The Islamic Cultural Center: A Failure in Storytelling

Power in politics turns on being able to simultaneously control attention to an issue while also defining the terms of debate. A golden rule is to define yourself and your initiative before your opponents do. These underlying dynamics that drive the strategic communication process help explain the escalating firestorm over lower Manhattan's Islamic Cultural Center.

The terms of the debate were set early on by conservatives.  Seeking a wedge issue to inflame their base in the Fall elections, they seized on the opportunity to frame the lower Manhattan Islamic Cultural Center--located 2 blocks from the former World Trade Center site--as "building a mosque on ground zero." 

That now ubiquitous phrase, a powerful frame device, stirred passion among a conservative base, activating a growing latent Islamophobia. Conservatives now have their signature issue heading into the Congressional Midterms and Democrats are left playing defense. The term has stuck, no matter how much mainstream journalists and others work to shift perceptions and the language of the debate.

But could things have been different?  As Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi discusses in an analysis piece in Sunday's Outlook section, the controversy was enabled by the failure of the Islamic Cultural Center to anticipate conflict and to tell their story before their opponents.

The article is an excellent read and primer on strategy.  Fahri also discusses the responsibility of journalists on this issue.  Yet he skips over an important question: recognizing attempts to distort and inflame, why did it take so long for major news organizations to add context to the affair?

Following the 2004 election, there was much debate about news organizations showing greater responsibility and quicker action on correcting claims and providing context. Writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham proposed that journalism needs a rhetoric beat. I think it is a proposal that merits careful revisiting.

What do readers think? Did the Cultural Center allow itself to be exploited? Did journalists fall too quickly into the rhetorical trap?

Here are key excerpts from Farhi's article:

Calling the proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan a "Ground Zero mosque" stirs up a far more passionate response on either side of the issue than calling it "an Islamic cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan." Strictly speaking, the proposed 13-story edifice at 51 Park Place isn't exactly a mosque, at least not as that term is generally understood (domes, minarets, etc.), and certainly isn't going to be a mosque that's 13 stories tall.

The proposed building would contain many things -- a cooking school, basketball courts, a swimming pool, child-care facilities, a restaurant, a library, an auditorium, a Sept. 11 memorial (!) and, yes, a Muslim house of worship, or mosque. It would be located two blocks from a corner of the Ground Zero site, in a neighborhood already packed with places of worship, including another Muslim prayer house that predates the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Read the preceding paragraph and ask yourself: Doesn't "Mosque at Ground Zero" sound more like the sort of thing that could get opponents like Newt Gingrich to declare the project "a political statement of radical islamist triumph"?...

...Politicians, revolutionaries, editors and advertisers have long understood the power of a single word to recast and reframe an issue to explosive effect. By calling the estate tax the "death tax," conservatives broadened a narrow debate over the obligations of wealthy families into a question of taxation for all. Similarly, "pre-owned" vehicles sound a lot nicer than "used" ones....

...In Washington, naming a piece of legislation is a dark semantic art, fraught with deception and political manipulation. No matter what their flaws or merits, on name alone, it's hard to be against something called "the Patriot Act" or the "the Clean Skies Act." Calling anything a "reform" or "progressive" initiative implies that the reform is necessary or that opponents are regressive....

...Corporations try to play the opposite game. Instead of bland neutrality, they spend millions of dollars annually on names they hope will evoke a positive, emotional connection with consumers, says Hayes Roth, the chief marketing officer of Landor Associates, a company that creates names for marketers and organizations.

Ideally, he says, a great brand name is connected to "a great story." Apple, for example, is an ingeniously simple and resonant name for a computer because it suggests simplicity, familiarity and ease of use, all attributes for a potentially intimidating device like a computer.

This is where the promoters of the downtown Islamic cultural center/mosque may have let events slip beyond their control, he suggests: They didn't come up with a name that would have blunted the emotional uppercut of "mosque near Ground Zero."

The project's original name, Cordoba House, simply confuses the issue, Roth argues. "Most people will think of a town in Spain if they think anything at all," he says. But that name also plays on the fears raised by opponents; the Great Mosque of C?rdoba was built on the site of an early Christian church about 1,100 years ago, then rebuilt as a Catholic church a few centuries later after the resurgence of Christianity.

While C?rdoba also became known for its tolerance of Christians, Jews and Muslims, the name can just as easily be linked to interreligious conflict and conquest -- the kind of historic "triumph" that Gingrich is protesting. "It's not a clean story," Roth says. "If the idea of the building is to honor religious freedom in general and respect for others and to remember 9/11," the name doesn't convey that. Nor does the project's new, anesthetized name, Park 51.

Indeed, Roth says, the entire controversy might have been averted if the organization behind the project had selected a name that recognized the neighborhood as the site of epic tragedy and conveyed unassailable, inarguable intentions, using words like "memorial," "reconciliation," "international," "interfaith" or "understanding."

Not coincidentally, Landor recently completed work on logos and brand identifiers for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, located at Ground Zero. Landor's shorthand "identity" for the project is simple and to the point and unlikely to raise any hackles at all: "9/11 Memorial."

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.