Regaining Control of the Public Discourse.
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 01:27:17 PM EST
I honestly believe that Obama's victory offers America not only economic hope, but also hope for changing, for the better, how we talk to one another. To that end, here is a repost of a piece I originally put up in June 2007.

It is my belief that by changing the overall tone to one that is more civil, we stand a better chance of getting our message through to the everyday citizen.

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.

Enemy/Friend

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 do 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.




Display:
Being civil but firm is not a sign of weakness but a sign of confidence and strength. Yes, we must be firm, but it is still possible to firm and civil.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 01:33:05 PM EST
If it is no long possible to win through virtue and kindness, then victory starts to lose all meaning.

by Hirador on Wed May 16, 2012 at 06:47:32 PM EST
Parent


I think the next 4 years might be tough for me at church. For the sake of civility, I usually don't say anything, but I am already hearing uncivil and rude comments.

by khughes1963 on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 06:36:44 PM EST
And I'm really disheartened at what I'm hearing.

I'm reminded at what Branch Rickey once said on this subject: "Endure, pity, then embrace."

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 01:46:43 PM EST
Parent



Frank Cocozzelli has again told it the way it really is. This article is accurate and truthfully exposes the RADICAL Religious Right for what they really are. As one who served in & with the US Army for 43 years, taking the Oath to Defend the Constitution Against All Enemies, Foreign & Domestic, it is the Domestic Enemy we must fear most, and not unfriendly foreign nations or terrorist abroad. The enemy has been met and identified as the Radical Religious Right. They are the REAL terrorists, who use the name of God and Jesus to spread lies, hate and filth in their quest for dominance. Jesus called them "serpeants and hypocrites."

by Bonatti on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 03:02:11 AM EST

...their point. As a totalitarian ideology bent on destroying Democracy there really IS an enemy/friend basis that cannot be compromised with. The tricky bit is separating their extremism from the normal range of religious thought (something this web site has done a very good job of).

With Obama as president and the Republicans so heavily infiltrated, the time is very good to address Totalitarian Theocracy as the enemy, and address it as Ideology. It is not that there is no Theocratic Christians, but that it takes discernment to tell them from others who are strongly religious, but this is the case with Muslims also. Doing so puts all the Theocrats, Islamist, Dominionist, and Kahanist in the position as the insurgent, subversive, enemy of all religions, forming common purpose with Christians, Muslims, and Jews against the monsters who would destroy us all.

It was essentially that, that created the Anbar improvement when Sunni's became more freaked by their "allies" than the Americans. However to do that we have a great deal of house cleaning of our own as Mikey Wienstien, and others have pointed out. If the tide turns that way too quickly I would expect that Dominionist elements will not be any less violent than their Islamist brethren but I do not see a very wide path that avoids it, and prevents them from achieving their goals.

For eight years at least we have addressed the fight while actively avoiding the issues that create the fight (largely because the Dominionist base agreed on those issues) Perhaps now we can place the issues in the battle both in the Mideast and at home, and finally have the world be Socialized the way we want our children and dogs socialized.

by FreeDem on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 10:24:29 PM EST

Instead we should not buy into their framework. What it results in is a "dumbing down" of the liberal (or if you like, "progressive") message. I don't want to see our side adopt the "noble lies" of neocons, the name-calling of Right-wing shock jocks (Randi Rhodes and Ed Shultz already do too much of that) nor rail divisively.

We can be firm and resolute without having to embrace their destructive tone, which would be destructive both to our side as well as to the general discourse.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Nov 14, 2008 at 09:19:45 PM EST
Parent

A long explanation that uses the opposition's frame is lost before it begins. I certainly do not advocate ad homenims that do not enlighten, but referring to the opposition as the Gang Of Pirates is more descriptive than wingers, idiots, or thieves, and more definitive than Republicans (as there are many honest Republicans, particularly those information deficient who are more victim than Pirate. The Obama camp has huge numbers of present and past Republicans who are no longer information deficient).

I also find Randi's style grating however Nate Silver did an excellent dissection of the skills necessary to be successful and pointed out that her style (or Limbaugh, or O'Rielly) is what is required, and that a style that is reasonable cannot succeed no matter what the politics of the speaker is.



It might be a good thing to do away with Talk Radio, or wreck it by requiring civility, but in looking for the link above I see that the GOP Blogosphere is already awash with preemptive attacks on just that subject, that Obama is already intent on destroying freedom of speech by Socializing it. That only Unsocialized speech is free (unless it has words we are offended by).



If the outrageous is not confronted by outrage then it is not confronted at all and wins the field, and the absurd becomes just an alternative reasonable position. Much as the right left center frame has created the fiction that focusing your entire life into making the world a better place is equally despicable and horrendous as destroying it for personal profit, pleasure, and glory.



I am not saying the we need to "dumb down" the conversation. To lose the idea and presume football game style partisanship is to enter their frame as they have no ideas they can be open about. But intelligent and even colorful or dramatic confrontation of ideas must be done or be run over by those without them.

by FreeDem on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:06:09 AM EST
Parent





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