Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Don't Think of an Elephant

One of the arguments George Lakoff has made is that the simple denial of an accusation can add weight to that accusation. He uses the example of Nixon's "I am not a crook" comment. Before he made it, few people openly talked about the possibility that Nixon might be a crook. But, once he uttered that famous phrase, the question of Nixon's crookedness became topic #1 on everyone's lips.

I am reminded of this by the recent events surrounding the disaster in southeast Asia. The United States initially pledged $15 million dollars towards the relief effort. This was actually the largest initial pledge of any country, but it garnered some criticism for its paltry size when compared to the magnitude of the catastrophe and the economic power of the United States. Comparisons of the amount to the estimated $40 million being spent on Bush's inaugural didn't help any.

An obscure UN official named Jan Egeland made a comment about richer nations being "stingy" in their pledges. He didn't specifically name the United States, but the Bush administration was quick to respond to the comment as if it were directed at them. Colin Powell made the rounds of the morning talk shows yesterday angrily stating that "The United States is not stingy."

Mr. Powell, meet Mr. Nixon.

Now the question on everyone's lips is whether the United States really has done enough (the pledge has been raised to nearly $45 million now, but that is still pretty "stingy" compared to the magnitude of the disaster). It has forced Bush himself to come forward and answer the criticisms (though only in a taped statement). Thus elevating the story to an even higher level.

I am unsure whether the accusation is a fair one, at least as far as the initial dollar amounts are concerned. Powell and other administration defenders are right that this was only the initial amount and latter funds would follow once a clearer assessment of where those funds were needed had been made.

But, as public relations go, there presentation on this matter is quickly turning into a disaster. The money is really not the issue. It's the attitude that matters even more. Bush's refusal to cut his vacation short looks bad compared to the quick responses of people like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who did what Bush has not. The administrations subsequent comments dismissing "feel your pain" type public appearances at the site of disaster areas completely misses the point. Yes, these are a form of political grandstanding, but they also reassure disaster victims that public officials really are taking their pain seriously.

And Powell's response to the "stingy" issue just makes the administration look defensive, which makes them look guilty, which just adds weight to the initial criticism.

Well, at least the cloud of the tsunami disaster has at least one silver lining.


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