Let's Not Go Down the Baloney Road Anymore
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue May 25, 2010 at 02:33:52 AM EST
George Lakoff and others are certainly correct that good framing can help us to powerfully articulate our deepest values and related ideas.  How bad framing can do the opposite is discussed less often. We see examples of bad framing on spectacular display and with great frequency when it comes to discussing the Religious Right.  This can lead otherwise sensible people to make assertions and draw conclusions that are, to be polite about it, baloney.  
Let's consider a few closely related examples.

A few years ago a wide swath of liberal interest groups, political consultants and the Democratic Party seemed to believe that "secularists" were driving people of faith from the public square. This turned out to be unsubstantiated baloney that was in fact an adoption of a major ideological frame of the Religious Right.  As it turned out, those promoting this view were unable to produce a single example of a religious person who had been driven from public life. They were also unable to name a single person or group who had done the driving. This is not to say that there are not noisy anti-religious activists of various sorts, and that there is ongoing debate about how best to navigate religion in politics and separation of church and state. But these are not the same thing. The perennial restatement of an unsupported assertion became the basis of much reporting and political strategy.  This was a factor in leading the Democratic Party to engage in, among other things, a variety of dubious "faith outreach" schemes, often under the guidance of political consultants called "faith guru's."  The Washington Post now reports that the faith outreach business has largely gone belly up and that the DNC has all but eliminated its faith outreach staff.  Pastordan  Schultz and others have been skeptical of the electoral efficacy of the faith outreach schemes. Pastordan goes so far as to add:

But you could just as easily argue that the president owes his office to a solid win among secular and unaffiliated voters, and you could say with more justification that 2008 was a change election that overran most, if not all, religious distinctions.
We have seen the same phenomenon in the claim in recent years that the culture wars are over or are about to be (and the prerequisite notion that the religious right is dead or nearly so.) Indeed although these ideas have been challenged and (arguably) repeatedly debunked, it is apparently the zombie conclusion that will not die. More importantly, it seems to be continuing to drive high levels of our political discourse.  To know that this is so, and to consider the implications, we need look no farther than Frank Rich's recent New York Times column in which he concludes, based on the Rekers rent-boy scandal and the politically motivated rumors that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is lesbian -- that the culture war is nearly over. This is striking in part because this piece is as sharply written and well researched a summary of these matters as you'll read anywhere. But the facts he cites do not support the conclusion he is drawing.

First, Rich discusses the impact of the Rekers scandal on anti-gay politics:

The crusade he represents is, thankfully, on its last legs. American attitudes about homosexuality continue to change very fast. In the past month, as square a cultural venue as Archie comic books has announced the addition of a gay character, the country singer Chely Wright has come out as a lesbian, and Laura Bush has told Larry King that she endorses the "same" rights for all committed couples and believes same-sex marriage "will come."
Laura Bush is far from a convincing source. She may, like Dick Cheney, be unopposed to gay rights. But Bush and Republicans like her also do nothing for gay rights except to support candidates and a political party that are opposed. And while a gay character in Archie comics may be a happy increment in cultural progress, it is hardly political game changer. In fact, anti-gay politics is normative in the conservative movement, the Republican Party and elements of the Democratic Party as well. Anti-same sex marriage amendments to state constitutions have been passed by popular referenda in the majority of states and there is no indication that federal civil rights legislation for marriage equality is on the horizon. What's more, vociferously anti-gay Religious Right leaders (such as Rev. Samuel Rodriguez) are solicited by Democratic Party leaders on such matters as health care and immigration reform, and go to great lengths not to offend them. In any case, the anti-gay movement is far from being
"...on its last legs."
A more egregious fault in Rich's analysis is in the concluding two paragraphs:
The real game became clear when that same week a former Bush aide and Republican Senate staffer published unsubstantiated rumors about Kagan's private life in a blog at CBSNews.com. (It was taken down after White House denials.) Those rumors have chased all unmarried Supreme Court justices or would-be justices loathed by the right, whether Republicans like David Souter and Harriet Miers or the previous Obama choice, Sonia Sotomayor.

By late last week, double-entendre wisecracks about Kagan's softball prowess were all the rage on Fox News and MSNBC. These dying gasps of our culture wars, like Rekers's farcical pratfall, might be funnier if millions of gay Americans and their families were not still denied their full civil rights.

Two main points:

The reason why the Religious Right and Fox News engaged in gay-baiting is because it works. They may not succeed in stopping Kagan's nomination any more than they stopped the election of Barack Obama by questioning whether he is in fact, a secret Muslim and whether he was born in the U.S. But that is not necessarily the goal. To such people, Elena Kagan will always be suspected of being a lesbian, and therefore, suspect. This will serve as a further magnification of the demonization she is already receiving from some because she is Jewish. Pat Buchanan has complained that there are too many Jews on the court. (Of course, we heard no such complaint from Buchanan when Obama appointed a sixth Catholic to the nine-member court.)

The short of it is that the gay-baiting of Elena Kagan in the national media is obviously of far greater cultural and political significance than than the addition of a gay character in Archie comics. That is why it is significant that Rich refers to these episodes as:

"These dying gasps of our culture wars..."
The phrase is telling.

It suggests that the Rekers and Kagan episodes are signs that cultural tensions over homosexuality may be declining such that homosexuality will soon not be a source for significant battles in the so-called culture wars. Secondly, it suggests that the broader culture wars are nearly over as evidenced by these episodes.  In fact, neither implication is even remotely so.  No matter how encouraging progress on one issue may be, that is not necessarily evidence of progress on any other issue, let alone all of the issues of the so called culture wars.  The Religious Right and its allies are driven by worldviews in which homosexuality is but one among many concerns.

Secondly, it is important to surface the underlying assumptions in the use of the phrase in part because Frank Rich is such an important analyst of contemporary culture and politics. But it is also important because so many others share the paradoxical view that there are dire issues of the culture war and at the same time, the belief that the culture wars are over or about to be. The invocation of the phrase seems to be the glue that holds the paradox together. Without it, it becomes more necessary to consider the facts. That so many people adhere to this false conclusion retards our capacity to consider the Religious Right and its various constituent parts with the breadth and depth that it really requires.

Its typical of the way that this meme is formulated:  Signs of possible progress on one or two social issues is used as evidence to declare that the culture wars are over, or are about to be. The missing piece is usually showing how the evidence could reasonably lead to that conclusion, especially in light of the vast amount of evidence to the contrary.

I am not sure why this meme is so powerful that otherwise smart political observers such as Frank Rich come to this preposterous conclusion. But clearly, it is. And one of the things that is so remarkable about it is that for many it is possible to hold it even as one is troubled by and reports on the many ongoing battles that have come to define the so-called culture wars -- from abortion and reproductive rights, to Christian nationalism and revisionist history, to the teaching of evolution in public schools, to the Religious Right influence on the elected Texas State Board of Education and what that means for the content of textbooks in the state and around the country, and so much more.

Last December (2009) I published an essay in The Public Eye magazine titled The Culture Wars Are Still Not Over.

In the wake of pre-election punditry that the Religious Right is dead and that the so called Culture Wars are over, I wrote a piece for The Public Eye: "The Culture Wars Are Not Over: The Institutionalization of the Christian Right." The year was 2001, what many now consider to have been the high watermark of the power and influence of the Religious Right in American politics. During the 2008 election season we have heard similar claims by Washington,D.C. insiders and pundits that the Religious Right is dead, dying, or irrelevant or that the culture wars are over or about to be. Such declarations are as wrong now as they were in 2001.

Such declarations are still wrong in 2010.

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