I’ve always been interested in how issues are framed. Many political issues are framed in specific ways by their proponents, and eventually it becomes difficult to see the issue in anyway but how it’s been framed for so long. In the long-running abortion debate, abortion foes used “partial birth” as a way to frame the debate around the emotionally and mentally repugnant method of late period abortion. It is very difficult to argue with the image of a viable baby being killed by a doctor, just so a woman doesn’t have to have a child. It frames abortion-choice advocates as cold baby-killing monsters. It’s a very effective framing device that totally misses the core of the abortion issue, which is a patriarchal society that prevents women from making informed choices about sex and its myriad repercussions.
Framing, I thought, focused on a particularly narrow, and often anomalous, aspect of a larger issue, in order for its partisans or detractors to influence those who are not quite as informed or vested. But I’ve begun to change my view of framing. In very devious hands, framing can narrow a point of view in order to let thieves and scoundrels have their way with everything else that we’re no longer focusing on.
We have this in the “waterboarding” debate. It seems like a perfectly framed issue. Its defenders even coined “waterboarding,” since that sounds less like torture than, oh, let’s say, “water torture.” (As a less-PC child, I remember we called it “Chinese water torture.” Maybe kids in China are now calling it “American waterboarding” when they spray hoses and water guns at their friends during the summer.) People who are, rightfully, aghast at the thought of torture, argue that waterboarding should be banned, while defenders say it is barely a form of torture at all.
Meanwhile, we’ve lost sight of the greater issue, which is how America is conducting itself in matters of law and justice, both at home and abroad. This invariably happens when an issue is framed. Framing is not always a bad thing, because it helps people who are not totally vested to make some sense of a very large and complex issue. However, my argument here is that the defenders of waterboarding are not defending waterboarding at all; they are distracting and misdirecting us all specifically by framing the debate around waterboarding.
It’s simply this: Take an offensive, but not unthinkable, method of torture and put it into the public’s collective head. Sure, it simulates drowning, but no one actually drowns. We even subject our own military to it to train them against this effective interrogation technique. If it saves us from another terrorist attack like 9-11, it will be totally worth it.
But if America has actually waterboarded a dozen men, I would be surprised. Wait. Let me rephrase that. If America has actually waterboarded a dozen men to gather intelligence during an interrogation, I would be surprised. It is a non-issue to our government. However, by focusing on this, we continue to ignore the systematic destruction of laws that protect us from our own government. If the defenders of waterboarding succeed in convincing us as a nation that waterboarding is not torture and/or it is necessary for the security of our country, they have won a small victory, but the larger victory will be that the small, framed issue will be settled and obscured the real problem.
The active act in framing security and freedom in the time of terrorism into a debate on waterboarding was done solely to distract the public from the loss of habeas corpus and fourth-amendment rights, and the government hiring mercenary armies not subject to American or international law.
And thinking about this, I began to understand that framing isn’t specifically issue-centric. Because framing hyper-accentuates a point, it leaves everything else around it in shadow. Masters of framing can frame places and groups and people. They use framing as a test-bed to launch larger campaigns. And sometimes framing entails framing in another sense.
Tonight, CBS is “bravely” telling the story of disgraced Alabama governor, Don Siegelman. (Bravely, in quotes, because they are putting this story up against The Oscars, which means no one will see it until it repeats. If it repeats.) Siegelman was convicted of seven counts of public corruption in a trial that prompted Scott Horton to write in Harper’s:
… I have spent over a month looking at this case. I have spoken with a number of journalists who covered the trial, pulled out and read the transcripts, talked to figures involved in the case. And I have received tips and messages from Alabamians who are trying feverishly to spin the case one way or the other. My conclusion: I have no idea whether in the end of the day, Mr. Siegelman is guilty or innocent of corruption. But that the prosecution was corruptly conceived and pursued and that the court proceedings were corrupted, almost from the outset: that is already extremely clear. This is not a prosecution of a political figure for corruption. It is a political vendetta, conceived, developed and pursued for a corrupt purpose.
Siegelman is a Democrat and was literally framed by Karl Rove. Framed, in the sense that Siegelman faced up to 30 years in jail for one count of bribery, one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud, four counts of honest services mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice. (His sentence was 7+.) Framed, also, in the sense that Rove used this as an audacious test to see if his machinations were nimble enough to escape public scrutiny. It is, after all, just Alabama. Who would notice? It was a successful test of his power to eliminate political foes by any means. It was framed to seem innocuous. (What, another public official accused of bribery? Yawn.) But the larger issue was shaded underneath: Don’t mess with the Republicans.
Remember this when Democrats take the presidency in 2008. The machinery of Republican domination, started after Nixon, has been in place for a long time, and Clinton’s impeachment (another framed device–they knew they were going to lose, but it positioned many operatives) was just a test run, which succeeded in taking off impeachment for an extraordinarily corrupt administration.