Monday, August 30, 2010

Unseen Mechanisms

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

-- Edward Bernays, "the father of public relations"

from his book Propaganda (1928)

In this week's Sift:

  • Why Democrats Are Always on Defense. You'd think a party with only 41 senators would be on the run, desperately trying to prove that it's still rational and relevant. You'd think that they'd have to come up with new ideas and prove to the electorate that they've changed. Nope. What makes Republicans so different from Democrats?
  • One Bad Egg Leads to a Half-Billion More. The guy behind the salmonella-tainted eggs is a serial rule-breaker, but he always makes more in profit than he pays in fines.
  • The King Legacy. Martin Luther King is now accepted as an American hero. So of course he would be a conservative today and would be proud that Glenn Beck is carrying forward his vision. Or something like that.
  • Short Notes. More pictures of the week. Scott Pilgrim. Fox News' terrorist prince. Bad colleges. What the stimulus really did. And more.

Why Democrats Are Always on Defense

When Democrats were completely out of power, in 2005 or so, we were always told we needed to "move to the center" to have any hope of coming back. We needed to say moderate things, keep our radicals in the closet, and compromise with Republicans to show how reasonable we were.

Then everything associated with the Republican went bust -- the wars, the economy, corruption in Congress, Katrina -- and the tables turned. Landslide Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 put the Republicans even further out of power than the Democrats ever were. Obama's 2008 victory margin was many times Bush's 2004 margin. The Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress were bigger than anything the Republicans had mustered.

So what did Republicans do? Rethink their agenda? Compromise? Shift left? Nope. They've voted No on everything, they've got their wildest and wooliest we-make-our-own-reality candidates out there, and some current projections have them retaking the House. What's more, they seem to have control of the national conversation: If they want to make the so-called ground zero mosque an issue, then it's an issue.

How does that work exactly?

George Lakoff explains, using his often-misunderstood model of frames.

The frustrating and somewhat ironic thing about being a Lakoff fan (as I have been for years) is that the theory of frames is so often mis-framed as sloganeering, as if it denied the importance of real ideas and proposals.

Let me see if I can frame framing better than Lakoff usually does. Suppose you're a 20-something guy working in an office with a woman you'd like to go out with. It's not an unreasonable idea: you have pleasantly shared a cafeteria table a couple of times. Now, there are at least four different ways she could picture your relationship: (1) co-workers who get along; (2) co-workers who could become friends outside the office; (3) co-workers who could become a couple; and (4) stalker and victim.

Those are frames -- large-scale templates into which events and conversations can be placed -- and they are all in her head already, simultaneously. So as you look for  ways to get her attention, things to talk about, activities to suggest, favors to do, or other ways to show interest, the goal is to activate (3), not get trapped in (1) or (2), and make sure (4) never crosses her mind.

That way of strategizing is very different than just "having a good line". (Lakoff would call the good line "messaging", not "framing".) And it's not magic: If (3) isn't in her head at all, or if she's already concluded that (4) is going on, nothing is going to work.

OK, translate to politics. Lakoff is convinced that on most issues a large number of Americans are "biconceptual". In other words, they can picture the issue more than one way, and support different outcomes depending on how they picture it. Depending on how the topic comes up, they might picture unwed teen mothers either as Bristol Palin or as slum-dwelling drug addicts. What they say should be done about unwed teen mothers could be very different in those two conversations.

So now imagine you're a liberal trying to pass a teen-pregnancy bill. You could take a poll of four proposals and put forward the most liberal one that gets majority support. That approach is currently seen as "practical" and "realistic". But it takes the national conversation as given. It doesn't even consider the question: How many people could support the proposal I really want if I changed the national conversation?

Worse, it ignores this possibility: Coming out in favor of the poll-supported moderate bill could in itself change the national conversation in a way that invalidates the poll. Maybe you'll move the whole conversation to the right so that it then becomes "practical" for you to take an even more conservative position.

For example, you can see that happening in the ground-zero-mosque issue, where starting the conversation in four different places leads to four different conclusions:

  1. Muslims share the same religious freedom all other Americans have. (So: their beliefs should have nothing to do with what they can build.)
  2. Muslims were responsible for 9-11. (So it's not appropriate for them to build close to Ground Zero. Let them build the Park 51 project somewhere else.)
  3. Some American Muslims are loyal to our country and some aren't. (So you have to look at the background of the Cordoba Initiative and Imam Rauf before deciding whether they should be allowed to build anywhere.)
  4. Muslims can't be good Americans because America is at war with Islam. (Mosques by definition are recruiting centers for terrorists, so the fewer that get built, the better.)

Lots of Americans are biconceptual about this: They could see the issue more than one way. But if you take a poll, (1)&(2) put together give you a majority. So a "practical" Democrat does what Harry Reid did and comes out for (2). Nod towards the constitutional right to build as in (1), but recommend that Imam Rauf be wise enough to build somewhere else.

But look how that changes the conversation. Now all the Democrats supporting (1) have to explain why they can't be as "reasonable" as Reid, and Republicans who support (2) will have to face the dreaded "So you agree with Harry Reid?" Also, Reid has unintentionally validated a lot of people's vague notion that Islam is not like other religions, so support for (3) and (4) goes up. And people who promote (4) are emboldened, knowing that the principled opposition to them is crumbling.

I don't have data to back this up, but I believe that by adopting the poll-driven position, Reid and other "moderate" Democrats have changed the poll. The center is now moving towards (3).

This happens on issue after issue. On health care, it happened many times: One "compromise" position after another got recast as the socialist government take-over.

Republicans never make this mistake. They have a few very abstract basic frames, like "taxes and regulations hurt the economy"; "traditional values make society strong"; "America's enemies are insane or evil, so they have to be intimidated, not reasoned with"; and a handful of others. Everything they do gets couched in those terms, so they are constantly building those ideas up. When the electorate goes against them, they don't compromise, they try to turn the conversation back into channels that work in their favor.

One reason conservatives can function differently is that they have a huge infrastructure. Out-of-office Democrats disappear from public view or sell out to corporate interests as lobbyists, while out-of-office Republicans like Palin and Huckabee and Rove get showcased by Fox News. Staffers of defeated Democrats have to pound the pavement looking for their next job, while Republican staffers have jobs waiting at Cato or Heritage or one of the other think-tanks.

That conservative infrastructure requires lots of money, and they don't get it by passing the hat among ordinary Americans. Naturally, a lot of it comes from corporations, but a lot also comes from individual billionaires.

A recent New Yorker article by Jane Mayer profiled one of the biggest sources: the Koch brothers, owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in America. (Sift readers already knew about the Kochs -- pronounced "Coke" -- from a Greenpeace report I pointed you to in April.)

A 2004 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, described the Kochs’ foundations as being self-serving, concluding, “These foundations give money to nonprofit organizations that do research and advocacy on issues that impact the profit margin of Koch Industries.”

Mayer quotes an environmental lawyer's account of how the game works:

You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank, [which] hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders.

One Bad Egg Leads to a Half-Billion More

I wasn't going to say much about the massive egg recall, but Grist has three great articles on it. First, a clip of Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) talking to CNN's Sanjay Gupta:

Cheap food is wonderful. We all like cheap food. But we have to understand that when we're spending billions to deal with a salmonella outbreak, it isn't really as cheap as it seems.

Stephen Budiansky's NYT piece extolling the efficiency of factory farming (Math Lessons for Locavores) drew an intelligent response from Tom Philpott: The half-billion egg salmonella recall illustrates that efficiency cuts both ways. A small number of vast, interlocking producers is an efficient way to distribute pathogens as well as eggs.

And finally, Grist profiles Jack DeCoster, the guy behind the half-billion bad eggs. He's a bad egg himself, responsible for a long series of health, environment, and worker-safety violations going back to 1996. He's paid millions in fines, but that's just part of the cost of doing business.

The King Legacy

Saturday was the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech". So of course a lot of white people got together on the spot of Dr. King's speech to listen to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

Beck said the date-and-place correspondence was unintentional. (Actually, he attributed it to "divine providence". God doesn't let anything happen to Beck accidentally.) But then he decided it was appropriate because "Blacks don't own Martin Luther King." Which brought this response from Jon Stewart:

Black people don't own Martin Luther King. White people own … Oh, wait. … That's not right.

But Glenn feels he has to speak out to defend Dr. King's legacy because

Far too many have even gotten just lazy, or they have purposefully distorted Martin Luther King's ideas of "judge a man by the content of this character." Lately in the last twenty years we've been told that character doesn't matter.

I often wish real life were like Wikipedia, and I could just insert a [citation needed] at points like this. Has anyone ever seriously put forward the idea that "character doesn't matter"? Who? When?

Beck claimed King's legacy even more emphatically on May 26.

We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement because we [citation needed] were the people that did it in the first place.

No idea what he's talking about there. (The people who actually "did it in the first place" have a web site.)

This much is clear: The Right may have harassed and vilified King while he was alive, but now that he is safely dead (and, they hope, remembered only as a collection of sound bites) they want to give him a conservative make-over. (I've commented elsewhere on the make-over Beck has given Thomas Paine.)

And it's surprisingly easy: After you have co-opted words like character and freedom and God, you have the high ground and your tanks can roll on to conquer King's legacy at will.

After all, King ended his speech by dreaming of a day when all people could join in singing:

Free at last. Free at last.

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.

And isn't that just what Beck and the other Tea Party folks stand for? After all, what could King possibly have meant by free if not free from taxes, free from unions, free from foreign languages, free from having to explain gays to your kids, free to keep mosques out of your neighborhood, free from scientific facts you don't want to believe, free to work in unsafe conditions if you want to (or if you can't get a job anywhere else), free to go without health insurance, free to say "nigger" or any other word you feel like saying (and free from criticism if you do), free to refuse service to anybody you don't like, free to put as much CO2 into the atmosphere as strikes your fancy, and so on.

You know, free. Like Martin said. Free at last.

I'm not even going to argue about it right now, because even that misses the point. Having a he-said-she-said struggle over King's legacy is a poor way to celebrate King's legacy.

Here's what I think people should do in honor of the Dream speech: Read it. Or listen to it. Don't let Martin Luther King become a symbol that people fight to own, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Let him continue to be a voice that we listen to. Read the ten demands of King's March on Washington (including #7: "A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — in meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.") Read the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Pick some speech or sermon of King's at random and read it.

See for yourself.

I went rambling through the KIng speeches and found this one delivered in Grosse Pointe, Michigan a month before his assassination. This part seemed relevant to current arguments between moderate and liberal Democrats:

We started dramatizing the issue of the denial of the right to vote and I submit to you that three months later as a result of that Selma movement, the same President who said to me that we could not get a voting rights bill in that session of Congress was on the television singing through a speaking voice "we shall overcome" and calling for the passage of a voting rights bill . . . and we did get a voting rights bill in that session of Congress. Now, I could go on to give many other examples to show that it just doesn't come about without pressure

Short Notes

Ghost Day in Taiwan, Festival of the Tooth in Sri Lanka, lightning on Lake Geneva -- it's just another Week in Pictures.

Two reviewers who take pride in missing the point: Don Hazen wishes for a Mad Men character "we can respect and cheer for" -- precisely the 21st-century time traveler that most period shows provide and Mad Men brilliantly does not. And Seth Schiesel is a gamer who doesn't grasp that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not about video games. (It uses the narrative motifs of video games to re-envision the romantic comedy.)

Scott Pilgrim, BTW, is the most original movie I've seen in a long time, and one of its video-game motifs solves a problem the romantic comedy has been struggling with for decades: the ending. Nobody really believes the happily-ever-after ending any more, but the romantic comedy has never come up with a replacement. So movies have been winking knowingly at happily-ever-after at least since that what-now series of expressions Dustin Hoffman flashed at the end of The Graduate. But they've been stuck with it.

In Scott Pilgrim, the star-crossed couple conquers its obstacles and gets to the door. What's behind the door? Obviously: the next level, whatever that may be. This video-game metaphor for success is the most satisfying and realistic ending a romantic comedy could have these days.

The photography and online video is stunning in the New York Times Magazine piece on the power game in women's tennis.

Last week I linked to Jon Stewart's demonstration of how Fox News' guilt-by-association methods could be used to link Fox News itself to terrorism -- through their parent company's second largest stockholder, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. (There's no particular reason to think the Prince is a terrorist, but he's easy to link to radical Wahhabist sects of Islam through his family.)

Well, Fox didn't learn its lesson. Last Monday morning, Fox & Friends was speculatively tracing the potential funding sources for the Ground Zero Mosque, and made sinister implications about the Kingdom Foundation, a Saudi charity headed by "a guy who … funds radical madrassas all over the world."

The "guy" was never named, but he turns out to be -- you guessed it, right? -- Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. So Jon just had do a follow-up report suggesting that the way to shut off funds to the Ground Zero Mosque is to stop watching Fox News, because money they make goes to the Prince who might give it to the mosque project.

He went on to wonder whether the folks on Fox & Friends knew they were slandering their second-largest stockholder, and maybe that's why they didn't mention his name. He then brought two Daily Show regulars to discuss whether Fox didn't connect these dots because they were stupid and didn't know, or evil and intentionally hiding their own connections. John Oliver represented Team Stupid and Wyatt Cenac Team Evil.

Washington Monthly turns a searchlight on bad colleges that go on for years with microscopic graduation rates. It turns out that even among colleges that accept low-income students with low grades and test scores, graduation rates vary widely. Some colleges have graduation rates as low as 5%. And the difference isn't that they maintain high standards:

the colleges that successfully graduate low-income and minority students don’t ask less of them. They ask more. Researchers have found that more challenging coursework makes success rates go up, not down.

Why are these dropout factories tolerated? Why do they continue to get state funds and why are students allowed to waste government grants and loans on them? Because "the world is run by college graduates" who didn't go to such places and have no idea what goes on there. If you start with students nobody cares about and don't help them rise, nobody will hear about your failure.

Stephen Colbert takes on the how-Obama-can-prove-he's-not-Muslim problem. Solution: He needs to be more Christlike and let his enemies crucify him.

On OpenLeft, Paul Rosenberg brings Matthew 25:42-43 up to date:

I was unemployed and you called me a lazy good for nothing bum. I was old and you called me a "greedy geezer". I was a stranger, and you cursed me and cast me out. I was sick and you looked after the insurance company. I was in prison and you said, "Why isn't he dead"?

What did the stimulus do? A lot of good stuff.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at

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