Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Think Tanks and Other Deep Thoughts

As I was reading the latest diatribe from the Family Research Council I realized that even though this group, founded by James Dobson, is blatantly fundamentalist and far right, they continue to get lots of press both in print and broadcast. On MSNBC, arguably not the most liberal news source, I listened to a discussion between Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell and MSNBC host Dan Abrams. They were discussing Mike Huckabee’s stump speech and specifically the part where he says, “But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that's what we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other, and how we treat their families."

The political analyst and host were cautious with this claim. Tony Perkins, however, barged in with a ringing endorsement backed up by the old lie, “America…a Judeo-Christian nation, ought to bring its founding document in line with what he says is God's word, particularly on matters of a woman's right to choose and a couple's right to marry.”

I won’t belabor the rest of the conversation, but anyone who knows Dobson, Perkins and their organization knows where it was going. They dominated the conversation guiding the discussion toward their favorite topics, gay marriage and abortion. It’s not surprising , as that is their whole reason for existence. The Family Research Council, with it’s scientific sounding name is nothing more than a far right think tank, and as such it’s job is to disseminate information supporting its causes.

My question is this, why was there no one from a GLBT think tank on that panel? More specifically, why are there so few GLBT think tanks?

The answer I suspect lies in the same thinking that dominates most liberal and progressive thinking. That is, money spent on policy groups, think tanks and infrastructure could better be spent on good works, good causes and political support. That thinking is the Achilles heel of the liberal and progressive movement and the GLBT movement as well. Yes, there are a few groups like the Center for American Progress and Brookings Institution who regularly provide talking points and research papers for use by liberal and progressive policymakers, but they pale in light of their many right-wing counterparts.

Yes, there is the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, but they are not represented in every discussion of marriage and GLBT rights in the media. One organization cannot do it alone. We need a number of very aggressive and quite frankly stealthy groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Institute for Policy Analysis to carry our cause forward. We need our own version of the Family Research Council to provide lawmakers and the press with research and well-crafted policy statements that can affect the lawmaking process.

Now before I am accused of using the same dirty tricks that the right-wingnuts use, let me clarify a little. My point is about a subject near and dear to my heart and that is framing. As George Lakhoff makes abundantly clear in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, the real secret of changing public perception is to change the way the issue is discussed. Allowing the right to frame the debate immediately puts us liberals on the defensive. Even our name, “liberal” has been so successfully demonized by the right, that many call themselves “progressives” instead.

Having a few GLBT issue think tanks that can successfully frame the issues without sounding like GLBT activists could really make a difference in our cause. If you don’t believe framing makes a difference, look at the issue of “gay marriage”. Had we pushed the issue of equal rights under law, rather than the right to marry, we might already have it. When we use the term “marriage” it is charged with a lot of issues, and for many heterosexuals it implies sex. Face it, a lot of people are homophobic, they do not like to think about what we do in the bedroom, and pushing the issue of marriage makes the bedroom front and center.

Those same people might very well be swayed with an issue of human rights, and the right to marry would follow as a natural legal embodiment of those rights, but they would not have to think about it. After all Human Rights is the real issue. Marriage is just a legal construct that reflects the inequality just as serving n the military. Framing the issues as a human rights issues avoids the “ick” factor for many people and is much harder to argue against. Consider if the civil rights movement had made interracial marriage their key issue? We would still be drinking from separate water fountains, at least in the South.

Now who is going to step forward and come up with the funding to create some of these think tanks? Well I suspect there are not a lot of GLBT billionaires that would come forward, but you never know. It will probably take the work and funds of a whole lot of people to make that idea a reality, still why not give it a try?

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