The Terms of the Argument

He who defines the terms of the argument wins the argument. Everyone knows that. All you have to say is look, what we’re really talking about here isn’t what you think it is, it’s really this other thing – and Republicans have become masters at this. The Democrats never quite got it, but then they didn’t have Frank Luntz and his focus groups. Luntz always knew how to change the terms of the argument. The Estate Tax, that inheritance tax on exceedingly wealthy families, became the Death Tax. Luntz discovered that as much as the ordinary Joe resents those fat-cats, he resents even more anyone who would take hard-earned money from a grieving family. That worked just fine. Oil drilling is ugly and dirty, but oil exploration is exciting and cool. It’s all how you put it, although Luntz was awarded the 2010 PolitiFact Lie of the Year award for coming up with the phrase “government takeover” to refer to any effort at healthcare reform. So what? That was and still is the Republican talking point, and they do listen to him. In the nineties Luntz helped Newt Gingrich produce that famous GOPAC memo, the one that encouraged Republicans to “speak like Newt” of course. Always refer to Democrats and Democratic policies using the words “corrupt” or “devour” or “greed” or “hypocrisy” or “liberal” or “sick” or “traitors” – pick and choose. It doesn’t matter if it makes no logical sense. Just use those key words, somehow, even randomly, whatever the issue at hand, and the American people will be on your side. The focus groups showed that. The Democrats never knew what hit them.

This put the Democrats at a tactical disadvantage, almost a fatal one, as they continued to argue logically while the Republicans were pushing every available emotional hot-button. This got even worse for the Democrats when the Tea Party emerged, an emotional crowd, as Patrick Smith explores in Time No Longer: Americans after the American Century – as shown in this excerpt:

Much has been written about the Tea Party’s political positions: Its members are radically opposed to taxation and favor a fundamentalist idea of the infallibility of markets and an almost sacramental interpretation of the Constitution. They cannot separate religion from politics, and they consider President Obama either a socialist or a Nazi or (somehow) both. They hold to a notion of the individual that the grizzliest fur trapper west of the Missouri River 170 years ago would have found extreme. When the Tea Party first began to gather national attention, many considered it a caricature of the conservative position that held too distorted an idea of American history to last any consequential amount of time. …

“Take our country back” is among the Tea Party’s more familiar anthems. And among skeptics it is often asked, “Back to what?” I have heard various answers. Back to the 1950s is one, and this is plausible enough, given the trace of the movement’s bloodlines back to the John Birch Society and others among the rabidly anticommunist groups active during the Cold War’s first decade. But the answer I prefer is the eighteenth century – or, rather, an imaginary version of the eighteenth century. A clue to the collective psychology emerged in the movement’s early days, when adherents dressed in tricorn hats, knee breeches, and brass-buckled shoes. This goes to the true meaning of the movement and explains why it appeared when it did. One cannot miss, in the movement’s thinking and rhetoric, a desire for a mythical return, another “beginning again,” a ritual purification, another regeneration for humanity.

It’s all emotional, but you do have to take the Tea Party seriously:

It has shifted the entire national conversation rightward – and to an extent backward, indeed. But more fundamentally than this, the movement reveals the strong grip of myth on many Americans – the grip of myth and the fear of change and history. In this, it seems to me, the Tea Party speaks for something more than itself. It is the culmination of the rise in conservatism we can easily trace to the 1980s. What of this conservatism, then? Ever since Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign slogan in 1984 it has purported to express a new optimism about America. But in the Tea Party we discover the true topic to be the absence of optimism and the conviction that new ideas are impossible. Its object is simply to maintain a belief in belief and optimism about optimism. These are desperate endeavors. They amount to more expressions of America’s terror in the face of history.

Ah, that’s the key word – terror. That’s the word that has defined us for more than a decade, the word that has animated our politics, and our actions – perhaps terror of change and history, but most certainly terror of terrorism. George Bush said, repeatedly, that you’re with us on everything, no questions asked, or you’re with the terrorists, and we will destroy you too. By that logic the Swiss, who remained neutral in World War II, were actually with the Nazis, but never mind – it felt right emotionally. That same word also destroyed Max Cleland – he suggested that the TSA, established under the Patriot Act, be allowed to employ union workers, which somehow made that war-hero senator a terrorist too. What? His career ended right there, because terror is a powerful word. It’s a Frank Luntz kind of word – the kind of word that ends all argument.

There’s not much to be done about this. The Democrats have no Frank Luntz on their side. Maybe they don’t think changing the names of things is playing fair, but that word has been a problem for them for a dozen years now. If what they suggest isn’t socialism, it’s siding with the terrorists, or terrorism itself – case closed.

President Obama seems to have realized the problem here, and seeing that no one was stepping up to the plate on his side, decided to just change the terms of the argument himself. Someone had to do it, so he gave that major speech on drones and Guantanamo – which was only partially about such things. It actually seemed to be the start of an effort to get everyone to see the War on Terror is kind of over. It’s not just that Osama bin Laden is now dead and gone. Massive organized terrorist attacks are now beyond rare. Maybe we’ve secretly headed those off, one by one, or we finally did decimate the originating organization, or, more likely, their tactics have changed. Or maybe they already won – forcing us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on no real threat at all, while turning us into a nation cowering in fear, when we’re not lashing out in anger making things worse, all the while willingly giving up the rights we used to say are the core of who we are. It’s a puzzle, but this is clearly not 2001 anymore. Let that sink in. There’s work to do.

Consider the last two terrorist attacks, as they were called – the Boston Marathon bombings and the beheading of that young British soldier in London. The two brothers who killed three and maimed dozens in Boston were acting alone – not one jihadist organization anywhere in the world claimed they were behind this. Not one Imam anywhere praised them. Muslim clerics in Boston, who knew them, had tossed them out of their mosques. One might simply call them jerks. Actually that’s a strategy to take away their “power” – such as it is. Why buy into their nonsense? Why give them what they want? They wanted to be an existential threat to America. They weren’t. They were just jerks, as were those two young men in London. No one in the Muslim world is defending what they did.

The full details of the speech were discussed here – but not the implications of the shock of Obama taking away the power of that one word, terror. Obama suggested “disciplining our thinking” – as “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

No one wanted to hear that. It took a few days for what had happened to settle in – Obama had simply changed the terms of the argument. It wasn’t fair, and Republicans popped up on all the Sunday morning talk shows to set things right:

President Obama declared the War or Terror must end Thursday in an hour-long foreign policy speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. But while the United States “can claim that it’s at the end,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “this war’s going to continue.”

“I see a big difference between the president saying the war’s at an end and whether or not you’ve won the war,” Coburn said. “And we have still tremendous threats out there that are building, not declining. And to not recognize that, I think, is dangerous in the long run and dangerous for the world.”

We should still be terrified of terrorism, you see, and there was this:

Capitol Hill Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina say Obama is projecting weakness at a time when the United States needs to show resolve against terror networks like al-Qaida. The South Carolina Republican said Sunday that “at a time when we need resolve the most, we’re sounding retreat.”

There was more, like Congressman Peter King’s reaction here to Obama’s speech, where he says he was offended by the tone of the speech. The president should stop moralizing and “apologizing for America” – which didn’t actually come up in the speech at all. Obama defended our still pretty nasty counterterrorism policies as legal and effective, but then he did add that “to say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

That’s what set off Peter King:

Listen, every soldier, every cop who is faced with a decision to make, life or death, does the best he or she can and I think our country has done more than any country in the history of the world to limit civilian casualties so that just offended me, that whole tone of it. …

As far as the policy, I think this policy basically has worked… and perhaps we can fine tune it, we can put more emphasis on clandestine activity of actually gathering intelligence rather than relying so much on drones but for me I don’t think the president really addressed that in the speech. I think he was coming at it from a more from this moral tone which I just think was misplaced. I don’t think it’s called for.

The problem is that Obama raised moral issues. We’ll have none of that, but it’s too late now. That’s what Obama did:

Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places – like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.

There are trade-offs. Only a fool wouldn’t see that:

Indeed, our efforts must also be measured against the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations. In Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of civilians died in a war where the boundaries of battle were blurred. In Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the courage and discipline of our troops, thousands of civilians have been killed. So neither conventional military action, nor waiting for attacks to occur, offers moral safe-harbor. Neither does a sole reliance on law enforcement in territories that have no functioning police or security services – and indeed, have no functioning law.

This is not to say that the risks are not real. Any U.S. military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas. Our laws constrain the power of the President, even during wartime, and I have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. The very precision of drones strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.

Screaming out the word TERROR doesn’t really end any argument anymore. Damn. He took away their most useful word.

Time’s Michael Crowley sums it up:

Who is the enemy? Who can we kill, and where, and how? What to do with suspected terrorists we hold in captivity? And when, if ever, will this war as we know it end? Along the way, Obama issued a strong defense of his reliance on drones to kill suspected terrorists in places where other military means are infeasible or risk more civilian deaths. He announced higher standards for drone strikes, limiting them to situations where the confidence about a target’s location is extremely high and the possibility of civilian casualties is virtually nil. He reiterated his belief that the Guantanamo prison is a stain on America’s honor and image around the world and should be closed, and vowed new action to make that long-delayed goal a reality.

Any random Republican can shout out the word TERROR to end any argument, but now they will find that harder. Peter King might be “offended by the moralizing” – but King has nothing to offer but a single empty word. Who’s the out of touch jerk now? Obama pulled a fast one on Peter King and his friends. Frank Luntz’s phone must be ringing off the hook right about now.

It wasn’t just the politicians who got blindsided here either. Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald – big voices in the online world – had it out over that incident in London. Greenwald called the murder and beheading of the British soldier in London a “horrific act of violence” adding this – “That this was a barbaric and horrendous act goes without saying.” Ah, but then Greenwald also raised two points about the attack:

First, given that the person killed was not a civilian but a soldier of a nation at war (using US standards), it is difficult to devise a definition of “terrorism” that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners.

Second, despite the self-serving bewilderment that is typically expressed whenever western nations are the targets rather than perpetrators of violence – why would anyone possibly be so monstrous and savage as to want to attack us this way? The answer is actually well-known and well-documented. As explained by the CIA (“blowback”), the Pentagon (they “do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies”), former CIA agents (“we could try invading, occupying and droning Muslim countries a little less, and see if that helps. Maybe prop up fewer corrupt and tyrannical Muslim regimes”), and British combat veterans (“it should by now be self-evident that by attacking Muslims overseas, you will occasionally spawn twisted and, as we saw yesterday, even murderous hatred at home”), spending decades bombing, invading, occupying, droning, interfering in, imposing tyranny on, and creating lawless prisons in other countries generates intense anti-American and anti-western rage (for obvious reasons) and ensures that those western nations will be attacked as well. In the London case, the attacker cited precisely such anger at US/UK aggression as his motive (“this British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… the only reason we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily”). Those are just facts.

It wasn’t terrorism – a conclusion which appalled Sullivan, even if Greenwald was not justifying the act in any way at all. Sullivan said this – “The idea that this foul, religious bigotry is some kind of legitimate protest against a fast-ending war is just perverse.” He says Greenwald’s blindness “is very hard to understand, let alone forgive.” And there’s this – “I really have to try to restrain my anger here.”

Greenwald covers all the subsequent back-and-forth – with all sorts of third parties jumping in – but it’s kind of tedious. Greenwald’s larger point about Sullivan isn’t:

He, and so many others, are deeply invested on a psychological and personal level in protecting the narrative that Islam is a uniquely violent force in the world, that Muslim extremists pose a threat that nobody else poses, and that the US, the West and its allies (including Israel) are morally superior and more civilized than their adversaries, and their violence is more noble and elevated.

Labeling the violent acts of those Muslim-Others as “terrorism” – but never our own – is a key weapon used to propagate this worldview. The same is true of the tactic that depicts their violence against us as senseless, primitive, savage and without rational cause, while glorifying our own violence against them as noble, high-minded, benevolent and civilized (we slaughter them with shiny, high-tech drones, cluster bombs, jet fighters and cruise missiles, while they use meat cleavers and razor blades). These are the core propagandistic premises used to sustain the central narrative on which the War on Terror has depended from the start (and, by the way, have been the core premises of imperialism for centuries). That is why those most invested in defending and glorifying this War on Terror become so enraged when those premises are challenged, and it’s why they feel a need to use any smears and distortions (he’s justifying terrorism!) to discredit those who do. …

But as was clear from the furor that erupted after the debate… demonstrated again by Sullivan’s unhinged reaction to what I wrote, is the need to maintain the belief that Islam is a uniquely grave danger in the world – and that western violence against them is superior to their violence against the west – is one that is incredibly deep-seated and visceral.

There’s a reason for that, one that Frank Luntz would understand:

First, it’s a by-product of base tribalism. Americans and westerners have been relentlessly bombarded with the message that We are the Noble and Innocent Victims and those Muslims are the Evil, Primitive, Savage Aggressors, so that’s what many people are trained to believe, and view any challenge to that as an assault on their core tribalistic convictions. The defining tribalistic belief that Our Side is Superior (and our violence thus inherently more noble than theirs) has been stoked by political leaders since politics began to sustain support for their aggression and entrench their own power. It’s a potent drive – something humans instinctively want to believe – and is therefore one that is easily manipulated by skillful propagandists.

Second, all sorts of agendas are advanced by maintaining these premises in place. … The functional meaninglessness of the term “terrorism” and its highly manipulative exploitation are vital to several political agendas. That fact renders the guardians of those agendas furious when the conventional and highly emotional understanding of the term is questioned, and especially when it’s suggested that anti-western violence isn’t best understood as the by-product of unique pathologies in Islam but rather in the context of decades of western aggression toward that region.

That one word is nothing but trouble. It’s been used to stop thought, and as both a defensive and offensive weapon too – and here’s Obama ruining it for everyone. Cool. He who defines the terms of the argument wins the argument.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Obama's Counterterrorism Speech, Political Tribalism, Republican Framing Devices, The War or Terror and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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