Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Charlie Brown-ization of Political Ethics

[For those new to the Playground, I've been working on a book entitled, Was It Morally Good For You, Too?: A How-To Guide to Ethics in Sex, Politics, and Other Dirty Words. One of the ideas I've been working to nail down is a rhetorical move to undermine ethical conversation in this society that I call "caging." Here is a lengthy excerpt which is my latest attempt to explicate the move. Comments would be gratefully appreciated.]

Ethical issues have become political footballs. But like Charlie Brown, whenever liberals go to kick it and push their agenda forward, the right, like Lucy, pulls the ball away, leaving progressives to look like fools lying on the ground “Waaaaaah…THUMP.” What’s the trick and why do liberals keep falling for it over and over and over again?

There is no denying that political issues almost always have inextricably moral dimensions. At the same time, the words “ethics,” “morality,” and “values” have been so abused in partisan rhetoric that they have lost virtually all meaning. It was a good move, at first. If you can wrap your position in a cloak of righteousness, whether it is morally upright or not, it makes your policy proposal unassailable. And if you can get the media to buy in, you’re golden. That’s how it came to be that people who want to ensure that gay and lesbian Americans could be openly discriminated against would be called “values voters” while those who argue that bigotry is wrong are somehow opposing morality.

On the one hand, this is nothing new. When Cato the Elder campaigned long and hard for a Roman pre-emptive invasion of Carthage, he used explicitly moral terms in which to couch his plan to lay siege to a city that had done nothing to harm. To this day, G. Gordon Liddy, continues to claim that the nefarious and illegal tactics of the Nixon administration were morally justified.

But, on the other hand, there have always been voices of true moral clarity making demands for social change that derive from high ethical principles; in John Adams’ vehement and gorgeously articulate opposition to slavery and in Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s words and deeds to secure women the vote. This moral-based approach was the driving force of 20th century American politics. The liberation movements of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, movements for the rights of seniors and the disabled strove to incorporate all Americans into the political fabric of the nation. The ultimate sacrifice was risked and paid by many activists who worked tirelessly so that every member of this nation would be seen as true citizens equal under the law. It was there in the labor movement’s efforts to clean up the “jungle” that claimed the limbs and lives of exploited workers who toiled in unsafe workplaces for unrelenting hours for unfair wages and whose children had little hope of avoiding the fate of their parents. And it was embodied in the environmental movement’s work to change our relationship to the land we inhabit, to clean up rivers that caught fire because of corporate polluters, save species that were in grave danger of extinction, and protect our families from dangerous industrial chemicals that were in our air, water, and food. It is truly remarkable to see how different the nation is at the turn of this new century when compared to the last.

After the combination of McCarthyism, ending up on the wrong side of the civil rights and women’s rights movements and Watergate had exacted its toll on the moral standing of American conservatism, the Democrats’ sleaze and abuses of power gave the right an opening that they seized with both hands. They saw that the path back to influence required claiming moral superiority. But when your platform is centered around opposition to civil rights and women’s rights, enshrining bigotry and discrimination towards gays and lesbians in the law, undermining environmental protection so that corporations can make more money, opposition to paying workers a living wage, decreasing the nutritional value of school lunches so that needy children get fewer vegetables,… How in the world could they get around all of the problematic moral baggage?

Two words: cage and frame.

In her book, The Betrayal of Work, Beth Shulman points out a nifty red herring that gets pulled whenever questions about a livable wage get brought up. You saw it in Reagan’s rhetoric – including that usurped by Bill Clinton's welfare reform mania – and you see it again today. The first step is to argue that work is a moral imperative. Any able bodied person not contributing to the economy is a lazy, shiftless, good for nothing deserving only of contempt. Anyone not punching a time clock does not deserve government help.

Now, it seems to follow that if you believe that everyone should work for a living, then you ought to support the notion that anyone who does a fair days labor ought to be able to feed his, or more often her, family and afford rent or mortgage in a safe, livable space. If you argue that you should work for a living then surely you would support a mandatory livable wage for that work. That, of course, is not the case.

Whenever questions about a livable wage come up, they always shift the discussion to job training and community college funding. The idea is that if these people are not earning much money because they are in dead end jobs, we’ll show them how to get better jobs and that will solve their problem. Not only do we teach a man to fish, but we teach him how to land the big ones. What a thoughtful idea.

But notice what the magician’s other hand was doing… Let’s say that Tanya was trapped in a dead-end job that took long hours, had no insurance benefits, was physically dangerous, and did not provide enough money to cover expenses for her and her child. We give Tanya job training and she becomes a data entry specialist and has a better lot in life. But what about the job that Tanya left? It’s still there, it’s still long, hard, underpaid, uninsured, and dangerous. Only now it is filled by Juanita…and it still does not provide enough to feed, clothe, and shelter her family.

The move to job training and community college funding is an extremely clever rhetorical trick because what it does is draw your eye to the specific person working the dead-end job and away from the people who will invariably be working that dead-end job. The point is that there will always be someone in that position and the real question is whether that worker, be it Tonya, Juanita, or whomever, will get the reward we expect for doing an honest day’s work. There is no doubt that we need to do more in terms of affordable higher education and having been a community college instructor myself, I cannot say enough wonderful things about the work they do. Similarly, job training is a fantastic thing, especially in an economy that is rapidly changing from being manufacturing-based to service-based. But steering the conversation to these issues has the effect of taking the other issues that industry groups and the Chamber of Commerce don’t even want discussed – mandatory health coverage, livable wages, humane treatment of workers – and like Siegfried and Roy’s scantily dressed assistant, POOF, they are nowhere to be found.

But further, we have shifted the locus of responsibility completely. We can now say that if we have enough available slots in the local community college or job training center that anyone who ends up in a dead-end job is the one to blame. We no longer have to consider them or the real questions of social justice. It is their fault and no one else’s that they have that job. If only they had the initiative, they wouldn’t be there. POOF, no more thoughts about those people working hard, doing tough, dirty, nasty jobs for hours on end that we want done for us.

The trick here is one that we see all across the spectrum of contemporary moral issues and it has two moving parts. The first has been pointed out by linguist George Lakoff who has termed it “framing.” Lakoff points out that words are not mere “hello my name is” badges that we stick on things. Rather, words come pregnant with emotional and normative connotation. Hence, the way we choose to express a given question will affect what the initial tug on the hearer will be. If we take the inheritance tax and ask whether rich kids should get gobs of money tax free for having been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, it gets a different response than when you ask whether the death tax on everything you spent a lifetime laboring for and which you choose to leave your loving family is fair. In the abortion debate, both sides are trying their damnedest to claim the frame. Is it a question about choice – after all who wants your choices legislated away? Or is it about life because everyone, of course, prefers life to death. Lakoff picks up on something that Friedrich Nietzsche also held a century before: he who controls the vocabulary holds the power.

But framing, powerful as it is, is only half the trick. You want to be able to favorably frame the issues that people see, but you don’t want them to see the issues you can’t easily frame. Like a pitcher who intentionally walks a slugger to get to the batter hitting behind him, you want to be able to pick and choose who you have to pitch to. If you think a batter could hurt you, you want to take the bat out of his hands.

The trick here is what I term “caging.” When you have a collection of related issues and you want absolutely none of them discussed, what you want to do is to keep them all in a cage. In order to make sure no one opens the cage to let them out, the key is to pick one issue that you will turn into the token concern and let it and it alone out of the cage. The key to success here is that it needs to be an issue that you can easily frame in a way that favors your side, but also an issue that is near and dear to the heart of your political opponents, a fight that they will refuse to give up at any cost.

Once that issue is framed and placed in the public conversation, you now need to motivate your side to think that winning the battle on this issue is essential to saving civilization, the security of their family, the continuance of their faith...something both big and ephemeral, something that makes sense intuitively, but something that is not directly measurable except through cherry picked examples of how bad it is out there. This will keep your folks in line behind your position on this sacrificial lamb of an issue.

The other side will see the passion of their political opponents and sense that they, too, must rush to the defense of their side lest they lose on this important issue. All of their advocacy groups will funnel time, money, energy, and media attention to the issue you've, time, and attention that used to go to the other issues in the cage. Like a pitcher who intentionally walks a big slugger to pitch to the weaker batter that follows, you decide which battle to fight and which ones languish harmlessly in the cage.

It is crucial that you not win a quick victory. Like the U.S. government feeding military intelligence to both parties in the Iran/Iraq war, you want the conflict to continue. The point is for it to suck all the oxygen out of the room leaving the issues you didn't want discussed to quickly asphyxiate and this requires being a resource drain on both sides. The argument must be loud, constant, and if possible, highly uncivil. The passion around the issue will give the false impression of completely open debate, thereby camouflaging your move to cage the widest majority of issues and the incivility will give rise to cynicism in the vast majority of non-activists in the middle. They'll want some compromise between the sides on the token issue and get completely turned off to any related debate. In other words, they won't give a damn whether there are other issues in the cage at all. The activists will be distracted and the non-activists will not pay attention. The "cage and frame" gambit therefore assures that no progress will be made on issues you want completely off the table.

Where do we see caging and framing? Don't want women's issues to be discussed? Let abortion out of the cage. Don't want environmental issues to be discussed? Let drilling in the Arctic National wildlife Refuge out of the cage. Don't want bigotry and discrimination against gays and lesbians discussed? Let gay marriage out of the cage. Don't want civil rights discussed? Let affirmative action in hiring out of the cage. Don't want to talk about helping needy children? Let out of the cage discussions of the sexual habits of the underclass. Cage and frame, cage and frame, cage and frame.

The beauty of the move is that it is a perfect rhetorical trap. If your opponent fails to take the bait, they lose an issue near and dear to their hearts and if they try to point to the other issues still in the cage, you can accuse them of changing the subject. When this is done in the heat of battle, it makes their positions on all of those issues seem weak. As if they don't have the goods to stand and fight on the issue at hand. Like John Kerry refusing to refute the Swift Boat attacks in the 2004 Presidential election, not buying into the scam will make you look pathetic and vulnerable to even more attacks.

So is there no answer to it? There is a way to liberate the imprisoned moral issues. But the key is that it cannot happen in the middle of the debate. It must happen in a measured, careful discussion; one that treats all concerns open-mindedly and which allows for careful, creative alternatives to be considered. We need to authentically consider competing views with an eye towards understanding the insights that come from all sides of the discussion. This is not to say that one direction or another is not to be preferred, but we need to try to strip away as much of the faux framing as possible and see what are the real trade offs and sacrifices we make with each option, what are the possible ways of finding compromise, if any, and consider the moral nature, costs, and benefits of each possible alternative. We need civil fucking discourse: civil in allowing every voice a seat at the table, but uncivil in rigorous assessing each and mercilessly rejecting those views that fail to meet rational muster. We need to think hard and talk to each other in a way that is designed to push forward good faith approaches to finding truth, not in a way designed to push forward a political agenda. Honest, robust conversation is the key to the cage.