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Friday, 11 August 2006 01:23

Frameshop: The War On Toothpaste

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Duck and CoverToday, when I turned on the television, I heard Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, explain that a terror plot had been foiled in Britain -- which would have involved the use of liquid explosives carried onto planes. In response, Chertoff passed a new regulation banning certain liquid and gel items in airplane carry-on luggage on all U.S. flights. The video shown repeatedly in the background featured a woman at airport security tossing a tube of toothpaste into a garbage can.

A terror plot was foiled by British intelligence. In response, the Bush administration tells Americans that for our own safety, we must now to throw out our toothpaste before getting on a plane.

As I watched this story unfold, I felt a combination of horror, disbelief and nostalgia.

I was horrified that someone would know how to -- let alone want to -- blow up a passenger plane by turning household liquid items into explosives.

I could not believe that my government had, in all seriousness, told American citizens that throwing out their toothpaste would be make them safer.

And I was nostalgic for what appeared to be a return to the Duck and Cover days of the cold war. This latest 'War on Toothpaste' is America's latest attempt at preparing for a terrible disaster.

Bert The Turtle And The Civil Defense Frame

I am too young to have seen Duck And Cover in school. I first saw it at a film festival showing quirky industrial movies that -- while serious at the time -- were guaranteed to get a laugh from the audience, today.

Duck and Cover was produced in 1951 by the U.S. government Federal Civil Defense Administration. The purpose of the film was to teach school children how to survive a nuclear attack by following the example of the friendly and industrious 'Bert the Turtle.' In the film, whenever Bert sees a monkey in a tree dangling a lit stick of dynamite from a stick, he quickly pulls into his turtle shell. As a result, the monkey, the stick and the tree are destroyed, but Bert survives the blast. From this opening sequence, children are taught by Duck and Cover that if they hear a nuclear bomb explosion nearby, they should quickly duck under a hard surface to survive: a desk, a table, a curb.

The nuclear annihilation of children is certainly not a funny topic. But what makes today's audiences laugh when they see Duck and Cover is the knowledge that this advice would have been hopelessly and tragically wrong were these children featured in the film to actually have experienced a nearby nuclear explosion. Once scene shows a group of school children sitting in a classroom when a nuclear bomb goes off with a flash. With a Ward Cleaver style voice, the film's narrator says (paraphrasing, here), "Quick, kids. Get under a desk. Tha-a-a-t's it. You're alright now." Each time I have watched this scene, the audience bursts out laughing. "Hah!" Someone inevitably shouts. "Fat lot of good that's gonna do ya!"

What we lack, but which 1950s American audiences had, was the shared, unspoken logic of the "Civil Defense" frame. When a school child watched "Duck and Cover," they did not laugh, because they believed that the advice would save their lives. And why would they not believe it?

Founded by President Truman, the purpose of the Federal Civil Defense Administration was to give people the knowledge they needed to survive a nuclear war. The key to survival was preparation. And so, Americans build bomb shelters and taught their children to leap under their desks as a way of being able to go about their lives with a happy face despite the threat of nuclear bombs.

The "Day After" Frame

By the time I reached high school in the early 1980s, we were being taught a new frame about nuclear weapons: The Day After Frame.

The Day After was a privately made film shown in 1983 and starred Jason Robards. In this film, which was aired on television, the United Sates suffers a nuclear attack and we watch the impact of the explosions and the nuclear fallout on a set of characters.

Unlike Duck and Cover with it's sing-songy optimism, The Day After showed entire groups of people being vaporized when bombs went off and tracked the impact of nuclear fallout through excruciating detail, including dysentery and extreme skin lesions. And socially, from the perspective of The Day After, a nuclear attack had anything but a happy ending -- no matter how well prepared one might have been. The attack led to riots, civil collapse, desperation.

In this "Day After" frame, the logic was that there was no preparation for nuclear war -- no way to really 'survive' the great threat that loomed over our heads. The only way to survive was to prevent the war from happening in the first place.

If the "Duck and Cover" frame led to bomb shelters and Barry Goldwater, the "Day After" frame led anti-nuclear bomb protests and Ronald Reagan.

Amazingly, when considered together it seems that the "Duck and Cover" and "Day After" frames are two cultural ends of the unspoken logic of the cold war. Americans began the Cold War thinking they could prepare and everything would be fine. Then, by the time it started to wrap up, we were pretty much convinced that total disaster was just around the corner.

Duck And Cover 2.0

Fast forward from 1983 to 2006. The Cold War is over. We now have a Federal Agency called Homeland Security that occupies our daily attention span. Americans no longer worry about nuclear bombs outside their school, so much as the shaving gel in the Tumi bag of the guy sitting next to you on the flight to Vegas. This moment is dominated by the 'War on Terror' not the 'Cold War' and the images seared into our minds include the explosive belts of suicide bombers, airplanes flying into tall buildings, and commuter trains blown to pieces by backpack bombs.

But despite all this change, it is remarkable how we have a nation -- under the guidance of the Bush Administration -- have returned to the logic of Bert the Turtle: preparation makes you safe.

Think about it for a minute.

We are all so proud -- and so relieved -- that British intelligence officers tracked and foiled a plot to use household liquid containers into bring bombs onto planes. Thank goodness this plot was discovered and that the information was shared with American intelligence agencies before people were killed.

But having said that, do we really believe that throwing away our toothpaste will make us safer on the next flight we take?

Of course not. Throwing away our toothpaste to protect oneself from a terrorist attack is as ludicrous as leaping under a desk to protect oneself from a nuclear bomb. It is the kind of folly we associate with the 1950s before we knew better.

Still, after watching the Secretary Chertoff, today, tell Americans that to help prevent terrorist attacks we must throw out our toothpaste -- and our shaving gel, and our Channel No. 5, and our lime flavored Diet coke -- the realization that America had entered "Duck and Cover 2.0" hit me loud and clear.

And what is the lesson?

The lesson is that after 5 years of leadership from the Republicans, the American understanding of how to fight terrorism is as sophisticated as a silly cartoon of a turtle who leaps into his shell at the site of a monkey hanging from a tree.

Despite all the crassly illegal wiretaps and grossly immoral torture camps, the Republican led Federal government has brought the American public back to a Bert the Turtle mindset. Worried about terrorists on airplanes? Just prepare and you will be alright. Meanwhile, we will keep building nuclear bombs and keep occupying sovereign Middle Eastern nations.

The War On Toothpaste

As a result of our return to the "Duck and Cover" frame, the 'War on Terror' became the 'War on Toothpaste,' if only for this week.

But the larger lesson here is about how attention to the broad unspoken logic of a particular national moment can help us understand where were are heading as a country.

While the suggestions in the movie Duck and Cover were nonsense, back then the Federal Civil Defense Agency did not know any better. Today, the same cannot be said of the Homeland Security Department.

Secretary Chertoff knows full well that throwing out tubes of toothpaste in line at airport security will not make anyone the least bit safer on an airplane. But still they pass this regulation because the Bush administration would rather resort to Bert the Turtle advice than to actually face the real problem we face as a nation: the failure of President Bush's pre-emptive military policy to do anything but increase the terrorist threat to Americans and isolated our nation from the rest of the world.

What is the real danger American airline passengers face, today? The fact that President Bush's Administration has stopped talking with Syria and Iran. That is the danger.

Almost five years into the Bush administration's 'war on terror,' terrorists are more active, more innovative, and more frightening than they were when we started.

And five years into the Bush administrations 'war on terror,' Americans are once again starting to look like 1950s school children leaping under our desks when we hear a loud pop.

It's Duck and Cover all over again.

Framing Tactics

To move this discussion to a new frame, Progressives can try to use three simple phrases:

  1. "Toothpaste is not the threat" - This is the phrase that invokes the logic discussed in this article and sets up a discussion of one's views of President' Bush's foreign policy as being the real reason Americans feel less safe.

  2. "Start talking to Syria and Iran" - This line is used in response to the rhetorical question 'What is the real danger to airline passengers in America?" It is also a way to get out of the Duck and Cover logic by talking about the context of the terrorism, not just reactions to a potential incident.

  3. "Smarter security" - Ultimately, the logic of throwing out toothpaste to protect Americans from terrorism is so ludicrous, that simply pointing it out can be tactic enough to change the frame. But the bigger logic is that we need 'smarter security' to protect passengers. From there, one can open onto a discussion of real innovation that anticipate disaster, rather than panic responses to the days events.


* * *

Jeffrey Feldman is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Frameshop. First established in late 2004 on several large blogs and launched as an independent website Jan. 1, 2005. Dr. Feldman has a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology which he applies broadly to the analysis of politics and communication. He lives and teaches in New York City, conducts workshops on framing throughout the country, and is s a regular guest on the national syndicated radio show The Thom Hartmann Radio Program.

Read 2941 times Last modified on Monday, 14 August 2006 23:57