It has been somewhat grimly amusing in the last week, to watch conservatives defend “rectal feeding” and other measures used by the CIA as “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorists.
“Defend” isn’t necessarily the right word, perhaps; “dismiss” might be more accurate. Many conservatives have tried to convey the sense that there’s nothing to defend, because it doesn’t matter what happens to terrorists.
The whole topic has been a textbook case of a left-generated guilt-reaction dynamic. In such cases, the left comes out with a charge of some kind, and the right then goes into a tailspin, treating the charge in one or more of several intellectually honest (if morally inconclusive) ways. At the dynamic’s core is acceptance of the left’s definition of terms.
The left says “what the CIA did was torture,” and the right proceeds to (a) argue whether it was torture or not; (b) argue that it doesn’t matter if it was torture; and/or (c) argue whether it can be justified, at least sometimes, even if it was torture, by the information obtained from it.
One undisciplined practice here is that of barking on cue whenever the left decides to raise a topic. It isn’t actually necessary to let a topic take over the news cycle, especially when that topic has zero relevance to anything the public needs to know about or decide today.
But the other undisciplined practice is that of letting the left set the terms of the narrative.* That is never necessary either. It’s just the usual deer-in-the-headlights reaction of the right.
If the left were responding to a political attack from the right – and Dianne Feinstein’s “release” of the one-sided report (whose selective, poorly researched contents she controlled) was unquestionably a political attack – the left wouldn’t think of letting the right set the terms of the narrative. The left would seek to reframe the narrative to its advantage.
If the left had to react to the so-called “torture report,” it would come out immediately with a narrative that its critics wanted Americans to be killed in terror attacks. Its first headline would be something like “GOP to America: Drop dead.” The left wouldn’t waste one second defensively debating the moral implications of enhanced interrogation techniques. It would go on offense and accuse its critics of wanting to see more innocent people killed – regardless of how many legitimate moral questions had to be elided to set up that framework.
The left’s narrative ascendant
We see the right’s acceptance of the left’s narrative all around us. Just today, for example, I saw a Breitbart headline that read “Judge: Texas Gay Marriage Ban to Remain in Effect.” But, of course, Texas has no “gay marriage ban.” A ban is a prohibition. A ban means something is proscribed, made illegal, punished. No one in Texas is prevented from holding a same-sex ceremony, and certainly no one is punished for it. The state just doesn’t recognize it as a “marriage,” or provide for state authorities to preside over it.
Every day of the week, we see gun-rights advocates use the expression “gun control” on the terms set by anti-gun-rights advocacy. Yet “gun control,” on those terms, is a nonsense expression. No guns are “controlled” by the forms of regulation favored by people who oppose gun rights. People are controlled, to some extent – only law-abiding people, of course. But guns are not “controlled.” It is unreasonable to talk about “gun control” in any context other than that of the proper and disciplined use of firearms; i.e., quite literally, controlling your gun.
What the opponents of gun rights are actually talking about is restricting the ownership or use of guns. The proponents of gun-rights should criticize gun restrictions, at the very least, rather than blindly continuing to use a meaningless mantra of the left.
If gun-rights conservatives were framing narratives according to the left’s standard, however, they’d go further than that, and declare that those who want to impose gun restrictions are campaigning to get women, minorities, and poor people killed, maimed, and raped.
Many bloggers do pose such a proposition as a question (i.e., aren’t gun-rights opponents really, in effect, condemning smaller or weaker people to being unable to defend themselves?). That’s different from asserting the proposition as an official truth-narrative. The right, in fact, spends a lot of time defending the theoretical space where honest dispute occurs: not just defending the right’s own propositions, but carving out the space between left-wing and right-wing propositions, if only by acknowledging that it’s possible to adopt the left’s viewpoint without having its reductio ad absurdum in mind.
But the left doesn’t let such intellectual niceties stand in its way. It insists, for example – even in Supreme Court opinions – that opposition to same-sex marriage must arise from unreasoning hatred for homosexuals, and in fact for all other kinds of “different” people. A corresponding narrative-frame from the right would be that proponency for same-sex marriage must arise from unreasoning hatred for straight people, traditional marriage, children, extended naturally-formed families, fatherhood, motherhood, societal advancement, economic improvement, and the constitution of responsible liberty.
The right never frames such a narrative, certainly not in any officially approved way, because it would be intellectually dishonest and unfair to paint with so broad a brush. We can be grateful that most opinion leaders on the right don’t forget this.
But avoiding the unjust broad brush doesn’t require cooperating with the left’s narrative-mongering. Instead of arguing on the left’s terms, the right should be constantly stating things in its own terms. It should decline to give oxygen to leftist themes, like Feinstein’s wholly partisan “torture report,” or the host of false implications about the effectiveness of government that lie behind the expression “gun control.” Just stop saying buzz-words that advance the left’s narratives.
The Great Communicator
The reason everyone remembers Ronald Reagan as a “great communicator” is that he perfected this art. It’s not because of his engaging smile, although that helped. It’s because he never wasted even one second of his attention-span time with the public giving oxygen to his political opponents’ narrative. When he spoke, he was framing the narrative his own way: a positive way that was about principles, expectations, and results, and not about his opponents’ implied moral deficiencies.
Reagan often managed to do this with humor, when humor was exactly the right way to get a message across. But the humor wasn’t the most important thing. Ownership of the narrative was. Reagan did the opposite of what Barack Obama does. Reagan didn’t set up strawman arguments, purportedly from the left, to knock down; he simply spoke as if the framework of his narrative was the truth – because his purpose wasn’t about impugning Democrats but about advancing the ideas of freedom.
It took confidence in the power of those ideas for Reagan to communicate as he did: non-defensively, giving no air-time to his opponents’ perspectives or allegations. It’s worth noting, by contrast, that Barry Goldwater did give the left such air-time. He often outlined the left’s positions and then argued (brilliantly) against them. That can be intellectually satisfying for many people, but it’s not an effective method for the politics of liberty.
Neither is matching the left dishonest narrative for dishonest narrative. And that brings us full circle. Conservatives don’t write narratives the way “liberals” do – and that’s a good thing. But only now and then do defenders of liberty and limited government rise to the level of communication necessary to truly advance the ideas of liberty. Those ideas can’t be advanced effectively as merely the counterarguments to a baseline narrative from the left.
Liberty only makes sense according to its own narrative. It’s also the only morally positive way to live: the only way that relentlessly enlarges the human spirit rather than cornering it in boxes of fear, resentment, envy, and guilt.
If you’re feeling spiritually tired and sluggish these days, a large part of that comes from the way we talk about everything now, in terms of who’s guilty of something, or who has a grievance. Ultimately, that’s what the political left excels at. And let me tell you: those hashes will never be settled. We’ll never get past this by trying to talk through it on the left’s terms.
There’s only one way to change the narrative, and that’s to change the narrative. Stop talking about what the left wants to talk about. If you can do nothing else for the moment, just start with that. You might be amazed at how the furor dies down if fewer people are talking about it.
Then decide what is good, true, and right – and talk about that.
* Which is why I never use the term “liberal” – except in scare quotes – to describe today’s antiliberal left. Today’s left isn’t just illiberal; it’s thumpingly, relentlessly, jackbooted-banality-of-evilly antiliberal.