Naked City

Moving one step forward

George Lakoff
George Lakoff (Photo By Wells Dunbar)

Heard the old chestnut about the liberal firing squad? It's arranged in a circle.

Austin Moving Forward is looking to change that. Composed of organizations like Liveable City, the Gray Panthers, Latinos for Texas, EcoNetwork, and Democracy for Texas, Moving Forward assembled in the Ragsdale Center at St. Edward's Saturday, looking for common ground in forming a progressive Austin agenda. Also hoping to reclaim the national conversation from the Bush administration and conservative think tanks, the event's keynote speaker was University of California-Berkeley linguist and Dem political consultant George Lakoff, author of Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

Following introductory remarks from Austin state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and others, former Austin state Rep. Ann Kitchen elucidated Moving Forward's goals and challenges. "This is one of the places in the U.S. where we can turn ideas into action," said Kitchen, arguing that liberal compartmentalization keeps Austin's navy blue from rippling into Texas' red sea. "The progressive community is strong, but it's fragmented."

Binding that community is paramount, said former Austin City Council member and LBJ School professor Bill Spelman. He pointed to the successes of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an amalgamation of unions, churches, and neighborhoods assembled with an eye on metropolitan diversity. Starting with a single issue – the living wage – the coalition used early victories as leverage in successfully championing other issues, like affordable housing and curbing big-box development. In that context, Spelman advised the group to think big, yet strategically, because the concerns of the broadly considered progressive agenda are intertwined. Spelman cited a central example highlighted in recent City Council discussions: "In order to solve our affordable housing problem, we need to do something about our living wage issue."

Numerous similar issues were raised in a town hall-style forum, including particularly contentious topics like toll roads and taxes. The preponderance of pale faces in the 500-plus crowd highlighted a central Moving Forward challenge: real diversity. Liveable City chair Robin Rather said the event failed to make the room look like "what Austin looks like" as she vowed to redouble her efforts.

As the afternoon waned, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, spoke to the power of words in introducing Lakoff. Citing the public humiliation Sen. Dick Durbin received for his remarks on abuse in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay – Durbin was excoriated for describing some of the interrogators' methods as akin to Nazis' – Doggett said, "We don't have to overstate our case … but when our friends are attacked, we need to stand up and defend them" from the "flat earth, backwards-looking society" of the wing-nut right.

Lakoff began with his own dissection of Karl Rove's recent libelous dismissal of liberals in the face of 9/11, and how in rushing to their own defense, Democrats played directly into Rove's hands. "The very first lesson of framing is you don't activate the other guy's frame," Lakoff said. "Richard Nixon found this out when he said, 'I am not a crook.'" Eager to dispute Rove's charge of being soft on terrorism, several Democrats voiced support for the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, and by proxy, Bush. Furthermore, by using the term liberal and not Democrat, Rove "made it look like any Democrat attacking his remarks was a lily-livered liberal." The more effective response, said Lakoff, "starts with resisting Rove's juicy bait," pounding the administration on the facts, and pointing out the immorality of using American and Iraqi lives for political ends. "Spell out the progressive philosophy … promote science, knowledge, and truth against the onslaught of political fundamentalists. In short, be proactive, not reactive."

In that vein, the nascent Moving Forward group plans to continue developing local organizational networks, "to forge a shared vision and develop a common agenda for Austin's future." For more info, visit www.austinmovingforward.org.

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