Thursday, June 29, 2006

It's George Lakoff all over!

Here's a good Salon article:

June 29, 2006 | A recurring gag on "The Daily Show" involves a series of short clips of appearances by various advocates of the Bush administration on assorted news programs; the joke is that they all use the same buzzwords -- "cut-and-run" is the latest example -- with a robotic uniformity. The laughter this routine gets comes partly from the way it makes the conservatives seem like automatons, and partly from the sheer obviousness of the ploy. What makes them think we're so dumb? George Lakoff, a University of California at Berkeley linguistics professor who has lately taken to advising the left on how to better convey its political message, would probably reply, "What makes you think you're so smart?"

Lakoff's latest book, "Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea," doesn't offer a material advance on his earlier works on political culture, "Moral Politics" (1980) and the how-to manual "Don't Think of an Elephant," which became a bestseller in 2004. "Whose Freedom?" focuses on the one key concept in its title and elaborates on all the ways that progressives can reclaim the idea of freedom from the right and present their political approach as more true to traditional American ideals of liberty. Conservatives, Lakoff argues, have used the media to imprint their version of "freedom" in the public's mind -- literally in the circuits of our brains -- using a canny understanding of how political language shapes political beliefs and the very same numbing repetition that "The Daily Show" mocks...

The strength of "Whose Freedom?" is that it attributes the left's current foundering not just to a failure of strategy but to a failure of self-knowledge. Progressives, he argues, don't really understand what they believe or, just as important, how they believe it. "Freedom and liberty are progressive ideas -- our ideas," he writes. "It is time for progressives to fully integrate them into our everyday thinking and into our language." Furthermore, the progressive notion of freedom is identical to "traditional American freedom," which "still reigns in the American mind." Progressives really are in tune with what many average Americans believe, Lakoff insists, but conservatives are so good at hijacking the language to peddle their own radical redefinition of "freedom" that the other side can't get its message across.

Lakoff's political thinking turns on several ideas gleaned from his background in cognitive science. First, rooted in his early work in linguistics, is the idea that most thought is metaphorical. We understand abstract concepts by "mapping" them onto concrete, physical experiences. The language we use to describe freedom (or the lack of it) is grounded in metaphors of bodily movement and of coercion and restraint: groups are "held back," the press is "gagged," people gain "access" to higher office, etc. That's why, Lakoff writes, our feelings about freedom are "visceral," because they're based on our animal desire to move about as we please. These feelings, like most feelings, are essential to the judgments we make about what we do, but they aren't strictly rational.

More important to Lakoff's political influence is the idea of "frames," the underlying structures of abstract concepts. A concept like freedom has an "uncontested core" -- a central nugget of ideas that almost everyone can agree on -- while different people can harbor radically different notions about the form the concept takes in real life. For example, the left and right in America may both agree that freedom is good, but while the left sees poverty relief programs as offering the poor freedom from want and fear, the right usually sees them as fostering a dependency on the government that lessens their freedom...

In Lakoff's scheme, there are deep frames -- larger structures that define how someone understands a whole range of questions -- and surface frames, which determine how they view specific issues. Probably the most resonant of Lakoff's ideas contrasts conservative and progressive beliefs about how governments relate to their people. These frames are metaphors based on family models. Conservatives, as he sees it, subscribe to a "strict father" ideal, a model in which the leader leads with a moral authority that "must not be seriously challenged," protecting the family from the very real evils of the outside world...

Progressives, by contrast, subscribe to the "nurturant parent" model. This concept seems somewhat foggier, "authoritative without being authoritarian," based on mutual respect and the idea that discussion and explanation, rather than simple decree and force, are the best way to set rules.

I heard the late Allen Ginsberg talking about Bob Dylan on the PBS documentary last night; he mentioned that among Tibetan Buddhist teachers, it's considered a shame if the student does not surpass the teacher. I think Lakoff is wrong with his framing; it's not simply a nurturing parent, but an empowering parent that progressives, at least like myself, favor.

And, lest I forget about Lakoff, Bush is not incompetent:

The idea that Bush is incompetent is a curious one. Consider the following (incomplete) list of major initiatives the Bush administration, with a loyal conservative Congress, has accomplished:

  • Centralizing power within the executive branch to an unprecedented degree
  • Starting two major wars, one started with questionable intelligence and in a manner with which the military disagreed
  • Placing on the Supreme Court two far-right justices, and stacking the lower federal courts with many more
  • Cutting taxes during wartime, an unprecedented event
  • Passing a number of controversial bills such as the PATRIOT Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, the Medicare Drug bill, the Bankruptcy bill and a number of massive tax cuts
  • Rolling back and refusing to enforce a host of basic regulatory protections
  • Appointing industry officials to oversee regulatory agencies
  • Establishing a greater role for religion through faith-based initiatives
  • Passing Orwellian-titled legislation assaulting the environment — “The Healthy Forests Act” and the “Clear Skies Initiative” — to deforest public lands, and put more pollution in our skies
  • Winning re-election and solidifying his party’s grip on Congress
  • These aren’t signs of incompetence. As should be painfully clear, the Bush administration has been overwhelmingly competent in advancing its conservative vision. It has been all too effective in achieving its goals by determinedly pursuing a conservative philosophy.

    It’s not Bush the man who has been so harmful, it’s the conservative agenda.

    Yep, that dern liberal media...

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