Sunday, November 13, 2005

Framing Iraq

Bora links approvingly to the Frameshop's framing of Iraq:
In the 'Choose A or B' frame, the choices we must make about ending the war in Iraq do not begin with issues like 'lies' or 'truth' or 'honesty' or 'morality.'
With which I agree. The truth issue is a different point.

Jeffrey Feldman continues:
Rather, the choices on Iraq all boil down to one simple question:

Is the United States better or worse with American troops in Iraq?
No. This is where I disagree, and disagree vehemently. This accepts a key part of the Republican frame, that by being in Iraq we are advancing (or could be advancing) American interests.

I put it differently a few weeks ago, and I stand by this statement:

I do think that at some point, we will withdraw. This seems obvious to me, but a lot of people treat that idea as surrender talk. Unless we plan to leave 150,000 troops in Iraq forever, we will eventually withdraw. This is simple truth.
When you accept that premise, the question ceases to be: "Should we withdraw?", and becomes "How shall we withdraw?"

Last night I went (press credentials in hand!) to see George Lakoff speak with the Heartland Democrats of America. I'll write up the event in more detail later, right now I just want to talk about frames.

Those of you who've lived under a rock for the last couple years don't know that George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and the founder of the Rockridge Institute. His thesis is that people respond to issues using an array of previously established mental "frames," and not necessarily in the perfect Enlightenment tradition of analyzing facts and selecting the empirically best policy. Public politics then is a game of presenting those over-arching frames and getting people to see your ideas as consistent with their pre-existing mental frames.

Last night, he said that "lie" is a difficult thing to argue, because people respond to a claim about a lie in a challenging way. The conceptual components of a lie (in order of importance) are:
  1. Saying something the speaker doesn't believe
  2. Intent to deceive
  3. intent to harm something
  4. saying something that isn't true.
While you'd think that the last is most important, it's actually the least. Since we can grant that Bush believed, despite the empirical evidence, that Saddam had an active nuclear program, it's hard to make a public case for lying.

One can make a case on trust, and that's what the claims about lying in the run-up to war are about. "Can you trust Bush to make these choices in the future if he believed these false things before?" is what voters should be thinking.

At this point, we're in Iraq. Whether we should have gone or not, we're there now. If we frame withdrawal in terms of "What can Iraq do for us?" there's no impetus to bring our boys and girls home.

Lakoff argues that there are two overarching frames about government: the strong father and the nurturant parent. A strong father is John Wayne, Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies, God expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden, Reagan telling Gorbachev "Tear down this wall." A nurturant parent is Jesus saying "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven," it's the Madonna, it's Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and making peace between squabbling peoples.

Almost no one sees the military with a nurturant parent frame, which explains the aversion to peacekeeping and other "soft force." One good thing about a strong father is that a strong father raises strong children who can take care of themselves and be strong fathers independently.

If we frame Iraq in Feldman's terms, we treat Iraq as the child to our strong father, and we need to stay to provide discipline to Iraq's unruly children.

My approach (written with broad knowledge of Lakoff's ideas but without actually reading anything he wrote) treats Iraq as a child that has grown up and is ready to be independent. It's adult enough to discipline its own children.

I'll grant that this is all very fuzzy and I feel a bit foolish reducing Iraq to something you'd encounter in family counseling, but I was curious how Lakoff's analysis would play out, and I wanted to set the stage for a piece on Heartland Democrats of America and how Lakoff's ideas play into their work.

For more on Lakoff, check out
Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
. It costs ten bucks, it's short, it's readable, and you'll learn a lot whether you're a Democrat or a Republican.

"My Father's House" by Bruce Springsteen from the album
(1982, 5:07).