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DVD Review: Deflating the Elephant: Framed Messages Behind Conservative Dialogue

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The title of this documentary is Deflating the Elephant. It takes the fight to the Republican "elephant" by exposing how conservatives tend to frame the debate around an issue with vague and misleading language.

Your host is George Lakoff, author of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate and professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley. Lakoff's central idea is that many political issues today have been "framed" in terms friendly to the Republican party. He seeks to explain this framing and offer suggestions about how to combat it. Your narrator is Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, although he doesn't narrate so much as occasionally comment. Also appearing is writer/director Aldo Vidali, who interviews Lakoff for the first few minutes but then disappears. Lakoff spends the rest of the film talking directly to the camera.

I had three big problems with this film: one, it is almost completely devoid of "production," making it ill-suited to the DVD medium; two, it is dull, lifeless, and hopelessly esoteric; and three, the film is ideologically barren. It is completely partisan, lobbing fierce yet over-generalized accusations at conservatives while conforming its message to the conventional wisdom of the Left.

As to the first problem, I admit that I don't like to hold small-scale documentaries to very high standards of DVD production. After all, I feel that content is more important than form in this genre. But this film falls far below even my standards. Of all the advantages the film medium offers in making an impact on the viewer or getting a message across, this film uses none of them. The opening credits look suspiciously like PowerPoint slides. Each segment of commentary by host George Lakoff is introduced with a heading, such as "On Religious Politics," and they include — I'm not making this up — subheadings that list the specific aspects of religious politics that Lakoff will mention in his discussion. This would be helpful if I were sitting in Lakoff's class taking notes, but I'm not.

Even worse than these mistakes, though, is the way Lakoff is presented. He is sitting at a desk in what appears to be a makeshift "classroom" set. It must be a classroom, I say to myself, because there are two maps on the wall: one of the U.S. and one of the world. Each state and country is given its own pastel color. I can't imagine why the filmmakers thought the maps were necessary (or why they apparently stole them from an elementary school), because they contribute further to the unfortunate feeling that we're stuck in a lecture.

Problem number two is that a lecture is precisely what Mr. Lakoff gives us. I grant that Lakoff seems to know what he is talking about and is nothing if not thorough, but he is somewhat lacking in the charisma department. This problem is compounded by the fact that the director films him, unedited, for 20 to 25 minutes at a time. Have you ever seen a 20-minute monologue in a movie before? No. And there's a very good reason for that.

Lakoff's speeches account for about 90% of the film. I won't say that he comes off as overly dry or esoteric, but I will say that if you rub two copies of this film together, you will produce fire.

The remaining 10% of the film is made up of short commentaries by Sean Penn. I would call them "interludes" or "introductions" except that they have virtually nothing to do with what Lakoff either has talked about, or is going to talk about. For example, after Lakoff introduces his concept of framing an argument (for 24 minutes), the film fades out on him and shows the title: "FDR: A Great Leader." Sean Penn talks for about a minute about what a great president Franklin Roosevelt was. The film fades out on Penn, then back to another title: "FDR: A Serious Commander." Penn spends another minute praising Roosevelt's ability to fight as commander-in-chief and claiming that Roosevelt never used scare tactics (if that sounds like a debatable argument, we're just getting started). After Penn's short profile of FDR (complete with two unique headings), Lakoff talks for 11 uninterrupted minutes — not about Franklin Roosevelt, but about language.

But the worst problem by far in Deflating the Elephant is that it uses vague and misleading language to attack Republicans while at the same time criticizing them for using vague and misleading language. Lakoff explains how Republicans frame issues to their advantage. He offers no instances of a Democrat framing an issue; they're just the victims in this film.

This pro-Democrat partisanship becomes evident in Lakoff's first segment. In discussing the concept of "tort reform," Lakoff first explains at length what the civil justice system is in America (and yes, all of his answers are equally indirect). I have to admit that he makes good on his argument that conservatives have successfully framed this issue to their advantage. "Reform," as Lakoff notes, is a very positive word, implying purification and simplification. Not only that, but conservatives have made the focus of the issue greedy lawyers and frivolous lawsuits, rather than talking about proposed limits on jury-awarded damages. Liberals are mistaken to fight the battle on these terms, we are told. However, at the end of the argument Lakoff states, fairly out of the blue, that the Republicans more or less want to do away with the civil justice system — period. That could generously be called an oversimplification, claiming that Republicans actually advocate — and I quote — "letting criminals run free." By making such an exaggerated accusation, Lakoff is doing the exact thing he accuses conservatives of doing; his hypocrisy is both staggering and pervasive.

Deflating the Elephant is, as you may have guessed by now, so blatantly partisan that it loses all credibility very quickly. Lakoff's rooting interest is apparent from the outset, and not just in the case of tort reform. He reveals that in late 2004, he was asked by Nancy Pelosi to speak to the congressional Democrats about "framing" the issue of Social Security reform. Now, speaking before a group of Democrats doesn't necessarily make you partisan, but when you're leading what amounts to a team-building exercise on strategy to defeat a Republican-led movement (privatization), then I think you've compromised your objectivity.

Co-host Sean Penn echoes the theme that the Democrats are the good guys in his commentaries. He begins with the claim that "history shows that traditional American values have always been liberal and progressive." This is, of course, utter hogwash. Traditional American values included the statutory preservation of slavery for 100 years, followed by federally mandated racism, segregation and pseudo-slavery for another 100 years. That's not very "progressive." Traditional American values accepted the genocide perpetrated upon the Native Americans. That's not very "liberal." And traditional American values accepted the right of the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus long before the birth of George Bush. I could go on and on. The only way Penn's statement is even partially correct is if you use an extremely narrow definition of "liberal" and "American values." Penn thus uses a narrow and misleading definition to make his argument — or, you could say, he "frames" it.

Lakoff's weak attacks against Republicans are manifest. The section "On Religious Politics" begins with a discussion of two dominant theories of religion: God as the "stern father," and God as the "nurturing parent" (atheists, apparently, need not apply). He links the "stern father" theory firmly to conservatism.That's true to a point, I guess, but it's such a generalization that it doesn't offer much insight into specifics.

But then Lakoff reaches his lowest point. He starts by making broad statements about all conservative Christians, most of which are blatantly overgeneralized. Lakoff then claims that conservative Christians are better politically organized than progressive Christians because of their child-rearing. This is an outrageous statement, but he's just getting started.

Lakoff takes a quote about spanking from a book by James Dobson and then blows it out of context. You see, Dobson, and many other evangelists, advocate spanking during child-rearing. First, Lakoff equates spanking with child abuse — a questionable leap — and then basically says that conservative Christians are who they are because they're "beaten" as children and are maladjusted according to the attachment theory of psychology. This, apparently, explains why they grow up to be abusers, why they have blind faith in their leaders and, somehow, how they are better organized.

If I were a conservative Christian, I would be enraged at Lakoff's suggestion that we're a bunch of maladjusted abusers who believe what we do because we were surely beaten as children. It's simply shameful to suggest — as he does — that good parenting falls convincingly along partisan lines. His statement that child and spousal abuse is "rife" in conservative families (a "dirty little secret") is not supported by any research I could find. Even if it were, we'd be committing a crime against statistics if we suggested that people become abusers because they are conservative (here's the real truth, as best I can tell). And that's assuming we could even agree on what constitutes a "conservative family."

If the film has any credibility left, it's shot away by Sean Penn. Penn uses some juicy and sensational adjectives to describe conservatives — everything from "neo-Nazis" to "tyrants." In another unprompted rant, Penn refers to the fact that "neo-conservatives hate American ideals" (yeah, the pursuit of happiness really pisses them off). But here's his parting shot to end the film: "Our current Republican war on democracy is causing the most serious Constitutional crisis since the document went into effect," a remarkable feat of hyperbole that apparently dismisses the Civil War as an overhyped episode of Family Feud.

As a liberal Democrat — or rather, a radical leftist — I can only assume that this DVD was meant for me and people like me (it's billed as a "learning tool for progressives"). If so, it failed miserably in this particular case. Even if I agree in principle to much of what is said, I can't just ignore the fact that it's the product of extreme over-generalization and illogical flights of fancy. And I am not so hopelessly partisan as to accept a world "dominated" by an ill-defined cabal of Republican and conservative enemies, as if the Democrats were innocent bystanders. The fact that many Democrats were, in fact, collaborators and co-conspirators in the "crisis" Penn refers to is not mentioned once in the film.

So, I think this film will alienate the very audience it strives for. On one hand, its hyperbolic anti-Republican sentiment makes it fit only for the far left. But I think I can speak for most of us on the far left in saying that we're not interested in misleading generalizations that condone blind partisanship. We get enough of that already without producing it ourselves.

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About Aaron Whitehead

  • I’ve since browsed past some of Lakoff’s books. I wonder if the bad production doesn’t do him justice.
    I agree that a lot of his basic ideas ring true. I guess he’s just not the best spokesman for his own work. And the people who made this DVD should have realized that at some point.

  • I saw Lakoff’s book in Borders a while ago and he does have a point that modern political debate – and not just in the US – is generally framed in conservative terms (low public spending = good, strong unions = bad, etc).

    It sounds rather as if the publishers thought it might be a good idea to make a DVD out of the book but were too cheap to actually spend any money on a professional production.