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DVD Review: Deflating The Elephant

In the wake of the first Gulf War Noam Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, broke down the steps taken by George Bush senior's administration to took to ensure public support for their invasion of Iraq. Manufacturing Consent, first a book and then a documentary movie of the same name, showed how through manipulating the media, out right lies, and other means, the administration ensured that first the media and then the American public were deceived into giving their consent for the war. As a linguist he was naturally interested in how the administration used the English language to assist them in their efforts, and how phrases like collateral damage, among others, were used as part of their strategy.

While it shares the same concerns about the use of English as Manufacturing Consent, Deflating The Elephant, coming to DVD on May 19th and being distributed by Cinema Libre, is looking at a far bigger picture than just one set of circumstances. Like the earlier movie the central figure, George Lakoff, is a linguistics professor interested in how language has been used to shape public opinion. His topic is how the language used by American conservatives over the last thirty years to describe liberals, or moderates, has gradually changed the public's perception of liberalism being a force for positive change to being something that has a negative impact on their lives.

Introduced by actor Sean Penn, the movie has Lakoff being interviewed, and then talking about, how conservative think tanks have focused on framed messaging to demean liberals and liberalism. According to Lakoff language is influenced by framing, the process of associating a word with a concept, and in turn our way of thinking, our ideology, and our behaviour, is shaped by the way in which concepts are used and repeated. Similar to Pavolov's famous dogs phrases such as "war on terror", "tax relief", and "tax and spend liberals" have been used sufficiently that they now result in a conditioned response that adheres to conservative ideology. Lakoff contends that this is how America has been changed from what was basically a progressive country to one with decided conservative leanings.
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In case you have any doubts as to which side of the argument Lakoff falls on, liberal or conservative, he makes it obvious when he starts to outline how progressives screwed up by ignoring what the conservatives were doing and not challenging their disinformation campaign. The real give away though is the fact that the second part of the movie is dedicated to explaining how liberals can go about countering the negative perceptions that have been created about them and their policies. This involves a detailed analysis of how framing is created and the means to change the perception that liberals are elitists who given half a chance would waste tax payers money while allowing the country to be over run by terrorists.

I've no doubts of the veracity of Professor Lakoff's arguments or his theories on language. Nor do I have any trouble believing there was a concentrated effort on the part of conservative think tanks in the United States to demonize liberalism. I also agree with both his assessment that liberals failed miserably by not taking the threat these think tanks represented seriously, and his recommendation that liberals need to start getting their hands dirty by actively responding in order to counter the impression of liberalism that's been created. In fact I would think the mood generated by the current administrations represents a golden opportunity for rehabilitating liberalism in the United States.

Unfortunately Deflating The Elephant has to be one of the most breathtakingly boring examples of film I've seen in a long time. While what Professor Lakoff has to say is in of itself interesting and informative, the manner in which the material was presented was stupefying. There's nothing at all interesting about watching someone sitting behind a desk talking directly into the camera no matter what he or she is talking about. The medium is not called motion pictures for nothing you know.
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In fact a film like this one does more to reenforce liberals as a bunch of elitist intellectuals than any conservative propaganda. Watching Lakoff lecture from behind his desk on a subject that ninety per-cent of the population neither knows nor cares anything about would only confirm in most people's minds that liberals aren't concerned about what really matters. What does any of this have to do with making sure a person can feed their family? How does this relate to the struggle to pay medical bills? There's no effort made by the filmmakers to put the information into a context that details the impact the distortion of liberalism has had on people's life.

One of the claims that's made about the film is that its an invaluable learning tool for anyone who wants to learn how to read between the lines and recognize the real meaning behind framed messaging. The only trouble is that hardly anyone is going to want to sit through it to learn what's being offered. When I read about the movie, I thought the topic would be fascinating, and was hoping for something along the lines of what had been done with Manufacturing Consent. Instead, even the introductions to the various sections by Sean Penn are stilted (you can almost see his eyes reading off the teleprompter) and the movie as a whole was an exercise in tedium to sit through.

"Preaching to the converted" is an expression meaning that the material being presented isn't going to appeal to anyone who doesn't already believe in what's being said and no attempt is being made to change other people's minds. While there is nothing wrong with a little positive reinforcement now and then, Deflating The Elephant doesn't even work on that level as the material is presented in a manner that would put friend or foe to sleep.

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