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Why 'Speak American?' - essay format

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The Metaphor Project believes it's vital that we reach out to people beyond our own political circles today. Doing this successfully requires learning to 'speak American.' That means using the words, phrases, images, or metaphors that convey our own progressive values in a way more Americans can hear. This is exactly what Martin Luther King did when he capped his great speech on racial equality in 1963 with the phrase 'I have a dream . . .' He was referring to our shared American dream of a nation that fosters equality, opportunity, and justice. This is the ideal American vision expressed in the words of our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

It's true that as a nation, we have not been able to fully realize our ideal national vision, and that we have often deeply violated it. Yet that positive vision has remained the source of social change activists' cutting-edge work and success throughout our history. Our own goal of a new and better society itself grows directly out of this American vision.

Using the words, phrases, images or metaphors that convey the best American values is the most effective way to create real common ground. This is a vital step to take at the beginning of our messages, the 'big idea' part, before we start explaining the specifics of our policy proposals. A good example of this today is the way that gay rights are now being reframed as civil rights. This is exactly the kind of thing I mean by the phrase 'speaking American.'

Why It Works

A phrase like 'civil rights' can work because it calls to mind familiar themes in our shared national 'story.' The enduring American 'story' is actually a collection of mini-narratives about who we are as a people, who we want to be, how we get there, how we do things, what works for us, and how we succeed. Though not all of these mini-narratives express progressive values, many do. All of these story elements are usually expressed by shorthand in everyday communication—for example, demanding that we 'play by the rules' about something is one of the most commonly used American political phrases. We all know it means 'play fair' in a cooperative, team way when we hear it.

What The American Story Includes

The most important element of the 'American Story' is The American Dream. Although today that phrase is often narrowed to the limits of the consumer culture, there is a larger American dream that is still alive in our country -- that is the dream of a fair, prosperous, and free nation willing to try new ways to get things done. Parts of this dream form a section of the narrative I call The American Nation as well.

This dream includes the feeling that we are the 'can do' people, who can turn on a dime to do the impossible better than anyone else. As individuals, when the playing field is level, we have hope that we can better our situation in life by our own efforts because we believe in a piece of our story the MP has labelled Free to Succeed. (More detail on these story elements can be found in Some American Story Elements That Evoke Core Values and Some American Metaphor Categories).

But we also depend on cooperative communities of honest and well-intentioned neighbors to help us reach our goals (Small Town Security). And there are several other important American narratives about shared social struggle in our common cultural heritage and actual history. These are the 'Us vs Them' face-off stories. Some are about owners vs workers or slaves, or about the rich vs the poor or immigrants.

Others are about dominant whites vs people of color. These narratives break the conventional American taboo against admitting that class or race matter in America, but they also include important aspects of the larger American story: 'can do,' 'the good community,' fairness, equality and opportunity, among others.

Most of all, we are action types, on the move, in motion toward a better future (We're On A Roll). Most of us still believe that the better future we seek will come to us by doing things in new ways, by means of science and technology (Man to Superman). But, optimistic as we are, we also are quick to condemn The American Nightmare--secrecy, deception, lies, secret deals, invasion of privacy and violation of other basic rights, ignoring or breaking the rule of law, going too far, breaking the budget, betraying the public trust, cheating the public, discrimination and unfair business practices.

And we hate failure. We like to succeed, individually and as a nation. (A set of four other American story elements frequently used in politics can be found in the writings of Robert Reich: 'mob at the gates, rot at the top, the triumphant individual, and the benevolent community.' See the American Studies section of the Selected Sources and Links for bibliography.)

Of course, the overall 'American Story' includes both conservative and progressive mini-stories. (See Blue, Red, and Purple for more detail about how these story elements line up.) In The People's History of America, Howard Zinn tells the story that when enough of the oppressed act up enough, progress occurs. Bill Moyers has recounted the many ways progressive reform movements have worked in American history.

Boston College sociologist Charles Derber's book, Hidden Power, also provides valuable background and 'how to' suggestions for carrying this task forward. The goal of all of these writers is to help us become more aware of our own enduring cultural DNA as progressives. They point to the guiding narratives that show us how to act on the best American vision now.

What's At Stake

The idea that America has the potential to be different embodies a core truth. Today we have lost touch with what government was like in the world before the American Revolution. But when our forefathers, flawed as they and their work were, set out to create a country governed by the people and without a king, they were unique in the world and widely believed to be crazy and certain to fail.

Today, the American dream of democratic government by the people, of the people and for the people, of religious freedom, equality, opportunity, and prosperity for all is still a revolutionary force in the rest of the world. This is true despite the scale of our nation's current betrayals. Mark Hertsgaard has written extensively about this in his 2003 book, The Eagle's Shadow. We cannot afford to just throw out the power of our potential. We must use it to lead our nation toward living by the best American values, not just talking about them or covering up lies with them.

One American story element that clashes strongly with liberal and progressive ideas is 'American Exceptionalism.' That's the belief that America is special, unique, perfect, and called to save (and rule) the world, even if it means using military force. This idea has deep roots in American history. It has been used to justify or cover abuses at home and abroad since our beginnings. Activists are sometimes so angry about it that they try to completely avoid 'speaking American.'

It is true that some American story elements are not, by any stretch, compatible with liberal or progressive values. The American cultural 'story' is a very mixed bag. It combines pieces of the ideal American vision, of our experience as individuals, and some conclusions drawn, rightly or wrongly from our history. American history shows we did not start out living our best values, and as a nation, we have fallen short again and again. It is also true that the language of our best values has frequently been used to cover up their betrayal.

But we must not throw out the baby (the ideal vision the words evoke) with the bath water (the way the words have been misused by some). We need to follow the example of our activist forbears, who constantly called on the nation to reform by challenging us to live by our best values. Our times call out for activists to again play this essential role. We can stay true to our own values when we reclaim our shared political language.

Answers to Objections

If we select or combine American story elements carefully, we can convey our messages honestly and effectively. (For some examples of how to do this, see the next section below.) Focusing on the positive possibilities for our common future is the most successful way to lead Americans toward better behavior.

Quick Guide to Answering Objections

The following steps can help you deal with resistance to 'speaking American:'

l. If people say, 'The American story is all bad, a lie, just the oppressors' version, and ‘speaking American' is just using the oppressors' language':

Make clear that you are talking about an ideal American vision, how America should be, not actual or recent history, and that at this point in your organizing process you are aiming to reach the mainstream audience of American people and its elected representatives.

Remind your listeners that our ideal values come from our national contract documents, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. Note that American social change activists of every kind have always worked to expand the actual expression of those values in American life. It's our turn now.

Show that unappealing elements of the American cultural story can be corrected by bridging selected aspects to other story elements that do work for us. For example, we can use the individual hope part of the Horatio Alger story (or individual responsibility frame) and combine it with the ideas of fairness, and equality via the cooperative sports metaphor of 'level the playing field.' [See Speaking American (Detailed Step by Step Version) for an example.]

2. If they say, 'we need a new story,' the old story is bankrupt, a lie, and the oppressors' version:

Explain that when trying to persuade, studies show that the best results are obtained by presenting new ideas using value language familiar to mainstream audiences, and that well-known American words, phrases, images or metaphors will convey this best. For example, a Sierra Club activist in the South recently gave a speech about how patriotic it was to preserve our natural areas.

3. If they say, 'we need to be speaking for the planet or for the global audience, and not catering to American 'exceptionalism,' the idea that Americans are different from everybody else:

Meet the concern expressed by some international activists about 'speaking American' instead of 'speaking International,' by quoting Martin Khor, Director of the Third World Network. He has said that the most important thing we as Americans can do is change American behavior.

Point out that the best way to do that is to appeal to Americans' best ideas about themselves, as reflected in the finest core American values. These include freedom, equality, opportunity, setting a good example for the rest of the world, doing the new thing, and so on.

Explain that just exhorting our neighbors to give up their national identity as expressed in American exceptionalism won't work. Working to improve the way the American identity operates in the world is the only effective route.

As Warren Buffet famously advised Bono in his effort to get more American aid for Africa, 'Appeal to American greatness, not American conscience.'

Documentation for the points made in this essay can be found in the AMERICAN STUDIES section of Selected Sources and Links on this website.

Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director
The Metaphor Project ~ www.metaphorproject.org ~ metaphorproject@earthlink.net