This weekend, the New York Times online ran the first chapter of my book Framing the Debate, and a full-page review in the print version of the coveted Sunday books supplement--the holy grail of the publishing world. "My book in...
This weekend, the New York Times online ran the first chapter of my book Framing the Debate, and a full-page review in the print version of the coveted Sunday books supplement--the holy grail of the publishing world.
"My book in the NYT!" I told my family, jumping up and down with joy.
But the thrill was fleeting. Rising at dawn Easter morning to buy the paper, I quickly realized that the NYT "review" of my book was little more than a pretentious stunt by a gotcha journalist. One thousand words later, I stood accused of radiating "cynicism" and "undemocratic" vision, of treating the public like "Pavlovian" dogs, and of infecting the world with "insidious" immorality on par with the murderers of Julius Caesar.
Et tu, Feldman?
What had I done to deserve this literary lashing--to be whipped, speared and left for dead? I wrote a book that encourages people to engage, not accept, the words we hear in political debate, to read the speeches of past American presidents, and to learn the tools for generating new ideas in the public square.
That's the book I wrote. But this is what it became in the hands of the reviewer, Eve Fairbanks:
"Writing a blog is different from writing a book, and Feldman is best on the kind of smaller-bore observations that might fare well online..."
"Feldman makes bizarrely grandiose claims..."
"Feldman’s theory also promotes unjust misinterpretations..."
In less than 24 hours since these sentences graced the pages of the New York Times, I have received dozens and dozens of emails from friends--even strangers--all of which ask the same basic question in one form or another: Did the reviewer read the same book as them?
And for most, this passage is the point that makes them wonder:
Feldman’s Americans are not the kind who stand for hours at a Lincoln-Douglas debate, who ever ask their politicians to substantively persuade them of the rightness of ideas or weigh arguments in the voting booth. They — we — are more Pavlovian. Our brains are like vast blinking switchboards; the successful politician is the one who presses just the right buttons (“equality,” “enemy”) to light up the sequence of neurons that makes our hands shoot out and pull the lever marked “D.”
Indeed, when I read that passage I wondered if the reviewer had given up on reading my book just after glancing through the table of contents. It seems that, instead of writing about my book, Fairbanks popped in a DVD of "The Matrix," or maybe "A Clockwork Orange," and then churned out a piece of creative non-fiction reacting to those other works of sci-fi.
Flipping to the first chapter of my book as listed on the New York Times site itself, we see that I have no such dark vision of "blinking" lights and manipulated brains--no such undemocratic cynicism projected onto "Feldman's Americans."
In fact, my book warns against the exact type of reactionary viewpoint espoused in the Fairbanks review:
despite its historic footing, many people often react to the idea of framing political debate with suspicion, concerned that framers engage in little more than the cynical packaging of ideas for political gain. "It's the substance that matters, not the wrapper," they say. In fact, framing the debate is never just about the wrapper. To make rotten politics smell better by wrapping them in clean paper is the goal of "spin," or deception, not of framing. Indeed, we should be opposed to the increasing number of "spin doctors" who use their skill at mass manipulation to pollute American politics. Unfortunately, as long as there are scandals in politics, there will be spin doctors to make the smell seem less offensive. While both framing and spin involve the packaging of ideas, "framing the debate" is as different from spin as coffee is to whiskey. (Framing the Debate, p. 1)
Unfortunately, for the reviewer of my book, the challenge of getting through page one must have been too great.
Even more helpful, perhaps, would it have been if the reviewer managed to get to page fifteen, which--to the deep disappointment of Professor Pavlov--includes a section titled "How To use This Book":
To be successful...framers must do more than lift a set of phrases from a book and paste it into a political campaign: they must craft the best message to suit their framing needs based on the reality on the ground. As such, the suggestions in the chapters ahead are meant as openers--starting points for framing specific debates...Framing the Debate, in this respect, is as much a reference book and tool kit as it is a linear introduction to presidential speeches and framing. (Framing the Debate, p. 15)
Strangely absent from the NYT review: every single section of my book where I explicitly talk about the key role of participation in progressive framing.
These sections were not hard to find. The following passage, for example, is from the last chapter of my book ("The Three P's of Progressive Politics") in a section titled "Participation--"Bottom Up" vs. "Top Down." After explaining the "top down" approach of Republican framing, which seeks to develop ideas behind closed doors and then impose them on the public, I describe what I see as the defining feature of progressive framing:
Progressive framing takes a vastly different "bottom up" approach, which encourages participation,not blind obedience. Progressive attempts at framing begin with the discussion of a particular issue, which generates comments or short essays which then circulate through a vast social network of email lists, websites, and organizations that make up the progressive grassroots infrastructure." (Framing the Debate, p. 177)
Now, I ask you: Is this a cynical and undemocratic vision?
Amazingly, the central role widespread public participation--which has driven my work on framing from the start and which is the central idea of the book itself--somehow eluded the reviewer altogether.
In fact, the tendency of Eve Fairbanks to read my book as if it were a manual for brainwashing instead of a toolkit for political engagement is less a comment on the text I wrote than a snapshot of the condition that traps a particular class of writers in American political journalism, today.
Despite feigning concern for the public, Fairbanks' review reveals her complete obliviousness to the vast networks of critically aware and politically engaged citizens who now see themselves as personally responsible for framing the debate in America.
The impatience of the public for writers such as Fairbanks--writers who claim concern for the very public they ignore--is precisely why the daily work of framing the debate has become, in just a few short years, a core part of the new progressive movement in America.
In 2004, if one were to ask 100 progressive activists, organizers or elected official in America what "framing" meant, most would have stumbled on the question.
Ask that same question, today, and 99 out of 100 can articulate some version of this answer: "It means 'words matter' in political ideas and we all have a responsibility to engage and shape them."
It will come as no shock to most Americans that a writer from an elitist political magazine would describe this widespread form of progressive political engagement as "bizarre."
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The press, of course, is free to print what they like. Even though the review has been described by outraged friends as a "hatchet job," I feel incredibly lucky to have been reviewed by The New York Times. Heck--even after reading the review, I told my whole family to go out and buy a copy.
Likewise, it is out of respect that I bring this review to the attention of this community. I would be offended if there were no DailyKos readers brave enough to critique my book--either in their diaries or on their own blogs. This is a well-rounded community and we speak our minds freely.
But up to this point, the New York Times review stands alone. Because of the prominence of that paper, the Fairbanks review will be the big media official reading of my book until there are other reactions and responses out there.
What we can do in response, therefore, is balance the equation.
Buy Progressive Books
After reading the NYT review, you will see that one of its goals is to shoot it dead before it hits the ground. As a first time author working with a small, progressive press, I can appreciate the power a NYT review has to completely destroy book sales and gut the bottom line of progressive publishing.
It may seem brazen to state the case so clearly, but: If you disagree with the NYT review, buy my book and tell 5 friends to do the same.
And while you're at it, buy a few other progressive titles to help keep the flow of progressive ideas rising in the marketplace of ideas.
Write a Letter to the NYT
There is no better way to speak back to a review that labels all of us "undemocratic"--by way of my book--than to send a letter to the New York Times Book Review.
To do that, send letters to:
firstname.lastname@example.org Be sure to include your: - Name - Address - Phone number
Also, be aware that the book review prints a week in advance, which means that letters received about the review of my book may not make it into print for ten days.
But more than seeing your letter in print, the important point is communicating to the NYT about the value of framing for progressive politics. Of course, it's nice to get a letter in print, too. So remember to write a letter that is respectful, but firm. Wholesale condemnations of the NYT or the mainstream media will not likely catch the attention of the editors.
Check Your Local Bookstores
One thing you can do that is really easy is to go to your local bookstore and check the shelves to see if they have Framing the Debate.
The other day I stopped into a local Borders here in New York City and they had one copy left. So...I pulled the copy out and reshelved it with the cover facing forward.
The message this simple act sends can be profound: This book interests me.
If the store does not have any copies of the book, walk up to the front desk and ask when they will be getting it.
The more people who ask, the more copies bookstores will order.
Request a Copy for your Library
Most universities and public libraries now have online forms for requesting the purchase of new books. Go to your library and ask that they order a copy of Framing the Debate.
As someone who teaches in a university setting, I have had several colleagues send me emails with news that they bought a copy of the book and requested that their university library get a copy as well.
Ask Your Favorite Websites and Magazines to Publish a Review
When a big budget book is published by a celebrity political pundit, it gets reviewed in dozens of papers, magazines and websites thanks to six figure marketing departments.
My book was published by a fantastic, but small press called Ig Publishing.
You can help out by writing your favorite website or magazine and asking them to run a review of the book.
Write A Reader Review on Amazon
People need to hear what we in the progressive community think about the books we read.
So, while you wait for your favorite publication to review the book--head over to Amazon and publish your own review.
Amazon reviewers have a huge impact on the public perception of a book.
Turn Outrage into Organizing: Plan A Local Book Event
Over the next few months, I will be visiting a variety of places to meet people and talk about the book.
Have an idea for a local book event in your area? Volunteer in this comment thread or send the idea to me via Frameshop events info page.
Link and Talk It Up!
Last but not least: talk it up! The best way to not give a bad review the last word on my book is to read the book and talk it up as much as possible.
And be sure to link to the first chapter on the NYT--sending people to the actual words and ideas of the book, not to the distorted review.
Keep Framing the Debate
Last, but not least, the most powerful way to speak back to the review is to embody exactly what progressive framing is about--not blinking lights and Pavlovian response, but active, daily engagement with the language and history of political debate.
My book gives everyone a basic tool kit for starting or continuing this work.
So let's keep at it!
Let's engage the words we hear in the media--not accept them.
Let's break down the keywords we recognize--not repeat them.
Let's generate new ideas presented in our own, more effective messaging--not just complain about what's out there already.
Let's take responsibility for framing the debate everyday--and keep changing the culture of politics through our work.
We've done so much already, but there is still so much important work to be done.
© 2007 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop