Archive for July 17th, 2006

As a frequenter of conservative blogs, I’ve noticed a lot of flags and patriotic declarations. If you’re trying to convince others of your true-believing, die-hard, take-no-prisoners brand of patriotism, what would you do? WAVE LOTS OF FLAGS! It seems to me to be a reaction to a perceived threat, a brand of defiant nationalism that pops up during times of trouble. The problem with this, though, is the desire to distinguish oneself from others, as in, “I have more flags than you; therefore, I am more patriotic.” Or, even more troubling, “You have criticized our government. Therefore, you are anti-American.” Yes, this is a simplification of the debate, but we all are well familiar with it.

My fear is that this kind of sentiment (“WE are True Americans, while YOU are just a bunch of liberal communists who are gleefully cheering for the failure of America.”) doesn’t allow for rational debate. Some might roll their eyes, figuring it a waste of time to even respond to this kind of thing. On the other hand, I’m inclined to say, “Wait a minute! I need to correct you on that!” Flamboyant displays of patriotism may well be sincere, but the absence of such does in no way indicate anti-Americanism. It’s time to reframe the debate. This Chicago Tribune article identifies the problem with allowing others to define terms and to judge moral superiority. Here is an excerpt:

[George Lakoff] makes a very persuasive argument that Democrats have allowed Republicans to hijack words such as “freedom” and “liberty” in fundamental ways that have undercut Democrats’ credibility. His latest book, “Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea,” builds on earlier works that urge progressives to stop getting their pockets picked by Republicans over issues in which, he says, progressives actually hold the higher moral ground.

Lakoff contends that Republicans not only have taken ownership of words, they also have skillfully succeeded in framing the debate. That has trapped Democrats into being reactive, implicitly buying into the GOP framework and almost dooming them to failure.

Consider the war in Iraq. Republicans have adroitly labeled Democratic calls for troop pullbacks as “cut and run.” So how did Democrats respond? With John Kerry saying that the Bush strategy is “lie and die.”

Instead, Lakoff says, Democrats must change the nature of the debate, starting by rejecting the premise that America is in fact at war. The war, he says, ended when President Bush said it did with his “Mission Accomplished” stunt on an aircraft carrier. Now, Democrats should refer to the conflict as an occupation. They should say U.S. troops were not trained to be occupiers and that they were betrayed by administration policy, with the U.S. weakened as a result.

Lakoff makes a similar point about the “war on terror.” Terrorism, he says, should be fought in the same way the government went after the Mafia.

Right or wrong, no prominent Democrat has adopted Lakoff’s proposed framing. That hasn’t stopped him from making the rounds in Washington, urging Democrats to take heed.

He is a one-man army for the counterintuitive. Democrats, he says, are an anti-intellectual party. It is Republicans, he says, who support conservative intellectuals with many think tanks and interest groups to promote a conservative agenda.

Republicans, he adds, actually control the media. They reinforce Bush’s positions and use radio, television and the Internet to create an amen chorus before Democrats can even deliver a compelling sermon.

Democrats, he says, need to become framers.

Lakoff says the Democratic message needs to be something like this: Republicans oppress people when they can’t eat the fish they catch because of water pollution, when kids get asthma because of bad air, when ranchers can’t let cattle drink the water in the streams that run through their land, all because of lax regulation. And don’t make the mistake of labeling yourself an environmentalist.

Lakoff likens the GOP orthodoxy as offered by Bush to a “strict father” mentality with a stark and unambiguous view of right and wrong. Democrats offer more a “nurturant parent” who is empathetic and looks at things in context.

Democrats, he says, need to start framing with core convictions and not with calibrations to try to win over converts.

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In my ongoing search for a logical explanation as to why some people continue to debate the reality of global warming, I found this at Nova’s website:

There is a third reason why people reject the idea of man-made climate change. It is my observation that on the whole people tend to believe what is convenient to them. Faced with a choice between an awkward fact and a comforting fiction, most people will take the fiction any day. And global warming is certainly inconvenient. Just when we have finally freed ourselves from the tedium of tilling the earth and gotten nice and comfortable with a big TV, central heating, cheap flights to exotic destinations, and an armor-plated all-terrain vehicle for nipping down to the mall, along come some bloody scientists to tell us that we can’t go on as we are and as we like doing.

I have a sneaking sympathy for those conservatives who seem to regard the greenhouse effect as an unwarranted interference with the workings of the free-market economy. But as a bit of a political conservative myself, I have always thought that the guiding spirit of conservatism was the determination to see the world as it really is, to cast away the rose-tinted spectacles. Global warming is nothing less than a fact, and it has to be faced.

In my experience, these skeptics of the third kind are much more prevalent in the USA than in Europe. I think this may be partly to do with a particularly American attitude to money. American rhetoric tends to present prosperity as the natural consequence of political freedom. Like democracy, it becomes a moral good in its own right. Anyone who seems to question the wisdom of unconstrained economic growth risks appearing un-American, if not downright immoral.

Taking the lead

But in my view, tackling global warming is extremely unlikely to damage the American economy. What’s required is another industrial revolution. America is rather good at these. Britain led the first (coal and steam), but America has pioneered the rest (the internal combustion engine, telecommunications, computers). Each one only adds to our prosperity, and it will be the same once again.

But there is an important difference from previous industrial revolutions. This one requires political leadership; the market on its own won’t do it. As an Englishman I am often impatient with the notion of America as “the indispensable nation,” but on this occasion I think that it is. To combat global warming, the world desperately needs U.S. leadership.

I am optimistic enough to believe that we won’t have to wait much longer. The pace of global warming is now quickening to the point where it will soon be obvious to everyone. When you can discuss the question sitting at a pavement café in London in November in your shirtsleeves, you just know something is up, and all skepticism becomes moot.

For more on the science of global warming, click here.

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