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Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Criminal Frame as the Underpinning of Right-Wing Propaganda

I am posting here a series of commentary from a blogger known as 'jamestx' from the former Rockridge Nation blog. His comments are occasionally interspersed with other commenters from that same blog for clarity. As more comments come in, I will try to post updates on this conversation from time to time. The google group is a mess wading through right now and the new website is not up and running yet so this is the best I can do for now. If you want, you can go to the google group and subscribe to the newsletter at http://groups.google.com/group/rockridge-annex-temporary?hl=en

I have posted additional commentary on this at http://patriotboy.blogspot.com/ I have also provided links to Sara Robinson's two excellent pieces on the 'Us versus Them' memes used by the right-wing to divide and control all the rest of us. http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/two-kinds-americans-us-versus-them-part-i


Sorry this is so long - but I really think it is worth reading and THINKING about.

POST #1 The point here is that criminality and the way people respond to criminal behavior is a sort of root metaphor in social interaction. In my ranting above, I have tried to show how those fundamental ideas about criminality have worked their way into the highest levels of policy and caused us to crash as a society. I've added this note to provide the afterthought that I am not talking about material policy here. I don't see the criminal justice frame as being one flawed issue policy among many. I see it as a fundamental metaphor that has been mapped on to policy at all levels and provides the basic assumptions for conservative government. If love is a journey, Bush is a cop, and he is a cop that doesn't like courts and doesn't like his decisions reviewed. He thinks there are two types of people in the world and his job is to kill one of those types. He assumes he doesn't need any helpdetermining who they are. The rights of those people play no role in his decisions, and he thinks that is moral.One peculiar interest of mine is what conservatives have accomplished in popular reasoning about criminal justice. I think it serves as a good example of what needs to be done. For those who are newer converts to liberal thinking - usually those who were socialized and educated after Reagan - current reasoning about criminal justice is just not very high on the progressive to-do list. I think it should be, because I think it serves as an important part of conservative cognitive infrastructure. It is very unfortunate that these flawed ways of reasoning have been repeated until they are simply accepted as "common sense". The cognitive infrastructure built on the conservative view of criminality is made up of the same metaphors later used to reason about rogue states, terrorists, combatants, unitary executive power, etc. The frames representing police officers were latertransformed into the notion of the unitary executive, which is viewed as the "police officer" who needs absolute authority to administers summary justice. Due process and reflective debate were devalued and described as useless activities that serve only to "support criminal rights" and interfere with the administration of "true justice" by the executive. The point here is that the reason our population so easily swallowed the Bush worldview on executive power was because they had been "softened up" to it by accepting earlier lies on how to reasonabout criminality. They already had a working frame for what Bush wanted to be, and they wanted to have a beer with him and talk it over.
Conservative frames on criminal justice are the oldest. They were constructed in the years from about 1978 through 1984. They are like the "old fat" that is hardest to lose. The conservative campaign to change reasoning about criminal justice, and their reframing of the concept, was highly successful. It was successful to the extent that it is a good example of the kind of thing that Lakoff talks about being repeated until it is simply accepted as common sense. Widespread conservative beliefs about criminal justice are now simply accepted as common sense, although the premises are entirely false and the reasoning is glaringly flawed. These very assumptions that are accepted without question today were viewed as archaic and barbaric only a few decades ago. Current ideas are simply not common sense. They are very unrealistic and skewed representations of reality, and they were designed by the conservative movement as a sort of trash dump for the people who opposed views.Our most popular beliefs about criminal justice are based in a frame that cuts the world into categories that are more irrevocable and absolute than most any social category we use, save perhaps gender. Only a few years ago, crime was seen as a behavior. It is now viewed as an almost genetic part of the makeup of a person. The frame cuts the world neatly into two categories of criminal and non-criminal. The difference between the two is viewed as being every bit as fundamental and immutable as gender. There are two types of people in the world.Just like there are men and women, there are good guys and bad guys. Criminals are considered to be bad guys. They are also curiously assumed to have always been bad, as if it is part of their genetic constitution. Even if they are not convicted until some later time in their lives, they are seen as having "beat the system" up to that point by simply not being discovered. They are considered bad from birth to death, almost in the same way that most people remain male or female form birth to death. The overriding goal is to maximize the suffering of criminals at any cost, and to forever keep them as far from civilized society as possible. The concepts of justice related to ideas that a criminal can be rehabilitated, or even be able to pay their debt to society (such as a contract metaphor), has been entirely abolished. The only goal of the criminal justice system under the conservative reasoning is to classify people irrevocably as good or bad, and to destroy the bad ones by any means and at any cost.The fundamental flavor of this concept is really unusual. I don't think we should gloss over the extremism inherent in the current view. We don't even see gender as an absolute and immutable construct anymore. No other classification category in our society is so powerful, or for that matter more arbitrary. This is very curious, and very difficult to understand. I propose that it is also very important to progressives, because it represents the first really overwhelmingly successful framing project that conservatives carried out, and it is an entirely and demonstrably false belief system. It is also the basic frames that are used for reasoning about deviance of the type that got us into the current military quagmire with its associated disregard for human rights. Flawed reasoning about criminality is the prototype for most of the conservative nightmare we are living.The point here is that I see the Bush war fiasco as being fundamentally related to the twisted view of criminal justice which conservatives successfully promoted early in their movement. It amounts to a cognitive infrastructure of the type progressives should be trying to change, or should at least be trying to analyze. I amconfused that the concept receives so littlee attention from progressives, when I see it as being at the very root of our problems.

I appreciate the reference to (Sara) Robinson's paper. I have heard about the idea, and have read other places about it. The us versus them idea is one level of abstraction above my thoughts on the issue, and it allsort of points to an object relations interpretation. The reason I see the criminal justice attitude as being primary in this context is that it was an actual purposeful framing mission carried out by conservatives with the purpose of altering our fundamental ways of thinking about society. It was then generalized to other domains afterthe initial success.Anyone cognizant during those times knows that attitudes about criminality were at the forefront of all political campaigns. It was the most important social issue on the cusp of the conservative revolution. There was actually something to argue about back then. After the attitudes were changed, there is no longer anything to argueabout. It is as if the strict father view has just been accepted as fact by both conservatives and progressives, and the issue is no longer even discussed. If it is discussed, the problems recognized are that criminal justice processes are unfair for some specific group, as in the crack cocaine problem. There is never any discussion of the fact that there may be something wrong with the whole underlying system of ideas. All such disparities are settled by raising the level of harshness afforded everyone to the level experienced by the mistreated group. No other solution is ever considered. If one person is wrongly convicted, the solution is to wrongly convict everybody so that treatment is equal.My belief that it is fundamental and deeply seated metaphorically is really due to its timing, though. I could surely be accused of being victim of the post hoc fallacy. But I think there is something they knew and planned about this. It was the first big drive in the conservative movement. It succeeded, and then everything else sort offell like dominoes. Why did they choose to do that first? Perhaps they chose to do it first because everything else they wanted to do would depend on it in some fundamental way. It seems nowadays every form ofsocial organization has to have some form of a penal system built in, as if it is a necessary part of all human interaction. Perhaps if people could stomach a constantly escalating obsession with crime and punishment, it would be easier to stomach things like Guantanamo. It would be easier to degrade due process and the ideas of deliberative reflection by organized representatives as a prerequisite for violating human rights. It would be easier to smear those parts of the Constitution which protect rights by making them appear quaint. It would be easier to promote summary decision making by a single person vested with authority. I think they may have been right, because it apparently worked!If we are going to roll back what they have done to us as a whole, it might be best to look at what they did first as a reference for what we want to roll back to. In the intervening years, nothing has much happened that conservatives didn't author and tightly control, so it is hard to pick up our reference at any point after Reagan. What did progressive cognitive infrastructure look like before it was driven out of the picture by force? The driving out started with the criminal justice thing. Everything after that was easy.

POST #3 (This one explains a bit of why understanding framing is important)
Understanding framing as it is applied to the current political problem is something that I want for a personal, not political, purpose. I think it is important that all progressives understand the theory, and that is why I think training is very important.I guess I don't see the theory, from what I know now, as being something that is "done" or applied to others, as if framing experts would go out and change the way others think. Americans aren't very amenable to cognitive interventions designed to change their opinions. They are stubborn that way. I think what the theory means to me, on the other hand, is also what it could mean to many other people if they understood it better. It helps me articulate what has happened to us at the hands of the conservative movement leaders, and it gives mea powerful set of tools to resist them. Without those tools, I would still be trying to negate their frames, which only strengthens them.As I watched the conservative movement develop in the late seventies and early eighties, I knew something organized and powerful was happening. I knew it had something to do with language, and I knew it was bad and that its premises were false. Nonetheless, I had trouble constructing any successful arguments against it. The reason I couldn't argue against it is because I didn't understand that resistance on the conservatives' terms was futile. It only strengthened their position, because they were activating frames that were powerful and couldn't be fought by negation. The frames themselves had to be invalidated and replaced. My explanation of what they were doing at the time was that their messages contained presuppositions. That is, I thought they were using trick statements of the sort "when did you stop beating your wife?" As it turns out, that was really an oversimplification. Because I didn't understand what was being done to us in the way Lakoff has explained it, I just had to sit passively by like everyone else and let it happen. My only option was to withdraw further and further into my personal world, only to find my social support circles shrinking daily. The conservative movement continuously expanded and pressed harder at the boundaries of that world every day, as it was designed to drive people who thought like me out of society.So, I guess my opinion is that framing theory is much more valuable as a tool for helping progressives understand themselves and understand what the conservatives are doing them. It also can provide them with away of keeping their sanity and keeping their thoughts organized. It might be much more valuable as a sort of self-help tool than a political intervention tool.


First of all, let me be sure to mention that I want to avoid liberal stereotypes here. Some of the phrases that were most successful during the conservative campaign were clearly frames, and being on the wrongside of those frames is what I mean by the liberal stereotype. That would include phrases like "slap on the wrist", "revolving door", "criminals' rights are more important than victims' rights", "they'll just do it again", "coddling of criminals", "defending criminals", "not backing the police" and all those things that purportedly represented the national mood and framed the liberal approach to criminal justice as ludicrously naïve and horribly unjust for victims. We were depicted as wanting to let crime run rampant and wanting to treat murderers like teenagers who had skipped school. This was supposedly because of our "knee jerk, bleeding hearts" that simplycouldn't stomach the dirty work that has to sometimes be done to serve justice. That is not my position, and it is a ruthless caricature of the real liberal position.If I were king, my ideas would look much different than either the conservative position or the liberal stereotype. I think these kinds of ideas were alive during the conservative revolution, but they just couldn't fight the forces against them and were never given a hearing. I do think victims have rights, but I don't think those rights areabsolute and infinite. The laws drafted by the conservatives have made them so, to the point that some victims who don't deserve consideration are now glorified. There is a context to most crimes, and understanding that context is important. Our current system seems to aim toward reducing it to a simple black and white.The biggest problem, though, I think is the language and the simplistic categories we use to reason about the system. One big problem is using the murderer as the prototype for reasoning about all criminal justice. The overwhelming majority of people caught up for life in the criminal justice quagmire are not murderers or anywhere near it. In fact, for many of them, it is an exercise in imagination to even locate a victim. So, one important thing to do when we absolutely have to use a single term to classify all the effected people is to choose a term that more accurately describes the average "criminal". In fact, my position is that the term "criminal" is a real problem in itself, as it doesn't tell us anything about the person denoted. The term literally includes everyone from George W. Bush (driving under the influence, and many believe possession of cocaine),to Cindy Sheehan (public disorder or something), to John Lennon (possession of marijuana), to Charles Manson (who never actually killed anybody!), to the person who broke into my house, to Rosa Parks, to Ted Bundy, to the man down the street who drove to the store after having three beers, to the local teenager who shoplifted a candy bar. If a term can't narrow referents any better than that, we are flirting with disaster when using it to discuss policy as if it referred to a well defined class. The term, though, is used ubiquitously in conservative discourse on criminal justice, as if it were a precisely defined class.The air is all gone out of the "tuff" sentence balloon. Conservative approaches to criminal justice have culminated primarily in a two-decade long campaign to increase the harshness of sentences given to"criminals". We are now to the point where sentencing makes no sense, and it is an everyday occurrence to see someone sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. Given, the conservative view is not for it to makesense. I understand the idea is that they just never want to see the person again. They would execute them if they could. The point is that the sentencing system is not designed in any rational way for any purpose, and as a result we are simply seeing a population explosion in the prisons which are designed to have no path out.There is definitely a need to address what happens after conviction, and that process needs a lot more oversight. In fact, there should be an independent judiciary which oversees what happens after conviction.For the most part, conviction signals the end of the road for public policy, and everything after that is turned over to the anonymous administrative authority of the prison administration. I see this as being important for us to understand and control the ultimate outcomes of our decisions. This would help avert the most distressing outcomes. Among those outcomes is the shoplifting teenager who is inducted into the culture of organized crime and ultimately becomes a much bigger nightmare than he was when he entered the system. In that case, we aretaking a person with potential and using them as the raw material to manufacture a real "criminal". It should be illegal to discriminate in employment after a person has served a sentence. If we provide no viable means for those convicted to re-enter the society, then exactly what is it that we are expecting? Clearly, what conservatives are expecting is that the person will return to prison. They will be permanently classified as"them", and they will be kept away from "us". I think it may be time to start looking at alternatives to that outcome. In fact, the progressive position should emphasize analyzing the aftermath of conviction. For conservatives, the story is over after conviction. Clearly, there is a decision to be made about people convicted of crimes. That decision inevitably involves the complexities of whether or not we ever intend for them to return to society. The underlying assumption of the conservative view is that they really never do intend for a person to come back. Once the person has been classified into their catch-all "criminal" category, then they really intend for that person to be incarcerated forever, however menial the actual crime. Their rhetoric is full of ideas about how to assist law enforcement in "recapturing" the "criminal" who has been released. Is that what we really want? It may be, and I may be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time.

From: "Leftymathprof (Eric Schechter)" James, don't ever use the phrase "If I were king." Of course, I guess what you really mean by that phrase is that, if you could instantly make certain changes in society without going through a lot of intermediate steps, then here is what you would do. But we all have to stop thinking in that way. We all have to think about the intermediate steps, which ultimately are more important than the end result anyway.But you really have convinced me of the importance of this prison framing thing. I can see why the conservatives made it a high priority when they were taking over, and for similar reasons we need to make ita high priority when recapturing culture.On an issues level, there are plenty of issues to work on. We need to talk about the fact that the USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world -- probably by a wide margin; that certain corporations make lots of money by running prison systems; that some companies also make money from prison labor, so it's effectively a new kind of slavery; that the sentences for poor people's crimes are much higher than the sentences for analogous rich people's crimes (e.g., different kinds of cocaine get different sentences -- I don't know the details of that one); etc. That the rationale behind the "war on drugs" doesn't make any sense, and its real purpose is to fill prisons. etc.
But ultimately we need go to a higher level than just issues; we need to counteract the us-versus-them mentality. I don't know how to do that, but I see that that is crucial to the whole progressive versusconservative struggle.

POST #5 I'll stay away from that king thing! I wouldn't make a very good king, anyway.I guess I see the criminality concept as being very close to the fundamental conservative social metaphor (strict father). It is a reflection of the basic way we treat and classify people in close proximity. The conservative view is that we solve problems by banishing people. It didn't work for the ancients, and it still doesn't work. A good way to recognize progressives and conservatives is how they behave when they enter a group, or especially when they are part of an evolving group. Conservatives try to establish who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are, and then they go to work trying to get rid of the "bad guys".Real progressives don't operate that way at all. They are genuinely different. Their solutions are inclusive, empathic, and fair minded. They don't classify people into those irrevocable value categories on short notice, but try to understand and work within the natural dynamics of the group in other ways. They recognize and accept people who are different from them. While they are fair minded and respect laws and rules, they also respond differently to misbehavior. Frequently they try to understand misbehavior by trying to empathize and understand how they might behave under different circumstances, or even just how they might feel or be tempted to behave. This is not the same thing as condoning crime, although that is what conservatives say it is. It is just a different approach to crime that involves trying to understand why it happens without invoking oversimplified ideas about the dispositional character of people. Conservatives will protest as loud as anyone else when you try to explain their behavior as dispositional, but they are quick to invoke that explanation for others.Changing attitudes about criminal justice is going to be a hard nut to crack. I think nothing much will happen in terms of real social change unless we do that first, just as the conservatives did it first. It is somehow closer to our everyday experience than more abstract issues. Do we really care about the kid that broke our car window, and do we understand why it is important to the community that we do? Do we understand why it is important to care about the teenager who sold drugs to our children? Do we understand that we can get rid of that one parson, but another will take his place if we don't understand why it happened to begin with? The conservative cognitive infrastructure provides a lot of press to simply insist the only solution is to banish the person, but I think we are getting close to a breaking point on that. Banished people aren't really banished. They find each other, and they organize. When they do, you have a formidable enemy on your hands.What percentage of the United States population is on the wrong side of the criminal justice system? If we continue to grow that group, how long will it be before we have a significant proportion of our population who have less than human status, know who their enemies are, and are organized? Might it be in our best interest to consider a little more rational approach to deviance?

From: "janine kovac" The other problem with the prison thing is that criminals evoke fear . . .norepinephine, the neurotransmitter of the Strict Father model! Criminals are also in the one category for which the nurturant parent (might) not haveempathy, if it threatens the family. And whether it is a legitimate fear or legitimate threat or not, is a different discussion. . . actually, I guess that's the whole point of this discussion - that the prototype of the criminal as murderer vs. x or y or z is used to generate fear.

POST #6 I think those are good thoughts, Janine! Your point may support my idea that this is somehow primary and universally important. You note that the frame can even be activated in people who would otherwise think differently. Perhaps that is why it was so successful. Perhaps that is why they did it first. It was the trade off that they figured even liberals were willing to make: Look the other way about how we actually administer justice, and we will keep you safe! Then it was easier to do the same thing with economics, and then national security, and so on.

POST #7 The left has lacked organization and it has hurt us. In fact, I have repeated that for years. I think the lack of organization was fed a lot by apathy, though, as people simply withdrew into their personal worlds when politics and public life went sour and the conservative movement gained momentum. There will be a higher level of organization that grows out of the progressive movement, but it awaits things like funding and widespread support. We can fund our ideas, and the successful netroots political campaigns have shown that $20contributions can produce a viable candidate. It isn't unreasonable to think that the same can fund a cognitive infrastucture.The problem is that the political left in this country has been decimated. We have had our whole approach to public life wiped out, and it has been long enough since that happened that few people even remember a worldview other than conservatism as being realistic, respectable or viable. All of the values that were part of the last progressive infrastucture have been systematically ridiculed and destroyed by conservative propaganda. Young people have been taught to laugh at us. We have been painted as a completely "failed" endeavor.Our most central defining values, as they are often stated, are still viewed by most (even most progressives) as something childish, naïve and unrealistic. A lot can be done in three decades with billions of dollars dedicated to it.
I see the movement just now trying to find its way out of that. People have to learn to start saying things that their school teachers taught them were errors. The older people have to start saying things again that they have been ridiculed and punished for saying in the past. At this time, it almost has to be an organic creative kind of process. The problem we are dealing with is not simple. It is not a task of overcoming one idea or even a small set of ideas that have to be countered. It is an entire culture with a strong and resilient infrastructure.

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