May 10, 2008


I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Emily Dickinson

May 09, 2008


Caption: You'll put your eye out.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is writing for social change or social conservation, whichever is appropriate at the time. There are also links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

El Cabrero had an interesting dream a few weeks ago. No, it wasn't the recurring one about trains and tunnels. It was about writing.

In the dream, I was given something that looked like a rifle but could take pictures like a camera. Point and shoot, just like a firearm. Then I found out it could also function as a rifle if I flipped a switch.

My first thought was that this could be really dangerous and the results could be tragic if you didn't know exactly what you were doing at the time. As the gun safety folks say, one should assume every firearm to be loaded and presumably that goes for every dream camera/rifle too.

(Full disclosure: although there are a couple firesticks at Goat Rope Farm and I can shoot fairly straight, I'm not a big gun person. I don't bitterly cling to them anyway...Sorry, I couldn't resist that one.)

((OK, I know there are some smirking Freudians out there shouting "phallic symbol!" That's fine, since I'm an occasional Freudian smirker myself, but it really didn't seem to be about that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a dream camera/rifle is just a dream camera/rifle.))

When I woke up, I knew right away the dream was about writing. Here's why. Writing for positive change (or positive conservation) takes different forms. Sometimes it involves directly attacking injustices, making arguments, etc. That would be rifle.

At other times, it's important just to capture an image of what is going on,tell a story, state the facts, present credible research that would hold up to critical investigation, or just accurately convey information. That would be camera.

Of course, there's some overlap. A good argument (rifle) should be backed up with facts and clear reasoning (camera). And sometimes just presenting the facts (camera) can help improve an unjust situation. But the message I got from the dream was that I needed to know what I was doing when I picked that thingie up.

There have been plenty of times when I've attacked policies head on in print (rifle) and I'll probably do it again pretty soon. But that isn't always what the situation requires.

For example, El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia just overhauled a major public health care program and the changes are confusing to lots of people. Not jumping through the right hoops can mean not being able to get some important services. I've just about finished writing a consumer's guide to the new system. In it, I tried to just state the facts as clearly as possible, keeping my opinions out of it. Yep, camera.

Doing research about public policy should be mostly camera as well, even if you have strong beliefs about what should be done. You want the results to be as reliable as possible, meaning that other people looking at the information would find the same things, and you want it to be valid, meaning that the conclusions you draw follow from the data.

The main thing is to know what you're doing when you're doing it.

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY? The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute points out that

In a selection of 19 countries with comparable per capita income, the United States provides the fewest maternity leave benefits in both length of leave and paid time off (see chart). This is considered separate from any disability insurance for which one may qualify. In fact, the United States falls two weeks short of the International Labor Organization's basic minimum standard of at least 14 weeks general leave. It is also the only country not to guarantee some amount of leave with income.

LABOR'S REVIVAL? This article suggests it's closer than we may think.

URGENT DUCK-BILLED PLATYPUS UPDATE. Their genes are weird too.

EVANGELICAL MANIFESTO. Here's yet another sign that the religious right doesn't have a lock on the opinions of evangelical Christians.

CONSUME THIS. In a National Geographic-sponsored survey of 14 countries, US consumers ranked last in terms of environmentally-aware buying habits.

MAGICAL THINKING. Ancient people sacrificed to appease the gods. We buy insurance.


May 08, 2008


Caption: Fuzzy chickens are a particularly challenging audience.

El Cabrero hopes all y'all noticed the elegant way in which I avoided ending the title of the post with a preposition. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with...

The series on writing for social change (or, when appropriate, social conservation) continues at Goat Rope. I'm going to ride this wave as long as it lasts.

A good question to think about when writing is, who is the audience? Is it people already on your side you want to energize? Is it the hard core opposition? (In which case, you might be banging your head against a wall). Or is it a lot of people in the middle?

If I'm sending out some kind of action alert on a hot topic, I'm usually aiming at like-minded people.

But most of the time when I write about a current issue for a general audience, as in a newspaper op-ed, I'm aiming for the folks in the middle. It's not likely that someone on the opposite side of an issue who benefits from an unjust situation is going to change their mind no matter what you write. (Although it does happen in some cases.)

On many controversial issues, there may be strongly committed people on both sides (often both are numerical minorities, although at least one side may be very powerful). But there is a large number of people who may not know much or feel strongly about the issue at hand. Much of the art of writing and of strategy (I see them as one and the same) in such cases consists of trying to isolate one's opponent and move more people to your side of a given issue.

In cases like that, I try to look at what I'm writing or trying to accomplish from the point of view of someone not committed to the issue. Note: it helps if what you're trying to accomplish is reasonable.

This is where a lot of "progressive" types royally screw up. These can become so insular and even sectarian that they have difficulty communicating with anyone who isn't already there.

Here's my two cents. It's nearly always bad to use "internal" jargon for and "external" audience. But the reverse isn't true. Talking to people on your side in a jargon free way sets a good example.

WEAK LINKS. Travel has prevented me from assembling the usual mix of links and comments about current events. That feature should return tomorrow.


May 07, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope these days has been writing for social change. You'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please consider clicking on some earlier entries. The series began a week ago Monday.

Framing messages continues to be a hot topic. Since that has a lot to do with the subject at hand, I'm going to "reprint" something I wrote that appeared hear about a year and a half ago. Here goes...

There's been a lot of talk the last few years about the importance of "framing" issues so that progressive messages get across. You could even say that this has become a micro-industry in some circles.

There is a lot of research that indicates that the how of communication is as important as--sometimes more important than--the what. And no one would dispute the importance of skilled messaging and media work.

Also, some of the message styles or frames that advocacy groups use have been demonstrated to be counterproductive. Some examples:

*framing something as a crisis sends the unintentional message that nothing can be done;

*trotting out poor people for media stories often makes viewers or readers think more in terms of the personal worthiness of the people depicted than about what is happening to them. At best, it often makes people think in terms of charity, not change;

*burying the reader or viewer with wonky statistics can lose an audience whereas good use of metaphors and "social math," which graphically depict a situation, can help get a message across.

So far, so good.

However, any good thing can be overdone. I have run into a few of what I call "frame fundamentalists" who seem to believe that all you need to do to influence public policy or achieve some public goal is to frame the issue effectively. The problem is that this leaves out the whole power/strategy thing, which, as you may have noticed, has a lot to do with how things shake down.

To get things done, you need both.

To use a historical example, thinking that framing things alone will solve a problem is kind of like thinking that Allied propaganda in World War II was the sole factor in defeating the Nazis. It probably helped, but it didn't do the whole trick.

El Cabrero is reminded of something Confederate General George Pickett said when asked why his famous charge at Gettysburg failed: "The union army had something to do with it."

A story from the ancient Greeks may illustrate the problem. In his Politics, Aristotle alludes to a parable of Antisthenes in which the hares demanded equality with the lions. (Maybe they even have hired media consultants.) The lions replied, "You speak well, hares, but where are your claws and teeth?"

The point of the claws and teeth story here is not that one has to get mean, but that one has to get organized and be strategic. Framing by itself, however useful, isn't enough.

IN DEFENSE OF GRAMMA. Here's progressive economist Dean Baker in defense of Social Security and Medicare.

ACUTE LINK SHORTAGE. El Cabrero is traveling today so the link feature is down. It should be back tomorrow.


May 06, 2008


Harriet Beecher Stowe, courtesy of wikipedia.

"I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother I was oppressed and brokenhearted, with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity, because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath." So spoke Harriet Beecher Stowe about the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).

If you have any doubts that writing can make a difference, check out the impact of that book in the mid 1800s.

Today it is not regarded as great literature, with some justification, but she wasn't going for art for art's sake. Stowe was an abolitionist who saw slavery up close when she lived in Ohio, just across the river from the slave state of Kentucky. She drew heavily on slave narratives in composing the work, particularly that of the Rev. Josiah Henson.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, first published in serial form in 1851, had a huge impact on national as well as international opinion about slavery. It was even widely read, though widely hated, in the American south, where it clearly hit a nerve. There's even a story that when Abraham Lincoln met with her, he said "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"

That's a bit of Lincolnian hyperbole--and it took more than a book to end the institution of chattel slavery in this country--but if he really said that (which I don't doubt), he had a point.

One reason why the book had such a huge impact goes to the heart of a special kind of writing: narrative or story. The power of story is of a different order than that of essay. Story works at an emotional level, in which a person can vicariously experience--to a small degree anyway--things that happen to other and different people. Story can lead by way of empathy to morality.

This era was a time of sentimentality in tastes and manners among those who could afford to be aware of such things. UTC wasn't the only book that played on the heart's sympathy strings--the French author Victor Hugo's Les Miserables came out at about the same time.

This was also a time when many middle class Americans came to revere and idealize the home and family as a haven in a heartless world. Stowe's novel played on that expertly, driving home to readers the fact that slaves had families too. And, sadly, part of its success may have come because white readers were more willing to absorb the message from a white writer than directly from the narratives of former slaves.

In the 20th century, the term "Uncle Tom" became a pejorative term for African Americans who were subservient to whites, although when I read the book it seemed pretty clear to me that the character Uncle Tom was no "Uncle Tom." At the end of the book, he encourages other slaves to run away and is beaten to death for refusing to divulge details of their escape.

Whatever literary and other shortcomings the book may have from the perspective of 150+ years later, in terms of sheer impact on public opinion it would be hard to think of very many others that even came close.

Can writing do it all? Probably not. Can writing make a difference? Hell yes.

SIGN OF THE TIMES. After a decade of decline, welfare rolls are beginning to climb again, as USA Today reports.

LET THEM EAT ETHANOL. Here's a good background piece on the global food crisis from the Washington Post.

TRAVEL MUG OR TREES. According to this item from Alternet, North American goes through 50 million trees a year for paper cups.

THAT'S THE TICKET. Here's an interesting item on the science of lying and exaggeration. I read it this morning. After I did 50 million pushups.

MOST ANIMALS CAN LEARN, but it doesn't always do them much good.


May 05, 2008


Thomas Paine, courtesy of wikipedia.

Lately El Cabrero has been blogging about writing for social change, a jag that is likely to continue this week.

But first a comment on the idea of social change. If that's your goal, don't sweat it--it's going to happen anyway, what with the whole impermanence thing and all. The question is, will it be good or bad?

Sometimes, the fight to improve or protect conditions for working people is more about conserving things rather than changing them. Defending what's left of the Constitution or the New Deal legacy is a case in point. A few years ago, we had to fight pretty hard to protect Social Security from privatization and that one probably isn't over yet.

Having said that, a look at history convinces me that writing can play a necessary if not sufficient part in making things better or less bad.

In American history, good writing at the right time has made a difference over and over. In the days when independence was being debated, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published in early 1776, had a big impact on public opinion, as did a certain Declaration published that summer.

If you haven't read the Declaration in a while, dust it off. It's pretty damn good, even if some of the things George III was accused of weren't quite fair in retrospect.

And, when the revolution was going south, Paine struck again with The Crisis, which even George Washington credited with helping to steel American resolve. Take a look at the first few lines:

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Not too shabby! I wish I would have written something like that when it would have done some good.

Slave narratives, such as those of Frederick Douglass, helped influence opinion against that system, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, about which more tomorrow.

HUNGRY PLANET. While millions of people around the world face a food crisis, the UK Independent reports that multinationals are cashing in.

MISSING A CHANCE. The housing and credit meltdown shows the need for reform, but will we miss the boat?

HAD ENOUGH? In our new Gilded Age, we're moving from the Ownership Society to the Foreclosure Society. It might be time to rock the boat.

HEALTH CARE. This Saturday, a few hundred people in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia rallied for health care. While many people are rightly concerned about covering the uninsured, even people with health insurance are finding it less affordable.

VIOLENCE. Here's an interesting article from the NY Times Magazine about a public health approach to reducing violence.

HABIT FORMING. Aristotle referred to habits as "second nature." Here's what the research says on how to change yours.