Starting in 2005 and then again in 2008 and 2011, I wrote some web essays about the “one big family” frame in American politics.(1) These days it seems that the idea of our being one big family working together to create a better future is stone dead. Yet the enduring power of this part of our national narrative is still alive under the surface of things. In fact, right now it has a lot of new relevance. It’s there in today’s popularly supported imperative to reduce gun violence in our nation. It’s present in the call to replace the costly, suicidal sequester cuts with something better. So an obvious alternative in tune with the times would be cuts that started to take new tools for nuclear murder/suicide off the table too.
Unexpected progress on the gun violence issue, plus the drubbing the G.O.P. took in the 2012 election, have actually opened up a new chapter in our American story. One of the reasons the Republicans lost the presidency was they didn’t pay enough attention to the “one big family” frame; now suddenly they are talking immigration reform and passing the Violence Against Women Act. Young members of their party are also urging them to drop the social conservatism of being against gay marriage or other longtime “social control” hobby horses they’ve ridden for years.
In fact, there is nothing more urgent than using the current belt-tightening, ideology-changing moment to focus on the nuclear issue. We’re worried about guns? Well, the biggest, most dangerous, and most fiscally wasteful guns of all, are the ones cocked and ready to blow up our planet—nukes deployed and on alert. We still have 1500 nuclear strategic weapons deployed at the ready, with another 5000 operational and 5000 more available on the shelf. The ones on alert are ready to blow by miscalculation or even accident, just like a loaded gun in somebody’s home. Only this time it’s our human planetary home at risk and all the humans on it. Recent research has shown that if only 50 bombs were exploded in an exchange between India and Pakistan, a global nuclear winter would ensue, destroying Earth’s civil society, the ecosphere on which it depends, and thus most humans.(2) Then there’s the Obama administration’s misguided plan to launch a whole new round of nuclear weapons development and deployment, some in the form of “modernized” truck-based mobile nuclear weapons, to the tune of $600 billion.(3)Most important for the current debate, all proposed spending for these new nukes is being excluded from the sequester cuts. (4)
Along with being immoral, hypocritical, and likely to start a new nuclear weapons arms race worldwide, and given that we want everyone else to stop their nuke development, the U.S. plan is also fiscally stupid. Nuclear weapons are the unusable weapon; no responsible military man or woman worth their salt wants to use them. (5) Using them to threaten others is not credible in the hands of nations known to be somewhat rational, even though we did it once. In that case, it was two bombs, used to demonstrate what we could do. Nobody could fire back. The world has reviled that use of nuclear bombs ever since.
Now, we and others in the nuclear club literally have many thousands deployed and ready to fire, plus thousands more available. This is crazy and expensive. Just as the G.O.P. needs to outgrow “social control” government, we as a nation need to outgrow throwing money at mountains of unusable weapons, or new doomsday weapons only a suicidal fool would use. Moreover, nukes are just so “twentieth century,” as the saying goes. Although we may not like it much either, today’s modern “war” modality is via cyberspace or other much more sophisticated and eminently all too usable weapons. Let’s all grow up together about nukes now, when the budget pressure is hot and heavy. This is a once in a century chance to start making the earth and everyone on it much safer. That’s even bigger than the one big American family frame. It’s the one big human family frame.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, <http://www.metaphorproject.org>, and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How To Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.
1. The first piece I wrote about the “One Big Family Frame” was published on Common Dreams in 2005. I have revisited this frame several times in the last six years, in 2008 and again in 2011. To find more recent examples, search The Metaphor Project’s “Examples” archive at http://www.metaphorproject.org. Here’s a short refresher drawn from these essays about what the One Big Family frame has included throughout American history:
“It’s an historic American National Family metaphor, one that is larger than the “strict father” or “nurturing parent” frames. The American National Family frame says our country is like any real extended family–fractious but in the end functional. There are people in it who aren’t just like you, but they are still family, and we still have to try to solve our problems together, despite our differences.
The story of this extended American family frame also implies a specific, historical American way of communal problem solving: nationally the operative descriptive words are ‘pragmatic,’ ‘solution-oriented,’ ‘common sense,’ ‘practical,’ ‘pulling together,’ and ‘teamwork.’ Many of these terms also apply at the local level too, along with ‘community building’ and ‘finding common ground.’
The most important thing about this ‘one big family’ frame is the way it pictures people focusing on real problem solving together. It’s about looking at what really works and what doesn’t, and emphasizing agreement, not disagreement. It also means having a shared goal everyone is working toward, even if their reasons for wanting the same result differ. It suggests working out a ‘rough consensus,’ and yes, compromising here and there if the potential results are worth it. It includes tolerating each other’s differences as part of the traditional American respect for variety, individuality, and difference of views.
A vital part of this frame is also the way it acknowledges that we all hold, at least in principle, the same set of basic American Public Moral Values– fairness, honesty, equal opportunity, democracy, freedom, and compassion–drawn from both religious and secular ethics.”
2. Figures and research findings included here were cited by Daniel Ellsberg, in a talk he delivered at “Half Life,” an event celebrating the work of the Western States Legal Foundation, on 2.10.13, in Oakland, CA.
3. The New York Times op-ed, “The Nuclear Agenda,” February 24th, 2013, and Tri-Valley CARES Citizen’s Watch report, “Return of Mobile Nukes?” p.3, January/February issue 2013.
4. Ploughshares Blog, 3.08.2013.
5. I’m aware of the idea that nukes are seen as useful to nuclear newcomers. This argument was described in a review entitled “Rethinking the Unthinkable,” by Bill Keller, in the January 13, 2013 New York Times Book Review, p. 12. He was citing The Second Nuclear Age, by Paul Bracken, who makes the case that nukes help newcomers to the nuclear club “bluff, intimidate, rally the populace, throw opponents off balance,” and blackmail other countries. They also act as a poison pill, preventing others from attacking them. But even for those purposes, no one needs 1500, 5000, or even 50, and a big powerful country like ours doesn’t need new generations of nukes at all. Monkey see, monkey do!