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Freya Shipley

Freya Shipley
Portland, Oregon, USA
January 29
Freya Shipley Communications
Freya Shipley is a freelance content marketer and editor with a background in linguistics. Contact Freya at


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APRIL 28, 2011 10:28PM

Why the “Birther” Movement is No Joke

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     Barack ObamaDonald Trump and his so-called “birther” movement radiate absurdity. Most of us Salon readers—in fact, probably most folks who read anything at all—agree that the whole issue is silly beyond words. It is, as Whoopie Goldberg said, “the biggest pile of dog mess I’ve seen in ages.”

     And yet.

     Trump’s ringing challenge to President Obama—prove that you really are one of us!—has attracted worldwide attention for reasons beyond the billionaire’s power to buy media time. Inane as his arguments are, they constitute a serious and sinister attempt to manupulate our perceptions.

     Every time people communicate, we do it within the context of a  frame. A frame is a group activity. It’s what we’re up to when we interact. Some examples of frames:

  • going to a restaurant
  • getting a medical checkup
  • playing poker

Every frame is made of a bunch of interlocking roles, kind of like parts in a play. In the medical checkup frame, for instance, we expect a doctor, a patient, a receptionist, and maybe a nurse or a technician. Expectations, in fact, are what frames are all about. If you show up for your appointment and the doctor asks you to give her a CAT scan, you know something's gone wrong with the frame.

Roles in frames are connected to each other. Pick one up, and a bunch more come along for the ride like paperclips out of a jar. Mention a doctor, and everybody thinks of patients. “Waiter” automatically implies someone being waited on. If I can get you to accept my identity as a teacher, you’re halfway to seeing yourself as a student.

That’s the reason why so much of what Donald Trump says is about himself. He’s trying to sell us an image of himself as a heroic investigator, selflessly dedicated to uncovering “the greatest scam in the history of this country”:

  • “Somebody has to embrace it [the job no one else dares take on].”
  • “I have done a great service for the American people.”
  • “I'm honored. I have accomplished something really, really important.”
  • “I got him to do something nobody else could get him to do.”

If he can persuade us to accept him in that role, then the whole “heroic investigator” frame comes along with it. If there’s a noble sleuth dedicated to the cause of truth, then there must also be a villain trying to get away with fraud. And the person cast in that role is, of course, President Obama.

Yesterday’s events demonstrate how tricky frames can be. Obama chose to respond respectfully to Trump’s attack. He devoted time, attention, and money to defending himself. He published his birth certificate. By doing all that, Mr. Obama tacitly accepted the “villain” role in Donald Trump’s frame.

But surely the certificate clears him of the charge? Didn’t the president just shut down the whole “birther” circus by proving his innocence?


This is the amazingly sneaky power of frames. Merely by engaging with Mr. Trump’s frame, Mr. Obama validated it. In that sense it doesn’t matter whether he produced the certificate or confessed to being a closet Muslim born on Mars. Either way, he would still be accepting Mr. Trump’s right to question him: thus affirming Donald Trump's frame. This is the same mistake Richard Nixon famously made in 1973 when he told the world, “I’m not a crook!”

Give people a new frame to think with, and you can change their minds. That’s why Mr. Trump’s accusations are not trivial. Yes, the “where-was-he-born” furore is absurd. But what really matters is that Mr. Trump successfully reframed himself in relation to Mr. Obama, and he maneuvered the president into publicly accepting the identity being handed to him.

Trump won this round. Birth certificate or no, we haven’t heard the last of him yet.

Video: George Lakoff, UC Berkeley Professor of Cognitive Linguistics, talks about framing.


              Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Framing in Discourse (ISBN 978-0195079968)

Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (ISBN 978-0674316560)


Freya Shipley is a freelance writer with a background in linguistics and history. Visit her at






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Maybe Obama did it because:
1) The state of Hawaii proposed a fee of over $100 for a copy, since their Department of Health phone lines were flooded by birthers and
2) There are probably many people who wonder about it, just because of all the media attention.

It won't shut up the kooks, but it will quiet the unease of the average person who has listened to too many kooks.

Obama is not like the average American. It's not just his color. It's his entire life story. His father isn't African-American, he's African, period. He was born in Hawaii, which is a hell of a long way from the continental US. He lived overseas. He's never going to seem like "one of us" to people for whom Hawaii is an exotic place and Kenya and Indonesia might was well be on the far side of the moon.

I'm sure Obama knows this and he knows nothing he does is going to make him seem like an average Joe, even an average black Joe to the average Joe. I'm also sure he knew that he'd get a hell of a lot of crap if he won the presidency. He decided it was worth it and I'm sure he's too smart to be bothered by the lunatics.
I don't see Trump winning anything with all of this. He looked more like a pompous ass than ever in his press interview. If people can't see through that guy, I pity them. Sadly, many can't and sadder yet, is the fact that they vote. I'm not even sure if any minds were changed, certainly no birthers minds have been changed. Facts have no effect on that group. I suppose there are some that may have toppled off the birther wagon, but I doubt many. Leopard and spots and all that.
There always have been, and always will be kooks. Back in the day he was just our crazy uncle. Now with the internet and 24 hour news he is everybody's uncle, from a very large family.

People love a good mystery. They have made people who can tell them very rich. Along with a mystery is a good conspiracy. There are the moon landings, who shot JFK and the magic bullet, the "weather balloon"0 at Roswell, NM and of course Area 51 which everybody know is real.

When all this stuff started President Obama should had given this document to the first judge to bring one to the court room. He didn't, so now he gets to suffer along with every other kook target.

So here is something else the President and I disagree on. He played games while America tried to dig it's self out of a hole. I just think it's funny that Trump played him, and it's going to backfire on lots of people here. See, lots of the "birthers" believe he was born in HI. They just want to see what it is he doesn't want to show us. Next will be something, anything, he wrote while in law school. Seems he things his school records are a national security secret along with anything he wrote. That includes his books that his "friend" Bill Ayers is dropping hints claiming he wrote for him.

So if you are going to frame yourself, and your administration, as transparent then you need to be ready to live in that frame when people come asking for things that others may wonder about. When they do then you have to decide to live in the frame, and let the world see stuff, or become the next magic bullet.

I, for one, hope he stays in the frame and produces the stuff that is going to be asked for. If he doesn't say produce what he wrote in college the question will once again become what is he trying to hide and the games and distractions will continue.

It will also cost him his reelection because the frame others will put around him about what is he hiding. Trump will show you how to do it, how to make points doing it, and how to force him to play Trumps game. He will not be able to get his message out because he will be playing defense. The people here may support him with the framing starts, but you are not the people who will get him reelected. Those in the middle will and if Trump, or someone else, can put just a little doubt in their mind, Obama is gone.
Obama isn't one of us. He's just another example of what happens when people become annoyed with politicial leaderships which've overdone themselves with mediocricy.
Trump has been a running joke in informed circles for 30 years, but don't count him out. I would like to see him as the Republican nominee in 2012, because he is guaranteed to self-destruct in entertaining ways. And lose.
It's one big 400 year "Frame" of:

Slavery; Colonialism; 3/5 of a Man; A War Fought to Keep it That Way; White League; KKK; Jim Crow; Segregation; Dixiecrats; John Birch; Voting & Civil Rights Act Defections; Resulting Southern Strategy; "States Rights" means Nigger, Nigger, Nigger!; Reagan's Philadelphia, Mississippi campaign launch; and much more, with a whole bunch of crap laid on Hawaiians at the same time that's not as well known as all this obvious truth- that's the "Frame" ...

The "other players" you speak of are the legion of credulity who can't, won't or are too cowardly to admit their roles in this tragedy.

Trump, who just invested $300 million of "OPM" in Hawaii, now, and for sure he could care less, now, he spits in the face of all Trump, Inc.'s employees in Waikiki, and all the suckers who paid millions for their condos, who were also born in the same hospital as the prez, some of whom knew him growing up, and many, many of whom, including myself, have the same birth certificate.

One other "Frame"- the president's Alma Mater, Punahou, has a Centuries OLD tradition of sending the majority of its grads to the Ivy League, something very few other schools can say, especially outside the east coast prep world ... now, there are some real players in that frame!

all said, very good work here- rated
Here is hoping that your post will go on

to influence the opinions and attitudes

of important decision-makers like

President Obama.
As Mencken said, never underestimate the boobswasie.
Frames, yeah, an interesting idea.
you might also be interested in Memes, lots of academic writing on that.
another interesting writer is Kuhn on Paradigm Shifts.
this reminds me of the documents relating to bush's military record and dan rather ending his career over that.
but, it seems people who most blithely reject conspiracy theories are the least educated on basic history.
for example, the known public record of the CIA [or any other wroldwide intelligence agency] is pretty astonshing.
for a case of *widespread* identity theft/passport fraud, look into the recent mossad dubai assassination operation. of which almost all americans know about absolutely zilch even though its very well documented.
Here's the opposing view. Obama claimed, during his campaign, to have his original BC in a vault somewhere. Rumors say, he's spent upwards of $800,000 in legal fee's to keep it there, who knows? He has also "sealed" all his school records, why? It's been reported he has multiple social security numbers issued in his name, which in itself is a crime. The thing he posted on the web, actually both things were fake. I know it's hard to believe, in this digital age that someone could fake vital records. The way Obama could have avoided the scrutiny would to have been to release the "original BC" he claims to possess. Instead he has "special" arrangements made with the Hawaiian health department to release a "copy" of his original BC. The problem with the "copy" was, in 1961 they didn't have "form feed", or "tractor feed" document security paper. And, who ever made it, forgot to flatten the layers used to make up the composite. So, uploading the image to Adobe illustrator, the layers are easily separated. Also, with his seeming difficulty with conveying truth, as in the Bin Laden fairy tale, in which the story line changed several times, making it difficult to tell which version was the true one, if any. Obama claims that in wartime, he has the authority to order the death of whoever he seems fit. He's wrong. Even if that were the case, congress has to declare war, they hadn't declared war on Pakistan. This act alone makes Obama a murderer, before, and after the fact. That's the law of this land, and nobody is above it.