Regaining Control of the Public Discourse.
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Jun 30, 2007 at 09:30:35 PM EST
In last week's post I discussed how neoconservative allies of the Religious Right try to control the discourse by demonizing opponents as being godless. With that in mind, I hope to explain their technique in greater detail and then offer a way to break their grip -- to our considerable advantage.
One of the dark risks in an open society is the ascendancy of the Enemy/Friend dichotomy. If anyone has any doubt that this is so, we need look no further than the poisoning of American political discourse over the past few decades. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to see it consume people beyond the point at which they cease to truly care about fairly resolving any given issue, and instead come to revel in the humiliation of an opponent.

The key ingredient to the Enemy/Friend is fear: the fear of minorities, of gays, of immigrants, of the French, of any bogeyman of convenience. In the case of the Religious Right the fear of eternal damnation is the tool of convenience. Constituents are then rallied against the bogeyman and become a faction that in turn, places unreasonable self-interest above the public good. The faction then employs divisive fear to encourage a general dependence upon its organization. It is the very height of cynical political action. They seek unfair advantage by trying to stoke the flames of unrestrained, destructive passions; flames that threaten to engulf the national edifice.

While such tactics will always be with us, it is important to recognize the consequences for a democratic society of enemy/friend becoming a major, accepted social paradigm, instead of a minor, socially unacceptable one. Demonizing your opponents reduces the ability for a diverse people to govern themselves simply because it focuses solely on divisive issues while purposely ignoring the more numerous issues that unite us. It is nothing more than the age-old strategy of divide and conquer.

Less than a generation ago, resorting to the use of this archaic concept was more seen as a sign of failure. After all, conventional thinking once was that only those who couldn't win an argument on the merits resorted to the crude demonizing of opponents.

But with the rise of corporately funded think tanks such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, gladiator style news programming and the Manichaeism of the Religious Right Enemy/Friend has now taken on the role of standard operating procedure for the contemporary American Right.

Talking heads such as Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh use the paradigm to frame their arguments -- if indeed, we can call their daily tirades arguments.  They employ it because it is a means of demonizing liberals and cutting off reasoned debate. As I demonstrated in recent posts neoconservative writers such as David Brooks and Andrew Ferguson  so the same thing in subtle, yet equally despicable ways.

But the tactic is not the exclusive domain of the Religious Right and its political allies. We also hear it from political hacks who describe all Christian conservatives as "Christo-fascists" and a parade of similar epithets that have little to no actual meaning. In the case of this term, it is but the mirror image of broad-brush neoconservative smears of Muslims as "Islamo-fascists."

It is no accident that Enemy/Friend has gained greater currency with the ascendancy of an increasingly neoconservative influenced Right. This is a direct consequence of the ascension of neoconservative think tanks and their media advocates who have honed the tactic to a fine art. The paradigm has it origins in classical Greek texts. At the very outset of Plato's Republic the character Thrasymachus defines justice as helping friends and harming enemies.

Neoconservatives tend to rely heavily on Classical Greek notions of an ordered society, so much so that they often write scornfully of modernity. This was evidenced by William Kristol's feeble attempt to blame the responsibility for the Columbine High School shootings on liberalism's embrace of modernity. In a display of bizarre attenuation he described the killers as "thoroughly modern" and thus "disbelieved in moral absolutes," incredibly concluding, "There you have it: the culmination, the end, of modernity."

The Religious Right is particularly adept at framing liberalism within the Enemy/Friend paradigm. It casts moderates, liberals and all others with whom they disagree as "godless," "immoral" or "unpatriotic." We witnessed this when James Dobson brazenly declared "those, again, on the more liberal end of the spectrum are often those who have no value system or at least they say there is no moral and immoral, there is no right or wrong."

As outrageous as these claims are, they serve as one of the most effective tactics at cutting off all debate on important issues of the day. (After all -- how can reasonable people of God expect to be able to negotiate in good faith -- with the faithless; apostates and heretics who embrace Satanic institutions and cultural depravities?)  The key to this highly cynical mechanism is to identify the liberal agenda as a sure-fire ticket to hell. Religious anxiety about achieving Paradise is abused and denigrated as the primary means to shut off all possible debate on economics, unilateral military actions and civil defense.

If left unaddressed, Enemy/Friend will destroy our great republic by corrupting our reason. As Robert F. Kennedy presciently warned in the wake of Dr. King's assassination, "... when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered. " The continued embrace of this dichotomy will ultimately reduce Americans into multiple factions, each perceiving themselves as either winners or losers with the losers harboring grudges at increasingly dangerously volatile levels.

A Recent Example.
The recent Elizabeth Edwards joust with Ann Coulter should be a lesson for all of us how not to do battle with a classic dissembler. As the Daily Howler's succinctly observed of Coulter's technique:

But there's a third reason why it's hard to debate Ann Coulter; Coulter is a vastly experienced demagogue. She's profoundly disingenuous, so disingenuous that few normal people (like Elizabeth Edwards) have any practice dealing with anyone of her type. On the other hand, she plays her own warped games every day; she herself is tremendously experienced in the types of discussion she generates. She has an endless array of claims-claims that let her argue that she's really just engaging in jokes and "satire" when she makes her inane, nasty statements. For this reason, it would take a very skilled person to win a debate with Coulter. Your big broadcasters have no plans to try, and the Democratic Party has spent the past fifteen years pretending that it doesn't know how its big leaders get slimed.

And for those who believe that Ms. Edwards came away the winner, Somerby offered this sober assessment:

In our view, Edwards had the advantage for the first minute or two, until Coulter, momentarily surprised, began to fight back. And yes: Coulter's responses to Edwards made little real sense, as Paul Waldman noted in this post at Tapped. But Coulter wasn't trying to make sense at this point; she was trying to win a dispute, in this case by throwing off counter-complaints, driven along by her trademark insults. (As it turns out, John Edwards made his money by "doing these psychic [or shyster] routines in front of illiterate juries.") She had her normal strong tone and sense of certainty; Edwards, on the phone, was at a disadvantage, and the program's host wasn't planning to argue.

In reality, you can substitute Coulter for any Religious Right pundit. And that is because they use the same tactics of distractions, fractured "facts," and personal attack. Somerby has hit the nail on the head: the Enemy/Friend purveyors do not care about being right, only about sounding right. More importantly, they choose their words carefully so as to push the emotional buttons that arouse factious behavior. As I noted in an earlier post:

But what is the Religious Right truly after? Simple: it is the shameless pursuit of factionalism. Indeed, neoconservatives and their cheering section at the Institute on Religion and Democracy have mastered this technique to great effect. By inflaming religious emotions to a level of faction, they employ a device that has the power to destroy representative democracies such as our own.

What to Do?
We must recognize that Enemy/Friend framing is the Right's best strategy to wear us out. If we continue in this tit-for-tat verbal jousting we will lose the war of ideas through attrition. With their many well-funded foundations and well-organized think tanks, and independent media outlets they are the stronger of the two philosophies in terms of assets. The right has the ability to pull us into this quagmire and have been very successful in carrying out their plan. Remember: like Lenin they probe with bayonets.

The use of this tactic is all about preventing cooperation among Americans who have diverse heritages, and for our purposes here, diverse religious beliefs. The more strident activists on the Right are well aware that if liberals cannot be demonized as something inherently evil they would have a problem winning elections. There would then be nothing that would prevent many religiously conservative working poor and middle-class folks from embracing liberals - just as they did en masse from the rise of the New Deal until well past the Great Society. As Barry Goldwater proved in 1964, conservatism without an element of divisiveness does not go very far.

As the folks at the IRD know there can be no greater divisive force than religion. To that end they falsely make the political equation one of choosing between reasonable economic self-interest and eternal damnation.

Breaking the Enemy/Friend frame will require nothing less from us than recasting the whole political discourse. We must refrain from engaging in framing issues within the Enemy-Friend dynamic and instead attack the destructive frame itself. Instead, we should display firmness without demonizing anyone but the most nefarious of our opponents.

But most importantly, when Enemy/Friend rears its ugly head in debate the trick is to attack the frame itself.

As I noted earlier, not so ago, resorting to the use of this archaic concept was more seen as a sign of failure. When James Dobson talks about "those on the Left " having no moral compass or Ann Coulter launches another rhetorical volley against liberal  "godlessness" -- that should provoke our immediate response that this pundit isn't saying anything worth listening to. Instead of just complaining about the demonizing, we must seize the high ground and point out that they demonize because they are bereft of facts and ideas. And if we are properly prepared, we'll have readily verifable facts that will illustrate our opponent's fallacies.

What I am proposing is turning Enemy/Friend on its head by restoring it to its formally stigmatized status. And if we can accomplish this task we will have not only weakened a favorite tool of the Religious Right but in the process, strengthened the American political and religious discourses.

Earlier this week, the Institute for Progressive Christianity issued a press release concerning neoconservative Andrew Ferguson's disgraceful comments concerning the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton's and other progressive, mainstream Christians' faith. It is a firm statement that steers clear of demonizing our opponents:

Washington DC June 27, 2007 The Institute for Progressive Christianity condemns recent neoconservative attempts to denigrate mainstream Christians as godless. An eggregious example occurred in an exchange between Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard and host Tucker Carlson on the June 14, 2007 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, when Ferguson claimed that Sen. Clinton, a longtime member of the United Methodist Church does not believe in God.

Carlson: "Can you imagine a scenario, though, where the Democrat gets religious voters? Or is abortion is still the stumbling block?"

Ferguson: "Only in -- religious in the way that Hillary Clinton is religious, which is to say of a very liberal Protestant sort of view, in which they believe in everything but God."

"Andrew Ferguson probably thought he was terribly witty to claim that Senator Clinton does not believe in God," said IPC Director Reverend Mark Farr. "This is gutter politics."

Fellow IPC Director Frank L. Cocozzelli pointed out, "This technique is employed by neoconservatives and the religious right to demonize Christians who embrace the liberal Social Gospel tradition." Cocozzelli continued. "There is nothing lower in public life than claiming that people with whom you disagree politically do not believe in God."

"Ferguson is the Don Imus of the question of faith in public life," adds IPC Director Stephen Rockwell. "No responsible broadcaster should allow such malicious denigration of the faith of others to go unchallenged. Carlson's silence is complicity."

About The Institute for Progressive Christianity

We Are Progressive:
We are progressive in that we desire to promote: the Love of God, Neighbor and Self; Compassion; Justice; and the Common Good.

We Are Christian:
We are an ecumenical group of Christians of different theological orientations: Liberal, Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical. We believe in being in community that maintains unity while acknowledging and supporting our diversity. We are united in our conviction that our progressive values flow directly from our understanding of the message and example of Jesus.

We Are an Institute:
We have faith that we can positively confront the ills of this world with a progressive Christian witness that is coherent, convicted, intelligent, and passionate. In a spirit of being affirmative, we believe that engaging society's questions should be done transparently and authentically from a reasoned yet inspired place of substance. We research, analyze, and discuss the issues with an eye to welcoming other people into a dialogue where we can encourage and provoke each other to fulfill our destinies as unique but interdependent reflections of the Creator.


Institute for Progressive Christianity
Stephen Rockwell
Executive Director

Frank Cocozzelli

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Jun 30, 2007 at 09:43:14 PM EST

Something else you can do to help change the discourse is to sign First Freedom First's petition. To do so, just click here.

Remember, the separation of church and state enables, not hinders religious freedom.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Jun 30, 2007 at 09:54:29 PM EST

I tried to sign the petition yesterday, and got a nasty message "Your IP has been banned from signing this petition."  (This is a cut and paste!)

I emailed them immediately about this, but no reply.  I don't remember ever going to their site before, and if I had, I certainly wouldn 't have done something to warrant banning.  After all- I agree with them, and I do NOT believe in acting like a troll!

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jul 02, 2007 at 02:44:57 PM EST

are potent tools - get the target audience to that point, and you've discredited the sanctimonious. I think "Get a life, you drama queens" when I hear some of the drivel. Any of that, and they start acting martyred, and you may or may not lose the audience, depending on its composition.

Charm may be better. Some ad hominems are not unreasonable in response - as a woman, I find that the "Steel Magnolia" Southern belle attitude works well. Smile sweetly and ask leading questions. I am not sure what men would do in the "polite, but with fangs" category.

"Yes, I understand you are very concerned that the children will be harmed by being in a gay foster family. What an opportunity for witness this is! You need to tell the audience how satisfying it is to raise your special-needs foster child. What? No such child?....." (assuming you have info that they DON'T have such a child - know your legiscritters!)

by NancyP on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 12:57:57 PM EST

Yes, I know that approach rather misses the point, but a great many venues have hostile emcees / host, who try to enforce the frame, and also have the cut-off button.

If your emcee doesn't drag you kicking and screaming into the opposition frame, you might be able to enforce a "faith produces action" frame in a positive way, and keep the other side in line with the theme of concrete actions aiding others with some Matthew 25 (least of these....).

People don't like "All hat, no cattle". They favor the folks who are trying to do something positive. They'd rather have good news than pinched-face delivery of "going to Hell in a handbasket". We learned that from Reagan's campaign!

by NancyP on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 01:07:23 PM EST

In fact Nancy, you entirely get the point.

Humor and mockery (as long as either isn't done in a disdainful, nasty manner) are both very disarming. Both carry the day much better than stridency.

Keen observations, as usual, Ms. P!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 01:53:42 PM EST

It seems to me that television news and talk shows on both television and radio lend themselves only too well to the Enemy/Friend dichotomy and to the sound-bite simplification of complex issues. This goes a long way to explaining the popularity of Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Melanie Morgan, Bill Donohue and their allies. People want simplicity, but what they are getting is dumbed-down and unconscionable demonizing. This goes a long way toward explaining why I personally don't watch much television, and I especially dislike television news and talk shows. On the other hand, I've taken quite well to the Internet.


by khughes1963 on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 05:58:06 PM EST

While I don't doubt that Hillary Clinton believes in God, isn't it true that some liberal Christians don't believe in God anymore? (Remember the famous Time magazine cover?  It wasn't about atheists, but theologians!)  I'm thinking of people like Thomas Altizer, John Shelby Spong and John Robinson.

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 07:44:06 PM EST
Some conservatives don't believe in God either.  Let's begin with Karl Rove. Does that mean that liberals should atheist-bait conservatives because some of their number are not religious?

This kind of a tactic is an outrageous demagogic slur not only on Hillary Clinton and others, but on  the many atheists who are fine people and good citizens. The use of non-belief as a slur should be opposed by all.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 09:17:28 PM EST

As a someone who has extensively read, studied, and follows the path that Bishop Spong has laid out, I am getting just a little tired of people saying that I'm an atheist. If you read Bishop Spong's writings there is nowhere that he claims that he Doesn't believe in God. We are Non-Theistic not atheistic. I believe in God but I do not believe in an external God.
This is an example of the type of divisiveness that the Religious Right likes to push.

by Frank Frey on Mon Jul 02, 2007 at 09:53:31 AM EST

While you might be correct about some Christians it doesn't hold true for most Christians (including me) I personally know.  And even if it that is what he meant about about Hillary, it holds no water.  Unless he can read her mind, she has made no statements to indicate such a belief. In fact, the contrary seems to be the case.  It was purely trash-talk innuendo.

To understand what Ferguson was really trying to say is that anything less than rigid orthodoxy is a "lesser" belief.  That is standard operating procedure for many neocons.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 08:59:36 PM EST

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