EU’s Juncker hasn’t read his George Lakoff

Today’s topics: Brexit, poindexters, I am not a nerd, and yes we have no bananas. Oh, and Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” comment.

In an impassioned (for him) but possibly counterproductive speech, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he had a message “for those who are saying that the Commission is composed by blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats…” What was his message? No one knows, because the audience quickly drowned him out with cries of “They’re right!”

Okay, maybe they didn’t, but the point is: This is a prime example of what George Lakoff might call “negative framing,” e.g. Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, or Monty Python’s “There is no cannibalism in the British Navy.”

Once you plant the image in the mind of your audience that the EC might at least possibly consist of blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats, you then have to fight to overcome that image. I like President Juncker well enough, but this is a gaff which invites parody:

What Juncker should have done is open with a couple of jokes about bendy bananas, or perhaps a musical number entitled “Yes, We Have No Bendy Bananas.” Then, once the crowd was warmed up, he could have continued on a positive note: “I come to you today with good news! EC members have excellent eyesight and fare well on intelligence tests. They’re super flexible. They include sports jocks and passionate lovers. No, there are absolutely no poindexters in the EC. Oops! I did it again…”

Monty Python served up a prime example of intentional negative framing in “POLITICIANS – An Apology”:

We would like to apologize for the way in which politicians are represented in this programme. It was never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent. Nor to imply at any stage that they are squabbling little toadies without an ounce of concern for the vital social problems of today. Nor indeed do we intend that viewers should consider them as crabby ulcerous little self-seeking vermin with furry legs and an excessive addiction to alcohol and certain explicit sexual practices which some people might find offensive.

We are sorry if this impression has come across.

— Monty Python’s Flying Circus, s03e06

As for poindexters (a.k.a. nerds), this YouTube attempts to explain the derivation:

Props to Simon Whistler! (I’ve seen a lovely portrait of his mother.) But the video fails to note that the term “poindexter” was further popularized by The Simpsons TV show, which emerged in the late 1980s — the same period in which Admiral John Poindexter gave testimony to Congress about the Contragate scandal:

Note memorable examples of framing in the clip. There can be a cascade effect to memes. This one may include the Poindexter from Felix The Cat, the Poindexter from Revege of the Nerds, but also the Poindexter brought to you by the U.S. Navy — which like the British Navy, has no history of cannibalism. Or at least, very little.

Poindexter from Felix The Cat

Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds

The King of Poindexters: Admiral John

Was there really an outbreak of “Poindex-teria” in 1987? The author of this Chicago Tribune piece seems to have tongue (rather than pipe) firmly planted in cheek:

The country loved it. Young men flocked to barber shops to get “Dexter-dome” haircuts. Young women made passes at men who wore glasses. There were T-shirts: “Poindexter: What a Way with Words!” There were buttons: “We Luv Ya, Dex!” There were even bumper stickers: “Pipesmokers Do It With Their Teeth.”

At Navy recruiting stations, the lines stretched into the street. And things were even better at tobacco shops.

“It’s been unbelievable,” exclaimed one happy pipe salesman, whose store had a life-size cardboard Poindexter propped in the window. “It was the way the TV showed every puff rising to the ceiling–just mesmerizing. People come in here–they’ve been listening to this guy’s testimony for days–and all they want to know is, ‘What’s he been smoking?'”

— Rick Horowitz, “I Wish I Could Hold A Pipe The Way He Does”

Anyway, there are limits to George Lakoff’s theories on framing. But in the most trivial case, it’s easy to see how we can communicate better by creating our own positive frame, rather than trying to rebut someone else’s negative frame (Juncker’s fatal and risible mistake). As Lakeoff says in “The Power of Positive Persistence”:

Framing is about reclaiming our power to decide what’s important. Framing is about making sure WE set the terms of the debate, using our language and our ideas. … There’s a place for angry response and outrage. That’s only human. But we also need strategic action to make sure every passing day fuels positive action towards progress.

Sadly, Brexiteers did a better job of framing the issue than Remainers: a big red bus with a baldfaced lie about giving £350 million a week to the NHS, plus appeals to World War II nationalism and fears of Turkish hordes invading Britain. Deceptive framing obscures the real issues, arousing people’s passions about non-issues, leading them to make bad decisions.

What are the spoils of Brexit victory? Bendy bananas and faux sovereignty:

Brexiteers will poo-poo the prospect of a bananaless Britain as Project Fear. Meanwhile, unemployment is expected to rise, and The Guardian cites a new study claiming that Brexit is already costing the UK £500 million a week.

Jean-Claude Juncker seems like a good enough fellow, and the EU is an essential organisation for maintaining peace in Europe, as well as planning for economic prosperity and environmental responsibility. It does have its nerdish, technocratic aspects, but that’s no reason for the UK to up and leave it. A recent (fairly rude) comedy sketch on the German heute-show had a brilliant sugggestion, which was for Britain to stay in the EU while blowing off its rules whenever it suits them, just as Germany does. Quoting mock correspondent Birte Schneider, “English people, you can still stay in the EU and be an egotistical a-hole.”


Sidebar: Tusk comment spurs row in House of Commons – Bercow in top form

While quite funny, this clip is an example of dueling frames: The first MP (Peter Bone) frames Tusk’s comment more or less as “To hell with Brexiteers!” while the second MP (Joanna Cherry, who quotes Tusk more accurately) frames it as “Those who promoted Brexit with no plan for safely implementing it are deserving of blame.” Speaker John Bercow adds a note of levity by referring to Bone as a “delicate flower” easily wounded. The clip is a mini insight into UK politics, with Tory Brexiteers trash-talking the EU, and rebel Scots defending it. The trash talk got more toxic on Twitter, accompanied by the ritual burning of the EU flag:

Two of the more over-the-top responses to Donald Tusk’s (understandable) expression of exasperation at some who promoted #Brexit

What was it Monty Python said in their apology? “…never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent.”

Oh well. Maybe some right-wingers can do without fruit, veg, and jobs. They can live on hate alone.

Let’s go out on a cheery note with Bananarama singing “Cruel Summer” and throwing bits of ‘nanas at police:

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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