Friday, July 29, 2005

Seeing is Believing: The Means of Control

Today I want to talk about, in my hamhanded way, something other than the news, something that goes on around the news and is built in to the news; specifically, the use of language to frame debate and set the terms of human reality.

I’ve always been interested in the topic, but I was recently reawakened to it when reading through Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (an excellent comic series, by the way, and something I recommend to people who like esoterica and non-traditional storytelling. And not a cape in sight!). The scene is complex to set up, but the guy being questioned is the head of a “cell” of terrorists/freedom fighters who “battle against physical and psychic oppression using time travel, magic, martial arts, guns and transcendental meditation” and has been captured by some sort of Government/other force (I’m not far enough along to know, and please don’t spoil it) that is trying to crack him and learn the secrets of the Invisibles. During this session, we learn that the force has developed a new drug that enables them to show words written on a page and the victim’s mind interprets those words as the thing that the words represent. For example, they show him a bowl full of sheets of paper with the printed word “FINGER” on each one, and he sees a bowl full of his own, detached fingers.

But what’s really interesting to me is where Miles (the interrogator) talks about the means of control over English-speaking humanity. This is the scene:

Where am I going with all this? Well, I think it has something to do with “framing”, which has been a very hot topic with Democrats lately, and deservedly so. The truth is that the Republican Party has done a much better job selling itself in the last 40-odd years, and have become masters of the control of language, or rather the language of control. When you boil things down to simple concepts, people become simple. The thing is, this is all transparent, or “invisible”. Until you really stop and think about use of political language it won't occur to you how many times you've been a victim to long term campaigns to alter the way you think about things.

The point of all this is to get you here: This is an article from the New York Times called The Framing Wars (and yes, you do have to have a login to read it). Here’s a sample to entice you to do so:

After last November's defeat, Democrats were like aviation investigators sifting through twisted metal in a cornfield, struggling to posit theories about the disaster all around them. Some put the onus on John Kerry, saying he had never found an easily discernable message. Others, including Kerry himself, wrote off the defeat to the unshakable realities of wartime, when voters were supposedly less inclined to jettison a sitting president. Liberal activists blamed mushy centrists. Mushy centrists blamed Michael Moore. As the weeks passed, however, at Washington dinner parties and in public post-mortems, one explanation took hold not just among Washington insiders but among far-flung contributors, activists and bloggers too: the problem wasn't the substance of the party's agenda or its messenger as much as it was the Democrats' inability to communicate coherently. They had allowed Republicans to control the language of the debate, and that had been their undoing.

Even in their weakened state, Democrats resolved not to let it happen again. And improbably, given their post-election gloom, they managed twice in the months that followed to make good on that pledge. The first instance was the skirmish over the plan that the president called Social Security reform and that everybody else, by spring, was calling a legislative disaster. The second test for Democrats was their defense of the filibuster (the time-honored stalling tactic that prevents the majority in the Senate from ending debate), which seemed at the start a hopeless cause but ended in an unlikely stalemate. These victories weren't easy to account for, coming as they did at a time when Republicans seem to own just about everything in Washington but the first-place Nationals. (And they're working on that.) During the first four years of the Bush administration, after all, Democrats had railed just as loudly against giveaways to the wealthy and energy lobbyists, and all they had gotten for their trouble were more tax cuts and more drilling. Something had changed in Washington -- but what?

Democrats thought they knew the answer. Even before the election, a new political word had begun to take hold of the party, beginning on the West Coast and spreading like a virus all the way to the inner offices of the Capitol. That word was ''framing.'' Exactly what it means to ''frame'' issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative.

Republicans, of course, were the ones who had always excelled at framing controversial issues, having invented and popularized loaded phrases like ''tax relief'' and ''partial-birth abortion'' and having achieved a kind of Pravda-esque discipline for disseminating them. But now Democrats said that they had learned to fight back. ''The Democrats have finally reached a level of outrage with what Republicans were doing to them with language,'' Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic pollster, told me in May.

By the time Washington's attention turned to the Supreme Court earlier this month, rejuvenated Democrats actually believed they had developed the rhetorical skill, if it came to that, to thwart the president's plans for the court. That a party so thoroughly relegated to minority status might dictate the composition of the Supreme Court would seem to mock the hard realities of history and mathematics, but that is how much faith the Democrats now held in the power of a compelling story. ''In a way, it feels like all the systemic improvements we've made in communications strategy over the past few months have been leading to this,'' Jim Jordan, one of the party's top strategists, said a few days after Sandra Day O'Connor announced her resignation. ''This will be an extraordinarily sophisticated, well-orchestrated, intense fight. And our having had some run-throughs over the past few months will be extremely important.''

Posted by crimnos @ 9:01 AM