Using One's Own Mother For Political Cover
Following the Virginia Senate debate between the Democratic challenger for Senate, Jim Webb, and George Allen, we have all been led to believe that the subject of Allen's mother was something that was foisted upon him in a question about his Jewishness.
In fact, this could not be further from the truth.
Watching the video of the Webb-Allen debate, we see that Allen himself was first to invoke the name of his mother -- twice in fact -- but not in response to a question about his Jewishness, but to a question about (you guessed it) 'macaca.'
As cynical and disgusting as it may sound to most Americans, it appears that George Allen went into his last debate with Jim Webb with a plan in mind: if faced with the 'macaca' question try to invoke the 'mother' frame to shut off the discussion.
The 'mother' frame? Yes, the 'mother' frame.
We all have mothers, but in politics it is typical for politicians to leave them out of the debate. Why? Because political debate can get ugly and exposing one's mother to criticism can lead to unintentional hurt or pain. So it is generally best not to do it.
But not so for George Allen. In his response to the question posed to him about 'macaca,' after he once again told the debate audience that he did not know what 'macaca' meant and that he did not mean to single out or bully anyone with that word, Allen closed with a passionate reference to his mother:
"If there was one lesson that I learned from more than anyone else, it was my mother whose father was incarcerated by the nazis in world war two. And of all people in my life who told me about tolerance and not judging people by their religious beliefs or my race, it is my mother."
(transcribed from C-Span Video)
The 'mother' frame as Allen used it relocates the debate away from the question of his own racism, his own bullying and his own dishonesty to a question of his mother's character.
I cannot be a racist because my mother taught me otherwise, and by questioning my character, you are offending my mother. That's the power of the 'mother' frame.
In the moment that directly followed his attempt to reframe the 'macaca' debate with the 'mother' frame, George Allen was presented with a question about his mother's Jewishness and about his reluctance to acknowledge that he had Jewish heritage in his family.
He lost his cool.
Seeing a sitting Senator blow his top on a nationally televised debate is both tittilating and frightening. This is a man, after all, who has Presidential aspirations -- but when asked if his mom was Jewish, lashed out at the debate panelist, Peggy Fox, with angry warnings about 'casting aspersions.'
Clearly, what America saw was that George Allen was not comfortable being steered deeper into a conversation about his mother's Jewish identity.
But is that all we saw?
In fact, the anger was not just a product of George Allen's defensiveness about his Jewish heritage, but also his frustration that the Peggy Fox's question had just stolen the ball -- taken away the power of his 'mother' frame by asking a question about why he was hiding from his own heritage that built upon already circulating details about Allen's mother.
Suddenly, Allen's deft attempt to control the 'macaca' affair by trapping it inside the 'mother' frame had been pulled out from under him and he was left exposed, out of control. Angry.
What resulted was the ugly outcome of a candidate whose frustration with his own inability to get control of a negative image. And so, raising his voice to a threatening tone, Allen spurted out that he did not want to talk about his own ethnic heritage because Thomas Jefferson believed in freedom of religion. In other words: a non sequitur. One minute he was talking about the values of his mother, the next minute he was talking about freedom of religion.
My Mother Taught Me
Is George Allen's Jewish identity a fair topic for discussion in a senate campaign? Well, it would probably not be a fair question if George Allen had not just in the previous moment attempted to shield himself from difficult questions by claiming his grandfather's incarceration by Nazis as a moral foundation.
But whether it is fair or not, Allen has embraced the "Jewish question" about his past and now folded it into the 'mother' frame as part of his wider campaign strategy.
Following the debate, the mainstream media ran the story as Allen having been angry that someone implied he had Jewish background. And so, in another attempt to recover from the public perception that he is a racist, Allen subsequently issued a press release in which he suddenly discovered that he was Jewish. But first, he wrapped it all up in the 'mother' frame:
ARLINGTON, VA – U.S. Senator George Allen released the following statement this afternoon:
"Yesterday, I found it especially reprehensible that a reporter would impugn the attitudes of my mother, as Ms. Peggy Fox did in her first question at the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce Senate debate. My mother and father both taught me to abhor bigotry, and Ms. Fox's suggestion to the contrary was deeply offensive.
"The notion peddled by the Webb campaign that I am somehow embarrassed by my heritage is equally offensive, and also absurd.
"I was raised as a Christian and my mother was raised as a Christian. And I embrace and take great pride in every aspect of my diverse heritage, including my Lumbroso family line's Jewish heritage, which I learned about from a recent magazine article and my mother confirmed."
Now, we can see here that Allen is trying to control many damaging aspects of this story by invoking his mother: the implication that he is ashamed of having Jewish heritage, the implication that he had lied, the implication that this was an extension of the 'macaca' affair -- all of which seemed reasonable conclusions to the average voter by the morning after the debate.
And in the remainder of the press release, Allen made it perfectly clear that he wanted this debate not to be about his Jewishness, or his honesty, or about 'macaca,' but about -- you guessed it -- his 'mother' (emphasis mine):
"On several occasions through the years, I have mentioned publicly that my mother's father was incarcerated by the Nazis. I have never known whether he was persecuted by the Nazis because of his nationality, his religious faith, his role as a community leader, or his part in the anti-Nazi resistance.
"What I do know is that my grandfather's imprisonment by the Nazis had a profound impact on my mother. It was a subject she found painful to discuss and so we almost never discussed it.
"Some may find it odd that I have not probed deeply into the details of my family history, but it's a fact. We in the Allen household were simply taught that what matters is a person's character, integrity, effort, and performance – not race, gender, ethnicity or religion. And so whenever we would ask my mother through the years about our family background on her side, the answer always was, 'Who cares about that?'
"My mother has lived a long and full life, and I hope and pray she will enjoy many more years. She deserves respect and she also deserves privacy, especially where painful memories are concerned. I sincerely hope that simple decency will be respected."
How many times does Allen mention his mother in this closing section of the press release? Enough times to effectively frame the debate and once again provide himself a political shield behind which he can hide for a while.
Mission accomplished. George Allen's press release has effectively mothered 'macaca' to the point where it will be difficult to touch either.
Is there any way out of this frame?
Reframing: Open Society
In one respect, George Allen is correct: no challenger for Senate in Virginia or elsewhere should talk about his or her opponent's mother. That is just rude and it is offense to most people.
But what can a candidate do once the 'mother' frame has been set?
Well, in fact we find our strongest cues from Allen's opponent, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Virginia, Jim Webb.
In response to the whole 'macaca' affair Webb has argued that what offended more than anything else was the implication that anyone in Virginia would treat a person as an outsider because of how they looked, talked or where they were born.
To take control of the debate that's been stymied by the 'mother' frame, in other words, the best solution is talk about an Open Society.
In an 'open' society, people do not greet newcomers with derision or single them out from the crowd, but welcome them in to the community. The strength and well-being of an open society depends on welcoming new people and embracing difference. An open society is weakened and threatened by every act of hostility towards difference, by every gesture that singles out a person for derision because of their "outsider" status.
The best tactic in the face of George Allen's cynical attempt to hide behind the 'mother' frame could very well be a return to the idea of Virginia based on the principles of an open society:
Look, it doesn't matter where you were born, what matters is how you treat people and how people treat you. No matter where someone was born, when I am friends with their family, and they are friends with mine, then we are part of the same community -- we are part of the same Virginia.
That is what it sounds like to talk about an Open Society: talk of welcoming, not gatekeeping. Of course, the Open Society frame is much larger than the ups and downs of a Senate race in Virginia.
But as long as George Allen keeps humiliating people who look different than himself, keeps flashing his temper, and keeps hiding his suspicious outbursts behind the 'mother' frame, then we will be seeing a good deal of the Open Society frame out of Virginia.
And why not? What better place than Virginia -- home of America's great Constitution framer, Thomas Jefferson -- to drive forward such a loud and clear Progressive idea.
JEFFREY FELDMAN'S FRAMESHOP
Jeffrey Feldman is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Frameshop. First established in late 2004 on several large blogs and launched as an independent website Jan. 1, 2005. Dr. Feldman has a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology which he applies broadly to the analysis of politics and communication. He lives and teaches in New York City, conducts workshops on framing throughout the country, and is s a regular guest on the national syndicated radio show The Thom Hartmann Radio Program.
© 2006 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop.