Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Politeness vs. Truth

One of the lesser known fronts of the Cold war was the field of brainwashing. A couple returning POWs had inexplicably turned Marxists and the US military was interested in why. Several branches of the government worked on the project and in the end, the trick turned out to be no trick at all. A straightforward program of incarceration, isolation, and group punishment that would have been familiar to any prosecutor of the Spanish Inquisition was the best any captor could do. The reason the Communists seemed to have the upper hand was that they were willing to do things our American morals would not permit.

I think that the liberal-conservative meme war might be like that. For those of you not familiar, Berkeley’s own George Lakoff is part of the Rockridge Institute, a progressive think tank whose focus is reframing political debate through language. The idea is that Republicans have found political advantage by using a very precise language specially designed to frame things in a conservative light. For a specific example of bad framing see Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

(As a better example, think of how Republican politicians always seem to keep the topic of discussion on taxes and “tax burdens”. That is a framing trick all by its own. Of course, everyone wants lower taxes. But only by mentally separating them from public services can Republicans hope to bamboozle people into supporting plans to undermine popular institutions like social security.)

It’s a good idea. But while it’s important that liberals have the right language to use, it even more crucial is the willingness to say it unashamed. What conservatives have, and what liberals really need, is the media with the will to deliver our message.

Conservative leader can trust any of a number of journalists to repeat their spin point or even to blow the cover off a deep cover CIA agent for that matter. Liberals have to contend with the regular media who seem to keep one eye on the news and the other on the number of angry letters they get accusing them of liberal bias. Fox doesn’t care about bias. The wall street journal doesn’t care about bias (or even basic economics if it gets in the way of their ideology). They probably don’t even get letters complaining of bias. Bias is a red herring and liberals should take their queue from conservatives and be unashamed of their own politics.

I’m not suggesting that Liberals stoop as low as Fox News (Michael Moore has come close). What I am suggesting is that liberals, and particularly, liberals in the media, stop letting their gentlemanly code of conduct prevent them from saying mean things when mean things need to be said. Otherwise we’ll all end up sounding like NPRs Terry Gross trying to explain how it’s politically balanced to give O’Reilly a hard time during an interview. (Answer: It’s not politically balanced. But it is the best way to treat a guest you believe is dishonest.)

Our country didn’t have to give up our morals or our freedoms to win the Cold war, but we did have to learn to give up our isolationist “everything is fine” attitude and take threats seriously. Aggressive, lopsided, and one-sided reporting from the right threatens to unbalance our informed electorate. Liberals need to stop pining for the polite old days of newspapers, and start getting the truth out there. We don’t have to compromise our morals, just instinct to be polite.


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