On Facts and Frames

I have a forthcoming ZNet Sustainer Commentary (see http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2005-06/23street.cfm) in which I make some serious criticisms of George Lakoff’s much-debated…

book Don’t Think of It as an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate – The Essential Guide for Progressives (2004…http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1931498717/qid=1119646597/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-3183019-0691140). But I don’t want readers to think that I find nothing useful in Lakoff’s provocative tract.

From the perspective of having worked in the liberal-left nonprofit and academic sectors for the last decade (even as my own orientation is [very] left-Marxist) or so, I’d say that one of Lakoff’s criticisms of what many “progressives” do on a daily institutional basis — particularly in those sectors —- is just dead on point. We tend, Lakoff notes, to operate on the problematic Enlightenment Age assumption that just stating “the facts” of social injustice, inequality, and/or empire and racism etc. will somehow be sufficient to advance our causes of democracy, peace, equality, eco-sustainability, and freedom.

In doing so, we often tend to at once underestimate and overestimate (should I say “misunderestimate”) the in-power American right. We overestimate its concern for the real facts of whatever matter we happen to be (rightly) concerned about (e.g. urban poverty, segregation, civilian casualties in Iraq, the bankrupting of social programs, the removal of poor children and families from public assistance rolls, and the diversion of vast public monies to the military…etc.). At the same time, we underestimate its ability to develop and provide — with no small assistance, of course, from corporate media — compelling and (for all too many people, including many people whose pocketbook interests “ought” to make them oppose the right’s regressive agenda) convincing moral-intellectual “issue frames” to explain many of the facts that drive “progressives” to fits of fury and despair.

How many times have I heard liberal friends and family members say, “don’t they [Republicans and right-Democrats] understand that policy X [fill in the blank...welfare slash A, plutocratic tax cut B, imperial war expenditure C, etc.] is having a truly terrible impact on social/environmental category Y [urban children of color, U.S. workers, Iraqi or Afghan civilians, the status of American civil liberties, the integrity of the Arctic ice cover, etc.]? How can they be so ignorant and insensitive? Have they no respect for reason and common sense? How can they be so stupid?” How can people be so blind and heartless?

And then I am often praised for having put out some new fact-packed project study or article with the real story, the actual facts, on what’s really going on….the terrible truths that the right won’t face and must suppress, etc.

Well, there is a lot of flat our stupidity, denial, suppression/censorship, and mean-spiritedness on the right and there’s considerable and related censorship of basic facts in the dominant media and political institutions (I was fascinated with how invisible the monumental justice struggles of Bolivia were in late May and early June as far as dominant U.S. media was concerned) that are so significantly influenced and threatened by the ideological power of the right.

At the same time, the right is readier than some of us seem to think to process many of the key facts that so enrage, depress, and (in the good times) motivate us to engage in activism. While we crank out yet another little (or big) project study, essay, placard, flyer, or op-ed showing the horrible regressive/racist/ecocidal/ repressive/etc. impact of Republican/right-center-Democratic policies and practices, they pour millions, no billions of dollars into, yes, “framing” the issues in a militantly authoritarian way that makes sadly common sense for a disturbingly large percentage of the American populace and most especially for many Caucasian Americans. They have a widely disseminated world view and they stick to it to no small extent. They waffle less than liberals on:

* why people are poor: indolence and weakness reflecting weakness of character and related over-dependency on “the liberals’” supposed “leftist” coddling “welfare state.”

* why it’s ok for millions of children to be deeply poor: it teaches them the positive “tought love” lesson of the need to engage in hard work and not depend on the weakening public sector to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. At the same time, many of them will rise out of poverty in the great American “land of upward mobility.”

* why people have to die (en masse) in Iraq: so that the world’s exceptional, God and/or History-ordained Master State (America, “the beacon to the world of the way life should be” [US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson] can spread democracy and at the same time make the world safe from the scourge of evil Arab terrorism and because you can’t make an omelette (in this case Middle-Eastern “Freedom”) without breaking some eggs (including the lives of Arab civilians)

* why we need an obscenely huge military: because people are basically evil and dangerous and the world needs a strong, at once benevolent and tough policeman…his name is Uncle Sam. And because solidiers and the military represent everything that is wholesome and positive in an America that has been dragged into a weakness and dissipation by evil, morally-relativist “liberalism.”

* why blacks are still segregated and disproportionately poor: because they “choose” to live only among each other and they engage in a number of mutually self-destructive and self-saboraging behaviors like using drugs and relying on welfare.

* why America has 2 million prisoners, nearly half of them black (even as blacks make up 12 percent of total US population): because many people are just bad and lazy, blacks especially, thanks largely to the weakness that has been bred in them by the liberal “welfare state.”

* why the rich deserve massive tax cuts, which need to be passed even as the nation engages in a massively expensive and semi-permanent “war on terrorism” and millions of America and children and other Americans suffer from poverty: because the rich have worked for their wealth and many of those children will be rich one day if we can keep taxes low.

I’ll stop….I could continue with this exercise for at least another hour.

Most ZNet readers can demolish every one of these standard right formulations but of course people on the right are not listening. Their minds are made up. Their strongly disciplinarian and authoritarian take on domestic and international events and issues and conditions is pretty much fixed for the rest of their lives. Their frames are locked in and widely supported in the broader authoritarian political culture

Thus when I went on WLS Radio last Monday night — the main right-wing major media talk radio outlet in Chicago and the Midwestern U.S. —- to give some findings from my recent study Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League), I already knew the content of the comments I was going to get from the predominantly white male audience. I had truly terrible facts to relate: fifteen Chicago neighborhoods with more than a quarter opf their children living at less than HALF the poverty level, 20,000 more black males in prison than in four-year public universities in Illinois, massive poverty and poor health in the city’s 22 neighborhoods that are more than 90 percent black…and so on. The callers lined up to say two things basically: (1) it’s their own damn fault…everything is “personal responsibility” and (2) as for those who “get out of line….lock em up and thrown away the key” and “enough with making prison out like its Club Med; prison is supposed to be unpleasant.”

That’s the harsh reality of the world view of…oh, at least a quarter of the adult citizenry in the United States. I see little point of trying to talk to most of them on radio or any other way.

With others, however, there’s room to work with and much to be positively said and done. In working towards that goal, we will, as Lakoff says, need more than “the facts.” More on this topic later.

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