Imagine that you live in a room with just one window.  It looks out onto a rather normal scene:  a bit of lawn, a strip of flowers alongside the road, a maple tree in the middle.  The scene changes a bit with the seasons, of course.  In winter, there are no flowers, no leaves on the tree, and snow covers the grass.  In autumn, the tree turns a brilliant orange, the sun casts long shadows, Queen Anne’s lace blooms at the edge.  In spite of these small variations, whenever you look out the window, you see essentially the same scene and that’s what’s “normal” to you and to everyone who lives with you.

One night, without your even really noticing, someone comes and moves the window a  few inches to the right.  When you wake up and look out, things look pretty much the same as they did yesterday:  spring leaves on the tree, bright green grass on the ground, a few daffodils and tulips along the street.  (That garden strip.  It’s always changing.  Spring flowers now; daisies and black-eyed-susans later.  That’s the way of the world.)  Well, just off to the right edge of the window, there’s the corner of a three-story building, but it’s not too visible.  You’re busy getting dressed and your mind is on your personal concerns.  Maybe that building was always there and you just never noticed.  A bit later, some other people come at night and move the window a few more inches to the right.  Now, the tree is no longer in the middle of the scene that you see every day; it’s decidedly off to the left.  And that building, well, it’s nearly front and center.  It’s always been there, though; you’ve been seeing it for weeks.  This happens a few more times and, a year later, the normal view out your window is of a busy street, a three-story building, and part of a five-story building.  If someone mentions that there used to be trees, and flowers, and grass, everyone laughs, or gasps, or gets upset.  Of course those things are impossible!  Just look out the window!  What’s normal is what’s out the window:  buildings and asphalt.

And that, as we all know, is how the Overton Window works.  Ideas, from either the Left or the Right, fall somewhere on a spectrum:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy
  • Popular
  • Sensible
  • Acceptable
  • Radical
  • Unthinkable

But if I can yank the window in one direction, so that what was once radical now occupies the position that was once  acceptable — everyone says it; we all know it’s true; we’ve been hearing it for years — then I can move policy in the direction I want.

The Right is much better at this game than the Left.  Note how no one on the Right ever criticizes even the more extreme members of the Right:  Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Breitbart, and, now, even people on CNN questioning whether Jews are people.  And, then, those ideas are “out there,” and, suddenly, we’ve stopped discussing whether we should help parents pay for day care and we’re running around insisting that, yes, of course, Jews are people.  OK, sure, everyone is entitled to their point of view and, agreed, both sides are kind of to blame here, but, wait, no, internment camps aren’t legal (What’s the big deal?  The Right told us for years that Obama was going to put our grannies in death camps.  Camps are normal now!), no, hold on, you can’t make people wear stars and,  . . . .

Even when they “lose” the argument, the Right wins by shifting the range of what’s normal.

One thing to notice about the Overton Window is that the way that the Right manipulates the window is very similar to what an abusive partner does.  At first, he’s charming and wonderful.  Then, there’s that one odd little demand:  you ARE going to hang up all his shirts in color-coded order in the closet.  And, really, what’s so difficult about that? It’s a simple demand and it’s just not worth making him angry over it.  Some of your foibles probably seem odd to him, too.  You know, the one where you don’t want to hand over your paycheck without any information or conditions.  And then there’s the day when you misjudge which yellow shirt is lighter than the other one and he smacks you.  Later, he’s very sorry and wishes you hadn’t made him do that, but the window just shifted.  Now, it isn’t acceding to an odd demand that’s the new normal; getting smacked is the new normal.  In a few days when he says he doesn’t like your best friend, it’s just easier to stop seeing her than to deal with getting smacked.  Eventually, it will, on the Overton scale, be “unthinkable” for you to expect to get through a day without getting smacked for something.  A good day is a day with only a few smacks.  But this all started out over how you hung up the shirts when you (natch) did the laundry.

Con artists do the same thing.  They get you to say yes to some very small request; something you’d be embarrassed to refuse.  Will you loan them a dollar to cover their share of the lunch tab?  Once you say yes to that little thing, it can become more difficult to draw the line.  Last week, you were happy to lend them five dollars; why are you balking over six dollars this week?  What kind of cheapskate won’t lend a friend a dollar extra this week?  OK, they’ll forgive you for being so cheap last week and will even give you a chance to show that you’re sorry; here’s an investment opportunity you can’t refuse.

The Left has been losing the Overton Window game for decades and now we’ve got a fascist president-elect and CNN and the New York Times are essentially becoming his propaganda machines.  What’s to be done?  Here are a few suggestions.

  1.  Recognize and call out what’s going on.  “Hey!  CNN just let a Nazi question whether Jews are people!  That’s batshit insane!  They’re letting fascists manipulate the Overton Window!”
  2. Start pulling in the other direction.  There’s a huge temptation to just react to what the fascists are doing.  Reject that. Don’t talk about how we can “save” Social Security by cutting benefits.  Talk about the need for everyone to receive a basic income.  Don’t talk about a carbon tax; talk about leaving it all in the ground.  Don’t talk about whether some abortion restrictions are reasonable; talk about providing free birth control to high school students.
  3. Work to overturn Citizens United.  It’s not the only reason, but one reason that most members of the Left are far more timid than most members of the right is that the Left has to get funding from large corporations, too.  And large corporations favor fascist forms of government.  Most members of the media have to get advertising dollars from large corporations.  And large corporations favor fascist forms of government.
  4. Stop the fucking purity wars.  The Left has, for decades, been much more involved in purging anyone who is — by your definition/my definition/some great man of history’s definition/the most radical socialist’s definition — insufficiently “pure,” than it has been at, for example, winning the Overton Window war.  Anyone who is willing to stand up to fascists is my ally at the moment.  Later, when we’ve moved into that grand and glorious ectopia that I once hoped to live to see, we can have a debate about who was most hurt when they called out fascism and not everyone immediately saw how brilliant they were.  If you simply can’t support something another Leftist does or says, you can at least not call the police just to show the Right how decent you are.  They won’t do that for you.

Feel free to add your own ideas in comments.

Picture found here.


18 responses to “Defenestration

  1. Don’t just fight privatizing Medicare, call for universal guaranteed Medicare.

  2. Wonderful

  3. Reblogged this on discordion {Artist Ian Pritchard} and commented:
    A great radical read. All author’s rights reserved.

  4. There are many metaphors about the Overton Window. The Camel’s Nose is one that is used in D.C. If you let the camel stick his nose under the tent, eventually the entire camel will be in the tent. So, stop the camel from putting his nose under the tent.
    Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile…
    Death by a thousand small cuts…
    They all go to the same issue. The Left is impotent when it comes to battle and they allow the Right to keep moving the hearts and minds of Americans to their point of view.
    I agree with the author, when they talk about their issue (be it Social Security cuts or any other) talk about your issue (basic guaranteed income). Do not let the right set the agenda. Why do you think they talk over people on television news. They know the other side is dangerous to them, so they overwhelm it. Most people are too polite and allow the wacko to blather on. This enables them to both get their point across and stifle opposing points. It is not fair, but is it fair that they have successfully won the House, Senate and now the White House using such tactics? This is war. The time for polite has long since passed. Fight for your beliefs!

  5. A GREAT and important article. I want we city-folk who pretty much all went blue to keep our tax dollars and then spend them transforming our cities into self-sustaining islands. I want us to use our ingenuity and figure out how to do this retrofitting old buildings – because we mostly have the tech to do it for newer buildings, but cities are full of older infrastructure…we need to figure out how to do this. That way it is important and good for the climate AND I want us to stop giving any freaking money to the corporations that are wrecking us and the red areas can just see what it is like for them to not be getting our tax dollars.

    I, honestly, think there is a way to do this and if we can create ways to fund it internal to cities…then I think that would be amazing. So…for those places that constantly shit on us but are ultimately “takers,” which is what the vast majority of red areas are…I think they’ve bit the hand that feeds them too may times and we could better use our funds doing what we need to do to address climate change/food security in our areas and then be able to present full working models of sustainable living.

  6. I shared the link on my Facebook timeline, and it’s already been shared twice from there. Meanwhile the right-on lefties are attacking Sen. Elizabeth Warren for being insufficiently pro the Standing Rock protests. I learned this right after reading your point #4: “Stop the fucking purity wars.” Point taken.

  7. There is another purity problem going on: the people on the left who are too pure themselves, to be sullied by the base information going around. Too pure to actually see that the “Democratic” Primary was nothing of the sort. Too pure to imagine the ways Trump is going to destroy the world. Too pure to watch or follow any media or news. They’ve been too pure to see the harm that’s been going on in our name, but if you try to tell them about it, they’re too pure to have to hear about such horrible and unpleasant realities. They don’t have any “interest” or it’s too “upsetting” or “exhausting,” or they just find it “distasteful.” Willful ignorance doesn’t just happen on the right.

  8. What people need to hear about SS and Medicare is this: it is the FICA tax that is taken out of your paycheck. Your employer also contributes half of this tax. Self employed people pay the entire amount of this tax. When you reach 65, you may be eligible for Medicare. If you are eligible, your Medicare contributions (premiums) will be deducted out of your SS before you receive your check. This is not a give away! It is not free! We are all paying or have paid!
    I cannot believe how many people do not know anything about the taxes taken out of their paychecks or how these programs are funded.

  9. 2a. When you express a “radical” idea, follow it up with, “This is not controversial.” I saw Noam Chomsky do this once with something I thought could indeed be considered controversial. I think it’s a good rhetorical tactic to impress upon the listener that your idea is “normal.”

    I love your blog name.

    PS I am also mostly made of the Potomac River.

  10. Lived in California and now Portland for most of my adult life. Seems like a grand idea for the three west coast states to ask Canada for sanctuary. We could take our economies with us…see how long those rural folks and their states would last. Trump has made me think evil thoughts.

  11. It bothers me that ‘rump communicates via twitter and youtube. Why not go live in front of the press, make your point, take a few questions and move on? Then, someone in the NY Times comment section said that twitter and youtube are controlled communication outlets. These are mediums that dictators and fascists prefer. They are scripted, staged, edited and disconnected from the people. I wish our news media would call out this crap and challenge the coward to go live.

  12. Beautiful piece, but I have to take issue with the word ‘ectopia’ which is a medical term meaning abnormal location of a body part usual congenital or due to injury….did you mean UTOPIA?

  13. Thank you for this. Brilliantly written and thought provoking post.

  14. Pingback: Resistance and Liberation: a Guide to Social Engagement in the Era of Trump | White Awake

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