FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: POVERTY

ALERT - In his obsession with terror and violence, George W. Bush never uses this word: poverty Repeat this word as often as possible in political debate. America is strongest when all Americans stand together, and weakest when we are...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 01/20/2005

ALERT - In his obsession with terror and violence, George W. Bush never uses this word:

poverty

Repeat this word as often as possible in political debate.

America is strongest when all Americans stand together, and weakest when we are forced to stand alone. The poverty of some weakens us all, forcing Americans to face the future with uncertainty and fear. Nonetheless, George. W. Bush believes government should not reach out to those who stand alone, that America is strongest when we wage war against poor countries abroad and force the poor to fend for themselves at home. He believes that immorality and laziness cause poverty, and that religion and hard work will end it.

QUICK CHANGE - To reinforce a positive vision of an America that stands together and believes that government can help end poverty, repeat these phrases:

  • Poverty weakens all Americans
  • Poverty threatens America's future
  • Government must stand up against poverty at home and abroad

Frameshop is open...

Step 1: Stop Using Their Words
Bush does not talk about poverty. Period. Instead, he addresses a variety of issues under the rubric "compassionate conservatism" and it's subheading "faith-based initiatives." Do not use either of those terms. They are among the most sinister and Orwellian of all the language to come out of the million-dollar Bush spin machine. Here is a quick quote to remind us all how Bush sets the frame for these issues:

A More Compassionate America

"[W]e have set out to promote the work of community and faith-based charities. We want to encourage the inspired, to help the helper. Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can welcome them as partners instead of resenting them as rivals. My Administration will put the Federal government squarely on the side of America's armies of compassion. Our plan will not favor religious institutions over non-religious institutions. As President, I'm interested in what is constitutional, and I'm interested in what works. The days of discriminating against religious institutions, simply because they are religious, must come to an end."

- President George W. Bush, February 1, 2001At the core of this short statement is the metaphor of "[religion] is [enemy of poverty]." Bush does not mention "poverty" by name, instead he implies it by using the word "charity" which is the opposite of "needy" in this logic. Within this idea of religion as this great army battling against poverty, Bush introduces a second idea: [government] is [the enemy of religion]. These two metaphors work together to define everything that comes next. The only way to beat poverty, in Bush's logic, is to end the war between government and religion. So, rather than declaring his commitment to ending poverty, Bush stands up and commits the government to "the side" of the "armies of compassion." It is a very, very clever rhetorical trick because it conceals Bush's real agenda: to remove the Government completely from the work of reaching out to the poor and ending poverty.

Government, in Bush's worldview, has no place in ending poverty. In fact, according to Bush's logic the cause of poverty is immorality and laziness. The more government reaches out to the poor, the more dependent the poor will become on government. Hence, in the Bush frame, government attempts to reach out to the poor are part of the problem. Government can only end poverty by removing itself from the work of ending poverty.

Much of this is based on the Republican framing of the government as a bank account that is filled up by the taxes of the rich, and drained by handouts to the poor. This image of social programs as bank accounts extends clear across the entire Republican assault on the government as the collective will of the people. They see it instead as a corporate entity that benefits the highest share holders (e.g., those who pay the most taxes). The poor, in this financial view of government, are dead weight.

But why, then, can religious organizations help? Won't the poor also become dependent on them--and become more poor?

Ah, here is where it gets tricky. We need to remember that at its broadest, Bush policies operate on a logic of morality as absolute economic self-interest: society is healthy when we all look out for ourselves and engage in the business of accumulating wealth. But we can only learn to live this way if our natural tendencies to indulge ourselves in tastes, appetites and the desire to help others. Hence, the real cure for poverty can only come through social engineering the family. In Bush's frame, America will cure poverty if all Americans live in heterosexual families where children are taught by their fathers to fend for themselves.

All this boils down to this formula: we cause our own poverty. Fix ourselves and we fix poverty.

We need to stop using all the language of compassionate conservatism if we want to build a new frame, if only in the short run. We will want to return to the language of self-empowerment once we are in a new frame. Self-empowerment through financial education, birth control, job training, family counseling and so forth--these are all excellent avenues for advancing a Progressive frame.

Step 2: Go to Another Frame
To go to another frame, I tried reading JFK's 1961 Inaugural Speech in which he mentions the four common enemies of all people:

  In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

How different this from Bush's attempt to drive a wedge between the people and government by drawing all attention to a fictional "war" between religion and government, and then throwing his allegiances to religion.

What is inspiring about this speech--which we have all heard a thousand times before--is its fundamental call for unity between the forces of government and ideals of the people. It is that call for common work between the people's government and the people that was Kennedy's great vision.

The call for unity between the people and the government empowered by the people has a specific purpose. We must all work together in order to "bear the burden of a long twilight struggle." That struggle is the very purpose of America and it can be broken down into four smaller, equally important endeavors under the headings "tyranny, poverty, disease and war."

This is what a Progressive vision looks like, and there is absolutely no contradiction between talking in terms of a broad struggle against the enemies of humanity write large, and engaging specific problems on the ground with force and resolve. But unless we set this broad frame, we are left within an set of ideas that is fundamentally counter to our vision of the world--we are left choosing sides in Bush's war between government and religion in which he favors religion (or claims to).

Step 3: Build a New Frame
Kennedy reminds us that the new progressive frame for talking about "poverty" is in fact an old progressive frame that we have simply stopped invoking. Moreover, it is not just a frame about poverty. When we talk about poverty, we are always talking about unity and the four enemies. I believe that the word "tyranny" is old-fashioned. But in her latest testimony, soon-to-be Secretary of State Rice used the phrase "outposts of tyranny," and so the word is out there again, and we should not let it be used by the Republicans.

The metaphor at the heart of the the frame is, as always [nation] is [people standing together]. That's the basic idea of unity that allows us to say that "Americans are strongest when we stand together." Added to this are the idea of [poverty/tyranny/disease/war] is [enemy]. Within the logic of the first metaphor, an enemy is someone who forces people to stand alone:

America is strongest when all Americans stand together, and weakest when we are forced to stand alone. American's should never be forced to stand alone to confront Tyranny, Poverty, Disease or War because when one American is alone it weakens us all.

That is the logic, albeit an unwieldy message. Again: the word "tyranny" was launched in Rice's statements to congress yesterday and the day before. It was mentioned on Countdown and it appeared all over the foreign press. Now is the time to take this on.

We will be uncomfortable at first returning to the style of rhetoric that Kennedy used, but we must be willing to speak about "the four enemies" with confidence if we want to set a frame large enough and powerful enough to control the debate on poverty.

Step 4: Break it Down
As always, finding the best words to create messages that reinforce our frame is the big challenge. To reinforce a positive vision of an America that stands together and believes that government can help end poverty, we might repeat these phrases:

  • Poverty weakens all Americans
  • Poverty threatens America's future
  • Government must stand up against poverty at home and abroad
  • Americans must work together to end Tyranny, Poverty, Disease and War

A word of caution: In my first draft of these statements, I used the phrase "reaching" out to invoke an image of government as a person extending a hand to help the poor. This was very problematic, as pointed out to me by a reader, because the "helping hand" image will always invoke the Republican "hand out to the unsuccessful" frame. So we need to be careful not to talk about "hands" and "reaching out" when talking about poverty. Instead, stick to images of "standing together" as a group.

And this is really the key point! Poverty is not about the poor, although they surely feel it in a particular way. Poverty is about all of is, and in particular, it is a huge threat to sustaining our middle class. In this respect, poverty is often the product of corporate greed putting pressure on the middle class.

Hence, the idea that ending poverty is solely about the have-nots is utterly false and part of the Republican frame which would have us believe that there is no connection whatsoever between the poor and the wealthy--either at home or abroad. With that ideology, the Republicans can push for government policies which encourage corporations to go abroad and farm profit by moving production to parts of the globe with lax labor laws.

But...even as I write those few phrases, I don't feel that they have "hit the money" just yet. The right language to invoke a Progressive message on poverty that will work in 2005 will take some time.

Step 5: Repeat our Words
As always, we must remember to repeat. At this stage, in the fanfare surrounding the inauguration, it is important to get our words out there even if they are not perfect. They will get better and we will take back the debate!

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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