Friday, January 23, 2009

a right way of government

In my mind, one of the main reasons for Obama's success -- first in the Democratic primaries and then in the presidential election -- was his rejection of the political process as winner-take-all competition. I believe both the Clinton and McCain campaigns sought to emulate the Karl-Rove tactics of the two Bush campaigns in framing debate. For an instance of these tactics see this 2005 blog post by the prince of framing, George Lakoff. Their essence is a use of emotional sound-bites to distract voters from serious consideration of issues. Those who employ them see politics as no more than a game of winners and losers in which the smart and unscrupulous will always defeat the reflective, well-meaning player. Just writing that sentence I felt the urge to deploy framing as a rhetorical technique by pitting one set of values against another in a simplistic way and I'm not sure I avoided doing so.

To me, the Obama campaign countered the cynical rhetoric of framing with a strong negative statement: the need to abandon the poisonous political climate of the Bush years, and a strong positive one: a politics of inclusion in which winning is not the primary objective but it is rather the testing of competing and conflicting ideas, listening to hostile as well as friendly voices in order to establish effective policies. Writing that, I think how frequently such debate leads to indecisiveness and indecision, but if the early days of the Obama administration make anything clear, it's that this administration does not suffer from these weaknesses.

Tim Burke writes of these things in an interesting post to his blog Easily Distracted: Mr. Obama’s Neighborhood

In it he takes what I've said a step further. He says the new administration has shown itself up to the task and asks whether we are willing to rise to that level ourselves.

The piece begins with comments on his experience in a digital storytelling workshop he's been attending and he tells how his approach to a storytelling assignment differs from that of other participants. This leads to comments on how differing approaches to such an assignment can be seen as choices of modes of discourse and how these choices -- this framing -- can be seen as a zero-sum game of power.

So he says: "At a storytelling workshop, for example, it may be that to insist on the legitimacy of a much more reticient male voice is to suddenly make more emotional and personal stories feel like an exception rather than expectation, to put everyone on their guard. On the other hand, what if that is honestly the way that someone wants to approach the exercise?"

This leads him to consider first, the difficulty of being honest in self-expression while at the same time being a cooperative participant in a group activity and next, the implications of this small-scale difficulty in politics, leadership, and government.

He says:
The hardest challenge, in many ways, falls in the space in between the titular, symbolic Presidency and its interior deliberative work, in the way that the President and his officers operate within the public sphere, in how they formulate and present and defend policy in front of and in dialogue with the public. This is hard because it requires a very fine distinction between the voices that authentically speak from a habitus or perspective that’s at odds with the worldview of the President and his advisors and much more calculated and cynical bids at “framing” that come from a well-oiled machine that approaches public dialogue as a pure instrument, as a zero-sum exercise which either advances or defeats narrow self-interests.

The distinction between the two is most easily glimpsed if you cultivate a taste for the unlike, force yourself to speak in unfamiliar and uncomfortable tongues, travel across ways of seeing and talking as one might travel across geographies. This commitment is not a safe, happy kind of venture of unity-in-difference, not a boat ride through “It’s a Small World”. Listening to the unlike, speaking the unfamiliar, can be draining, painful, frustrating. And at the end of any journey, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that you like your established ways of talking best, that there’s something wrong with a stranger’s world and voice. But I think the person with the taste for the unlike can hear better the difference between a public voice that comes from somewhere real and a cynical attempt at framing that comes from some rag-and-bone shop think tank. If there’s anyone in public life whose personal journey has given him an ear for unlikeness, it’s Obama, so I have high hopes that he’ll guide his Administration through the narrow divide that will allow him to ignore tired old constructions, to make real the promise that “the ground has shifted beneath” the cynics, while never losing sight of ways of speaking and thinking that are authentically different from his own. . . .

If all you can praise is work which conforms to your own particular tastes, ideologies, and preferences, you’re not trying to inaugurate the institutional or political future which you ardently demand. It isn’t just Obama that has to go beyond the “stale political arguments”. Anybody who demands or values that kind of commitment in others has to try to live it out in their own practices.

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