Tag Archives: George Lakoff

Happy Halloween!

Illegal Alien Halloween Costume

The costume might seem funny to some, but what they don't realize is that in the current social climate that we live in, the costume is just plain dehumanizing.

…or is it?  It was the question that many Latinos were wondering as they caught word of the offensive “illegal alien” Halloween costume that was being sold by many retailers across the U.S.  A successful campaign by immigrant rights activists was waged to sound the alarm on this, which led to national media coverage.  Subsequently, retailers like Target, Walgreens, eBay, and Amazon.com removed the costume from their inventories.  It was another example of the growing political clout that Latinos are beginning to exercise on a variety of issues, as I have previously argued here.  I woud like to echo the sentiments that were expressed so well by César J. Baldelomar over at the Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform blog: the language that we use can define our social realities in deeper ways that we might at first realize. 

On second thought, I would actually like to take it a step farther and call on something that I see being ignored by the corporate media and (sadly) by even many immigrant rights activists: that the ONLY permanent solution to our ‘illegal immigration’ woes is to combat the oppressing poverty that creates ‘illegal immigrants.’  No amount of border walls, deportations, or discrimination will ever stop ‘illegal’ immigration because those things never address the true source of the problem: the poverty that forces many to flee their homelands.  Professor of Linguistics George Lakoff said it best on The Framing of Immigration piece when he bascially analyzed how we do not have an ‘illegal immigration problem’ or an ‘illegal employer problem’ (to lable it as such would undermine the scope of what we’re actually dealing with here), but rather a full-blown HUMANITARIAN crisis:

Perhaps the problem might be better understood as a humanitarian crisis. Can the mass migration and displacement of people from their homelands at a rate of 800,000 people a year be understood as anything else? Unknown numbers of people have died trekking through the extreme conditions of the Arizona and New Mexico desert. Towns are being depopulated and ways of life lost in rural Mexico. Fathers feel forced to leave their families in their best attempt to provide for their kids. Everyday, boatloads of people arrive on our shores after miserable journeys at sea in deplorable conditions.

As a humanitarian crisis, the solution could involve The UN or the Organization of American States. But these bodies do not have roles in the immigration frame, so they have no place in an “immigration debate.” Framing this as just an “immigration problem” prevents us from penetrating deeper into the issue.

Language is a powerful thing because we shape our language based on our reality and our reality is shaped by language. It’s a circular thing and we can break the cycle of ignorance by introducing new powerful terminology that can shape our realities in a positive way.  As I used to say it before on my old Myspace page:

 …people talk about “illegal aliens,” which dehumanizes the issue and implies that immigrants that enter the country with no documents are criminal, other-worldly beings. Yet no one talks about the fact that they are simply Economic Refugees (refugiados por causa de la economia); human beings that have ventured to seek out a better life for themselves…

…To reduce the discussion to a soundbite of “those that break our immigration laws must be punished and must not be rewarded for the criminal behavior” frankly leads to nothing productive. If you want to talk about doing illegal and/or wrong things then maybe you should talk about how the United States has oftentimes contributed to the economic woes of many countries. If you want to talk about taking responsibility for your own actions, then maybe the United States should take responsibility for what it has done with the International Monetary Fund’s INTERVENTIONS(click here for details) in third world countries. If you want to talk about wrong doing maybe you ought to be talking about American maquiladora factories and their low wages/cheap labor practices. Maybe you ought to look into how some American business interests have gone into many countries, sucked them up dry, and bailed out; adding to their economic woes.

Sadly, I’m afraid that we’re missing the boat on this one.  Immigration reform would be a good first step towards improving our current social situation.  However, if the quest for immigration reform does not at the very least contain a serious conversation regarding the role that oppressing poverty has in all of this, then I am afraid that it will just be another band-aid ‘fix’.  Maybe it’s time now (as a first step) to call on our government to ditch the ‘illegal alien’ term and instead adopt ‘economic refugee.’  You can start by contacting the Deparment of Homeland Security at:

Secretary Janet Napolitano
Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528

Comment Line: 202-282-8495


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Filed under Economic Refugees, Immigration

Ed Schultz: Progressive Populism vs. Conservative Populism

The Ed Schultz phenomenon: blue-collar and other working class Americans have found their voice in Ed Schultz.

As we celebrate Labor Day, populism is in the air as we honor the dignity of hard-working Americans.  I’ve been following progressive radio talk show personality and now MSNBC TV host, Ed Schultz for quite some time.  I’ve previously written here and here about him because he embodies what progressive populism looks like: pro-union, pro-worker, pro-rural, pro-football, pro-fishing progressive America … heck he’s even an advocate for catch-and-release fishing!  He’s the antidote to the conservative populism that has sadly come to be embodied by the likes of Sarah Palin‘s crafty political maneuvering and Lou Dobbs’ hate speech against Latinos and President Obama.  I say “sadly” because conservatives by using the tactics of fear mongering and racism have corrupted populism in its traditional sense to successfully create an inverse version of it.  George Lakoff (who I just blogged about a few days ago as it related to the current healthcare debate) explained it beautifully in his May 2009 piece Empathy, Sotomayor, and Democracy: The Conservative Stealth Strategy:

In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the “liberal elite” as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists. The overt form of the old conservative argument is made regularly these days: liberalism is identity politics.

Ed Schultz understands how populism works, and he hits it out of the park plenty of times with his strong no-B.S. stance against conservatives’ lies.  However, I’ve seen Ed Schultz slip a number of times by falling into the same negating-reinforcement trap that progressives tend to fall into: strictly sticking to being on the defensive rather than turning the conservative attack inside out and into an offensive play.  Big Eddie, as his fans call him, would be far more effective if he were to read George Lakoff’s illuminating work on conservative populism.  Lakoff  explained it briefly during the 2008 presidential campaign cycle on his Don’t Think of a Maverick! Could the Obama Campaign Be Improved?:

Conservative populism on a national scale was invented in the late 1960’s. At the time, most working people identified themselves with liberals. But conservatives realized that many working people were what I have called “biconceptuals” – they are genuinely conservative in their mode of thought about patriotism and certain family issues, though they are progressive in their understanding of nature (they love the land) and their commitment to communities where people care about each other, etc. So conservatives have talked to them nonstop about conservative “patriotism” and “family values”, thus activating their conservative mindset.

At the same time, conservative theorists invented the ideal of “liberal elitism”: that liberals look down upon working people and are not like them. Conservatives have been working at constructing this mythology for nearly forty years and liberals have stood by and let it happen. Palin is a natural for the conservative populists. She understands their culture.

Conservative populism is a cultural, not an economic, phenomenon. These are folks who often vote against their economic self-interest and instead vote on their identity as conservatives and on their antipathy to liberals, who they see as elitists who look down on them. Simply giving conservative populists facts and figures won’t work.

They tend to vote for people they identify with and against people who they see as looking down on them. The job for the Obama campaign is to reverse the present mindset that the Republicans have constructed, to reveal the conservatives as elitist Washington insiders who cynically manipulate them, to get conservative populists to identify with Obama and Biden on the basis of values and character, and to have them see realities through Obama’s leadership capacities. Not an easy job. But it’s the real job.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ed Schultz actually starts using George Lakoff’s lines down the road, though.  Big Eddie is a football sportsman and a political animal, and he knows that in the end, winning is what matters.  I just hope Ed uses them soon because he IS progressive populism incarnate and knows how to relate that in a language that his audience can easily understand, which is more than what I can say about other progressive media personalities (yes, Thom Hartmann, I’m looking at you! … OK I’ll give this to you Thom: you have actually improved ever since you left Air America and I respect you because you are the Godfather of Air America because of your business plan that served as its blueprint, and you have the balls to talk about progressive issues that sometimes not even Ed Schultz dares to talk about … but for Godssakes Thom could you please NOT start with the intellectualist dull debates at the beginning of your segments?! Leave that for the middle or the end please … I appreciate the historical contexts, I truly do, and I think you’re a smart progressive radio host; but some of us want to know first and foremost about what is happening right-now in-the-present-world!).

Now, if only MSNBC switched conservative-leaning Chris Matthews’ time slot with Ed Schultz, things will be perfect … so we’ll see if MSNBC gets its act together on that front.  But as far as Project Economic Refugee is concerned, the best way to boycott conservative “populist” hosts is to turn them off and instead tune into progressive populist hosts.  Case in point is Ed Schultz: instead of watching hate-monger Lou Dobbs, watch Ed Schultz from now on.  I promise you, you’ll be a better American for it.

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Filed under Framing, Political, Progressive Media Personalities, Progressive Movement

The American Plan


The recent hoopla on healthcare has shed light on an issue that has been painfully obvious to many progressives: even with a President that is a great communicator of progressive values, in terms of ongoing long-term communications, conservatives continue to dominate the public narrative.  So much so, that progressive framing guru George Lakoff has come out in full force to suggest an alternate to the boring “public option” branding: the “American Plan“.  Yes, of course any healthcare reform MUST at least include a strong public option (otherwise it will be a giant giveaway to the insurance companies’ already bloated greed).  However, in terms of branding, the name “public option” simply does not do justice to what the public option is trying to accomplish: reform the system so that the American people’s health is placed above CEO’s bonuses, rather than the other way around.  In larger terms of the picture in communications matters, 2009 is undeniably a different world when it comes to progressive media infrastructre compared to how it was back in 2000, when in that year we saw the conservative machine in full attack mode to make sure that Gore did not become the next President of the United States

I refer back to 2000 to illustrate and recognize just how far we’ve come in terms of building a progressive infrastructure but at the same time to highlight just how far we still have yet to go.  Like many others, that was the year when my political awakening began, amid a national media landscape that was incredibly hostile to progressive ideas.  Prior to George W., I was just a small town Latino teen that was absolutely apolitical, overwhelmed with my own families’ struggles, and could care less about what went on with politicians in DC.  However, the downward spiral into the depths of right-wing authoritarianism that the country took under George W.’s presidency became too alarming to ignore.  I started to take notice, from the blatant betrayals of the American public’s trust with the invasion and occupation of Iraq to the excesses of the scary right-wing/conservative religious rights’ alliance with the Republican Party. On that front, much has changed too: with some progressive religious figures like Reverend Jim Wallis, Michael Lerner, and progressive activist faith groups and projects like Faithful America, The Network of Spiritual Progressives, Interfaith Alliance, Catholics United, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good gaining some much-needed traction on the national stage to fight the authoritarianism of the religious right.  Nevertheless, the presence of progressive religious figures in the national media continues to be a struggle, as I have argued before (click here to read my previous post on the matter). 

In retrospect, it is no surprise I can track the moment when I became aware for the first time of the massive conservative propaganda machine: when I caught word through a progressive medium-a new movie, “Outfoxed“, which detailed just how much the Fox News channel serves as the bullhorn for the Republican Party’s propaganda.  I was so starved to connect to other progressives, that when the credits rolled at the end of the film, I frantically started to write down the names of the organizations that had contributed to make the film just so I could search for them online.  One of the major progressive hubs of information sharing and activism that I found was AlterNet.org, which would occasionally post information on progressive groups doing grassroots activities on the local scene. 

It was through one of such local grassroots events that I had another brush with another progressive medium that brought about for me a pivotal moment in the formation of who I am now as an activist.  It was when I saw Marcos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos, speak at a bar in Santa Monica, CA during an event that was being sponsored by the Public Campaign.  He was promoting a book that he had co-authored, Crashing the Gate, and so I bought his book right there and then and asked him to autograph my copy.  I started reading it and quickly became amazed at how incredibly well-organized and powerful the conservative infrastructure really was to the point where they completely dominated the national discourse with their far-right messaging.  Crashing the Gate laid it all bare, pin-pointing how the conservative machine had come to be and how the inept angry left of the U.S., broken up into its silo single-issue self-righteous factions, had allowed it to happen.  After finishing the book, I immediately made the resolution to answer the call to action to help build an organized progressive infrastructure that could fight the conservative machine.  I did not exactly know how or where to start, so I kept on reading more progressive works like The Left Hand of God and Don’t Think of an Elephant, while at the same time continuing to attend progressive-minded events such as Drinking Liberally, and started listening to progressive radio personalities after they started to be syndicated nationally.  In short, whatever progressive communication outlets that had been launched back then were extremely useful to inform and motivate new progressive activists like myself and countless others. 

Today, there is now a “progressive infrastructure” that continues to grow that simply did not even exist back in 2000.  Nevertheless, currently a progressive nation-wide communications system is virtually nonexistent.  Famous professor of linguistics, George Lakoff, in his newly published piece The Policy Speak Disaster for Health Care, discusses this very same issue in terms of how it relates to the current healthcare debate.  He has, in fact, warned about this before, specifically on his “The Obama Code” piece:

The president is the best political communicator of our age. He has the bully pulpit. He gets media attention from the press. His website is running a permanent campaign, Organizing for Obama, run by his campaign manager David Plouffe. It seeks issue-by-issue support from his huge mailing list. There are plenty of progressive blogs. MoveOn.org now has over five million members.  And yet that is nowhere near enough.

The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year. The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning. Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who still being booked on tv and radio around the country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever.  There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by Right’s enormous megaphone.  Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President’s stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.

Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary. Democrats need to build it. Democratic think tanks are strong on policy and programs, but weak on values and vision.  Without the moral arguments based on the Obama values and vision, the policymakers most likely be unable to regularly address both independent voters and the Limbaugh-FoxNews audiences in conservative Republican strongholds.

The president and his administration cannot build such a communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress. The DNC does not have the resources. It will be up to supporters of the Obama values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in place.  Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such organizing effort is now going on. If none is put together, the movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling with impunity.  That will make the president’s vision that much harder to carry out.

In light of what the right-wing has been able to accomplish in their battle against healthcare reform, is it any wonder that many progressives are left wondering “where is the progressive messaging machine?”  Well, it is MIA because it simply does NOT exist.  Yes, progressive have the blogosphere and some rising stars on MSNBC, but let us not confuse that with an actual progressive MESSAGING machine.  The blogosphere and other media outlets are just that, outlets with a lot of useful information.  They ARE important and essential outlets, but they nevertheless are missing a piece: the messaging and framing element that works on a nation-wide marketing level.

So who would it be up to to build such a progressive communications system?  Al Gore considered creating a liberal cable channel, and instead settled for creating the youthful socially conscious “Current TV“.  Nevertheless, even a progressive channel would still need the right messaging.  In absence of a nation-wide progressive channel, Professor Lakoff suggests the following communications strategy concerning the healthcare debate: 

A progressive communication system should be started. It should go into every Congressional district. It should concentrate on general progressive ideas. President Obama has articulated what these are.

• The basic values are empathy (we care about people), responsibility for ourselves and others, and the ethic of excellence (making ourselves better and the world better).

• These values form the basis of democracy: It’s because we care about our fellow citizens that we have values like freedom and fairness, for everyone, not just the powerful.

• From that, it follows that government has two moral missions: protection (of consumers, workers, the environment, the old, the sick, the powerless; and empowerment through public works; communication, energy, and water systems; education; banks that work; a court system: and so on. Without them, no one makes it in America. Taxes are what you pay for protection and empowerment by the government, and the more you make the greater your responsibility to maintain the system.

Appropriate language can be found to express these values. They lie at the heart of all progressive policies. If they are out there every day, it becomes easier to discuss any issue. This is what it means to prepare the ground for specific framings.

Once progressives hammer out the right messaging approach, the need for a nation-wide progressive TV channel that can broadcast it everywhere will become even more evident.  MSNBC has taken some good steps, but it has not capitalized on its recent ratings success with its progressive hosts (Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Ed Schultz).  In fact, a recent poll reveals something that has now become almost painfully clear: MSNBC has established a marketable niche that it is simply not servicing at it should be.  MSNBC would do itself a favor by embracing its progressive niche and switch to an all-progressive format, before someone else beats them to it.  After all, our country is quickly changing with the new so-called millenial generation that tends to be overwhelmingly progressive taking over.  MSNBC from its inception positioned itself to be a bit more youthful and edgier than CNN.  In the spirit of its original business model, should MSNBC position itself to serve the up-and-coming progressive-minded millenial generation, it would reap financial rewards that would most likely eclipse its competitors’.

When will MSNBC start realizing that they have created a niche with the progressive community that it should capitalize on?  The above video is a sample of the kind of progressive talent MSNBC could benefit from.  Progressive media personalities like Stephanie Miller or even Randi Rhodes (on the radio) have proven to be hugely successful, even beating their conservative competitors day after day in the ratings.  So what are the powers-that-be waiting on?

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Filed under Framing, Marketing, Progressive Media Personalities, Progressive Movement, Religion, Spirituality

What is your political orientation? Take the quiz!

Have you ever wondered whether you’re a Republican or Democrat? Libertarian or Liberal? Left-wing or Right-wing?  Conservative or Progressive? New media is so interactive nowadays, that you can find out instantly by answering a few questions so you no longer agonize about it your whole life (LOL). 

This quiz tells you how progressive or conservative you are (percentage wise and compared to the rest of the U.S. population); while this other one breaks it down for you in more detail across various categories.   

Still, oftentimes there is quite a lot of confusion/lack of knowledge about what “progressive” means, what “left” means, or what “liberal” means, without realizing that those labels carry connotations that are sometimes identical and mean the same and other times they differ from one another within a historical context, how all of that compares in contrast to “right-wing”, “conservative”, or “re-gressive”, and how those labels sometimes span across party lines.  Let us not forget that one of our most “progressive” presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, was actually a Republican (although that was back in the day when “Liberal Republicans” actually existed and were looked upon positively).  Here’s a good link on wikipedia that defines “progressivism” pretty succintly.

Here are a few videos on the topic:

Finally, check out this speech that Bill Moyers gave at the 2003 “Take Back America” Conference, which provided an excellent background on the progresive movement in the U.S. (The “Take Back America” Conference has now morphed into the “America’s Future Now!” Conference).

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Filed under Framing, Political, Progressive Movement

When negatives assert and reinforce

George Lakoff's work is the alternative to conservative messaging manipulator Frank Luntz.

George Lakoff's work is the alternative to conservative messaging manipulator Frank Luntz.

Let’s say that thinking of elephants is something that I want everyone to stop doing because for some reason elephants are bad for you.  So I go ahead and say “everyone: don’t think of an elephant!”; and so everyone cannot help but think of an elephant because I used the word “elephant.”  Ironic, isn’t? 

I must confess that ever since I discovered the book “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, I have been fascinated by the dynamics of how linguistic frames work and of the subversive power of negation.  The author of that book, linguists professor, George Lakoff, explains very clearly how the dynamic works.  He provides several examples, the most powerful of all being the one about how when President Nixon said “I am not a crook”,  Nixon himself sealed his fate because all that everyone remembers him by is how he was a “crook”.  In essence, he shot himself in the foot by using a negative that just reinforced what everybody was already thinking about him: that he was a crook. 

Last week in class we touched a little on the way negation in PR campaings work.  One example was how sometimes anti-smoking ads that are produced with the tobacco industry’s money are so ridiculoulsy over-the-top that one can’t help but feel a desire (specially if one is underage or just relatively young) to just rebel against the ad and pick up a ciragette to “stick it to the man.”  It’s a pretty clever ploy that the tobacco industry’s got going on. 

I’m also reminded of just how sometimes ineffective anti-drug ads are because they are so over-the-top and so ridiculous that they achieve the opposite effect of what they set out to do.  For example, the video below shows a dog talking.  Now, after watching this video, am I supposed to understand the message that there are better things to do than smoke pot or am I getting the message that I should start smoking pot because it’ll make my dog talk … and well, how cool would that be?! 

I cannot help but remember back to a Psychology textbook (sixth edition) that I read a few years back by Carole Wade & Carol Travis.  In a section titled “When Punishment Fails” about how Operant Conditioning (for the definition of what it is go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning) works in real life, the book lists these two (out of six) principles (page 249):

“*Punishment conveys little information: If it immediately follows the misbehavior, punishment may tell the recipient what not to do.  But it does not communicate what the person (or animal) should do…[extrapolating this concept onto the field of advertisement, one immediately can see that in order for a message to be effective, it has to tell the recipient what action he or she should take instead of just what not to do]. 

*An action intended to punish may instead be reinforcing because it brings attention.  Indeed, in some cases, angry attention may be just what the offender is after… [extrapolating this concept onto messaging, it highlights the importance of avoiding the use of negation and instead offer an affirmative message; Nixon could have said I’m a man of integrity, instead of his infamous I’m not a crook. In messaging, by bringing attention to the very same thing we are trying to stop or get away from, we actually reinforce it by putting a verbal magnifying glass on it]”


Filed under Framing, Marketing, Media Literacy