the war was over, and the movement was gone—the anti-war protesters.

There’s a military story my dad learned in World War II. It probably dates from well before Roman times. A battle goes badly, and the commanding general chews out his top lieutenants. They, in turn, chew out their attaches, and so on down the ranks. The private first class chews out the buck private, and the buck private kicks the dog. That’s what psychologists call "displacement." One person hurts you, and you blame another. Or, more accurately, one person hurts you and you lash out at another. Placing blame comes after lashing out—to justify it, retroactively.

That’s precisely what some veterans did, displacing the humiliation they felt onto someone lower, less powerful than them. It’s more complicated, since it involves groups, not individuals, hearsay, rather than direct experience, and since a figurative act becomes literal. But the basic kick-the-dog structure is the same.

This is a valuable insight—that a political lie can be partially structured by what psychologists call an "ego defense." These are subconscious reflexes that fend off psychic pain. Originally, the theory goes, the pain was such that it seemed to threaten the ego’s very existence. We don’t have to buy the whole theory to make use of the mechanisms it identifies—especially when sayings and stories have identified them for generations.

But it makes good sense that subconscious thought gains the upper hand when we feel most threatened. That’s the whole rationale behind all martial arts, all military and emergency training: Do something over and over again, shape your subconscious to act a certain way, so that faced with a threat, you respond automatically as you were trained to—not according to unformed subconscious thought, which could mean panic or paralysis.

Psychologists have identified a whole range of ego defenses—denial, dissociation, projection, introjection, splitting, etc. It seems a good bet that some, if not all of them can also function to help structure political lies.


The Big Lie: How Reactionaries Hoodwink Conservatives By Demonizing Liberals

When I talk about the structure of lies, I don’t just mean how different lies fit together, supporting one another. I also mean the way a single lie can have two or more facets, even conveying different messages to different audiences—which inevitably makes it harder to refute.

Take, for example, the lie that liberals are a hostile, alien force, our to destroy everything good and dear about America. It’s a bizarre lie, which completely ignores the fact that our country was the first in the world to be founded on the principles of political liberalism, inherited from towering figures such as Locke, Montesque, and Voltaire.

But this lie—which comes from the reactionary right—is not just aimed at demonizing liberals. It aims at moderates, to convince them that liberals are beyond the pale, and they themselves are the left wing of legitimate political discourse. "Better watch your step, or you could be next," goes the subtext. Have you heard Rush Limbaugh lambaste moderates? I have—and I’m only an accidental listener.

More importantly, though, this lie aims at conservatives, giving them a hated, rather than a respected opposition, and blinding them to the underlying nature of the reactionary agenda, which is falsely portrayed as conservative. Prime example: Leading reactionary activist Grover Norquist has said, " I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." In contrast, 30+ years of public opinion research from the General Social Survey (GSS) shows overwhelming conservative opposition to cutting any of America’s core social spending functions. That’s right. Taken as a whole, a substantial majority of self-identified conservatives favor maintaining or expanding spending on Social Security, health care, education, the environment, urban problems…even aid to blacks. You would never know it, though, to hear from "conservative" activists, political leaders, or media figures.

The reason is simple—these leaders aren’t conservatives—they’re reactionaries, part of a 20-40 percent minority of self-identified conservatives that is far outside the mainstream of American public opinion, and yet has come to dominate political discourse and control all three branches of the government—at least when it counted most. Ironically, the higher up you go, the more the reactionary fringe dominates over the majority conservative opinion. There is, indeed, a reactionary elite—the mirror image of the liberal elite you hear about so often. There are just three differences: The reactionary elite actually exists, it wields real power, and it is outside even the conservative mainstream.

I know this must sound like crazy talk, so let me be more specific. Since 1972, the GSS has regularly asked if people want more, less, or about the same level of federal spending on a broad range of topics. According to stereotypical images, conservatives should be 100 percent for cutting spending—except, of course, for national defense—while liberals should be 100 percent for spending more—again, except for defense. The reality is far different. Among ordinary people, the categories "liberal" and "conservative" are fuzzy, not sharp, with lots of overlap. Looking at cumulative results since 1972, in seven issue areas—national defense, education, the environment, health care, social security, aid to cities and aid to blacks, the difference between self-identified liberals and conservatives ranged from a high of 26.7 percent to a low of 11.6 percent—far below 50 percent, much less 100. In short, there are differences between liberals and conservatives—differences, not polar opposition.

What’s more, usually more conservatives wanted to raise spending, rather than lower it. This was true every time for education (22-0), the environment (22-0), health care (22-0), and social security (14-0), and most of the time for aid to cities (19-3) and defense (14-8). The conservatives only split decision came on aid to blacks (11-11). But when you add in those who want to keep spending the same, those who favor cutting spending are a minority every time.

Old-style conservatives like Bob Dole accurately reflected this conservative consensus. But his style of conservative is a distinct minority in higher office today, lost in a sea of reactionaries.

Those at the top have long been more right-wing than those they represent, as demonstrated by Canadian researcher Robert Altemeyer, author of The Authoritarian Specter. Altemeyer has spent more than 30 years studying rightwing authoritarianism (RWA), a measure of conventionalism, submission to authority, and aggressiveness toward socially designated "others." It’s important to note that RWA is a social psychological measure, not an ideological one. It can attach to any suitable ideology. In the old Soviet Union, hardline Communists scored highest in RWA.

Altemeyer found that RWA was only weakly correlated with political party identification, either in Canada or the United States. However, the correlation was stronger among party activists, and striking at the level of elected state-level representatives, where Republicans showed a striking degree of RWA as a group, with relatively little variation, compared to Democrats who varied considerably, but were far less authoritarian overall. In short, there really is an authoritarian elite on the political right, which is significantly more authoritarian than the everyday people whose votes support it.

Of course, I expect reactionaries to dismiss Altemeyer’s findings out of hand—and probably the GSS results as well. These are results of "liberal academics" they will say. And Altemeyer is a Canadian, to boot. This is how reactionaries deal with information they don’t like—they demonize the messenger. It’s a tendency that all of us share to a certain extent, a human foible for us to struggle against. Instead, reactionaries have honed it to a high art.

It is widely acknowledged that culture-war politics seduces working-class and middle-class Americans into voting against their own economic interests. The GSS and Altemeyer tell us something more fundamental—that demonizing liberals helps seduce conservatives into voting against their own values. Thus, as I write about the structure of lies that emanate from the right, I am not accusing conservatives of being the original perpetrators. The original perpetrators are reactionaries. Conservatives only become perpetrators of these lies when they have been victims first.

Next : Deconstructing a popular lie used to cast anti-war activists as unpatriotic—even traitorous.

Thursday, August 12, 2004


Lost In A Thicket of Lies

In one of Dashiell Hammett’s stories, "The Golden Horseshoe," his nameless protagonist, the Continental Op, finds himself in a Tijuana bar staring at a sign on the wall—"Only genuine prewar British and American whiskey served here." He is trying to figure out just how many lies that nine-word sign contain. He’s counted four, but is sure that he’s missed a couple, when the action resumes.

Today, we live inside that sign. It’s the 24/7 spin-cycle of the disinfotainment age. There are no simple lies anymore, as there once were, not so long ago. The recent deification of Ronald Reagan reminds us of the last great hurrah of the era of the simple lie. He told us black was white, and that was it. The contra terrorists in Nicaragua and the mujahadeen terrorists in Afghanistan were both the moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers (perhaps even their physical reincarnations, we’d have to ask Nancy’s astrologer).

You can’t get much more black-is-white than that. But Reagan would cheerfully try.

That all changed with the 1988 election. George Herbert Walker Bush was no Ronald Reagan. He could not tell a big lie nearly half as well. He needed help—and plenty of it. Help like Lee Atwater making Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis’s running mate. Help like the military over-running Panama and capturing Manuel Noriega just so that he wouldn’t look like a wimp. Help like the entire Republican Party closing ranks behind him to hinder, frustrate, and demonize Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-Contra investigation. Things got…complicated.

Complicated in a way they had always been beneath the surface, in the subterranean world that Hammett and Chandler wrote about. But now the complications were seeping through everywhere. The shiny veneer that Reagan had brought to its peak was irretrievably cracked—not in two, but into a thousand pieces.

It only got more complicated with the labyrinth of lies laid out in the hunting of President Clinton, followed by the lies of the 2000 election, and another avalanche of lies in the Florida post-election conflict. John Nichols summed it all up in the title of his book about it—Jews for Buchanan.

9/11 changed all that, or so one might believe. 9/11 changed everything, remember? Remember that lie? Sure you do. The world was divided neatly in two—the perfect set-up for the return of simple lies. There were good guys on one side, bad guys on the other, and torturing bad guys was a moral imperative that only sissies would question. Moral clarity, remember?

But after Abu Ghraib, suddenly, we’re all sissy-boys now.

Can we get a quote from Governor Gropenator of California on that?

We’ll get back to you.


What we need is a way to get a handle on things. You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and you can’t identify complicated lies without a way of naming them.

Outright lies are simple—a lie’s a lie and that’s that. The New York Times might forbid columnist Paul Krugman from using the word—as it did when he wanted to call George Bush on his lies during campaign 2000. But that’s a separate problem—media self-censorship. Both the Times and Krugman knew what the word was, and what it meant. Our problem is a deeper one—finding the words in the first place.

The classical rhetoricians helped us out with the first level of complication—the naming of logical fallacies. These are ways of taking even true facts, and producing falsehoods as a result. Take the rooster fallacy, for example (post hoc ergo proctor hoc, for all you Latin fans out there). The rooster crows, the sun comes up, the rooster takes credit for the sun rise. Post hoc ergo proctor hoc—after the thing, therefore because of the thing. "Post hoc" for short.

Bush plays the rooster rather frequently. A few months ago, he tried to pretend his "war on terror" was working—despite appearances to the contrary—because terrorist incidents and deaths were down dramatically. No causal relationship could be proven, of course. It was simple, straightforward rooster crow/sunrise logic. Then it turned out that the numbers were bogus. A new report showed more than twice as many terrorist killings as the original. Suddenly, the rooster was silent. No taking credit for that!

But if one rooster fell silent, roosterdom did not. Next, Team Bush was crowing up a storm on the economic front. Tax cuts three years ago. Three months of strong job growth now—cock-a-doodle-doo!

Only it’s more complicated than that—and you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to figure it out. A couple of mouse clicks, and you could bypass the corporate media filter to go direct to an economics professor’s deconstruction of the multiple lies involved.

Still, the economics professor doesn’t have a way of naming the lies any better than the Romans did 2000 years ago. And that’s what we need, really. A way of naming and communicating about the complex ways in which today’s lies are woven together into a seemingly seamless web. That’s what this blog is all about.

You may have noticed that all the lies I’ve been talking about come from the rightwing side of the political spectrum. There are reasons for that. Not because the right has a monopoly on lying—no one does. And not because people on the right are stupid or evil—no one has a monopoly on that, either. Indeed, the most important reason that lies predominate on the right is because of how much liberals and conservatives have in common. Without those lies to divide them, they very well might discover how much they really have in common. As we begin to examine the lies that divide us, it makes good sense to consider that common ground. That is precisely what we’ll do in our next installment, which considers the lie that liberals are unpatriotic, even hostile to America.

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