Thursday, July 20, 2006

Lakoff on Freedom

George Lakoff spoke at the Congregational Church last night to a larger than usual crowd. The Congregational Church offers its space to Cody’s Bookstore for what has turned into a series of lectures on politics, religion and the culture wars, which puts the church at or close to the center of progressive politics in this country. Lakoff is turning out to be one of the more articulate voices of that center, as attested to by the much larger than usual crowd. And his position as one of Nancy Pelosi’s advisors. Clearly the word is getting around that the man is on to something.

Lakoff was pushing his latest book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. There are several good reviews of it on Amazon , and a negative one by Publisher’s Weekly, so let me review his talk and not the book itself.

If you’re still reading, it’s likely you know Lakoff’s contribution as a cognitive scientist to an understanding of the lay of the land in American political thought. He is known in academic circles for his study of metaphor. Like Chomsky, he is a linguist who has turned his attention to politics. Unlike Chomsky, though, his work in politics is still part of his work as a linguist. His work as a cognitive scientist has found its way out of the ivory tower and into mainstream politics.

The book that marked this turn in his career in the mid-80s is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, a book which was followed by the more accessible, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which contained a foreword by Howard Dean, and has been described as a “pocket manifesto” for the left. Both books contain Lakoff’s core idea, that the reason the country has fallen into the lap of the right wing is that they have hit on the secret of “framing” issues in a way that plays to America’s fears and ambitions, while the left continues to act in the mistaken belief that a rational discussion of the issues is the way to go, a decision which leaves them in the dust.

Some reviewers have complained Whose Freedom? is recycled thought. If you've read him carefully, that's true. He evidently thought there was a call for a shorter and clearer example of his basic thesis that there are two opposing conceptualizations of freedom and they must be understood if we are to see why we are constantly talking not to each other, but past each other. Patricia de Jong, the host and introducer of Lakoff actually complained of the difficulty of reading Moral Politics, and I have no doubt there is work to be done to find a way to reach the widest possible audience..

In a nutshell, for those of you still unfamiliar with Lakoff’s thought, he posits that an understanding of metaphor is important to understanding our behavior. We tend to think in terms of fundamental metaphors. In the case of politics, the chief metaphor for government is that of the family. All nations do this in the age of the nation-state. We talk of the “Fatherland” or “Motherland,” we build institutions like “Homeland Security,” we think of “fraternity” alongside “equality” and “liberty.”

What has happened in America, Lakoff says, is we have split into two camps on the basis of our notion of how the national family should be conceived and run. Two notions of parenting. On the one hand there is the strict authoritarian father. His job is to hold the family together, guide it and protect it. In this image, the world is a hostile place and for the family to be safe, it needs to obey the father. Mother too. All members of the family need to be punished when getting out of line because this is serious business. The family gets ahead through hard work and sheer willpower, and by being smart and recognizing accomplishments. This patriarchal view of the universe is the one adopted by the right, and it explains, among other things, what was explained in Thomas Frank's What’s the Matter with Kansas? – the reason why the poor often support issues against their economic self-interest.

The left is working on a different model, that of the nurturant parent. While the strict parent model is gendered male, the nurturant parent is not gendered. There can be one or more parents of either sex. In the strict parent model, decisions are made by “the decider,” while in the nurturant parent model, they are made collectively as much as possible.

Cause and effect are seen differently. In the strict parent model, causes are simple, people are bad or good, good people must fight evil people, people succeed because they work hard, criminals get punished and hard work is rewarded. In the nurturant parent model, cause is complex and systemic. Problems must be understood through negotiated meaning and worked out collectively. The former sees reward and punishment as obvious responses to situations; the latter speaks instead of compassion and longer-term group harmony.

I’ve spent this much time on Lakoff’s thesis because it is the heart of all of his talks these days. And just one last comment before I talk about the talk. Lakoff’s new book originated from a careful study of Bush’s second inaugural address, where he used the word freedom more than 40 times. Lakoff calls that speech a work of art. It starts with the universal understanding of freedom, which both sides share, and by the time Bush leaves the universal ground concept on which we all agree for the right wing strict parent model of freedom, he has his audience hooked.

Lakoff is a good public speaker. He is a model of articulateness – the skill of saying the most in the best way with the fewest words – and he has an impressive ability to grasp the real question behind the actual question from his audience. And it’s obvious he has taken on some sort of guru status, at least to this Berkeley crowd.

I can only wonder if he is up to this. People want him to spell out all the steps to taking back the government; he insists on elucidating the cognitive theory which democrats need to understand to come up with their own steps, and thus, ironically, illustrates the dilemma he articulates between short clear answers and complex understanding. The democrats are at a disadvantage because their notion of what counts requires elaboration. To the left freedom has a history of endless expansion of liberties, from suffrage limited to landowners to all men, from men only to women, from whites only to blacks. It requires negotiated meaning. The republicans, on the other hand, can work off deep-seated emotions of fear and anger and express themselves convincingly in bumper-sticker, sound-bite, brevity, because they have staked a claim to the semantic territory.

“How can we do what they do?” one questioner asked. “There is no shortcut,” Lakoff answered. The ground must be re-seeded. You can’t work with sound-bites if the concepts referred to are no longer there. Once people have defined freedom as the authoritarians (another word for “strict parents”) have, it’s all over.

Lakoff gave an example of this “authoritarian” definition of freedom. The new pope, Benedict XVI, a billiant philosopher, well-schooled in Jesuitical reasoning, according to Lakoff, has reached the conclusion that a woman who has an abortion is limiting her own freedom.

Benedict is coming from Aristotle’s notion that all things have “essences.” The essence of a tree is to grow tall (so you can climb it), grow leaves (so you can shade yourself with it), and to be made of wood (so you can burn it and warm yourself from it). The essence of a woman is to give birth. If a woman has an abortion, she is working against that essence. Freedom is defined as going with the flow of your essence, in Aristotelian terms. Ergo, a woman committing an abortion is giving up her freedom.

In Bush’s view, the essence of a democracy is the freedom to grow and prosper. Limitations on that growth, whether against the freedom of the marketplace or in almost any kind of government regulation, works against that essential freedom.

Liberals, progressives (the labels are always problematic) come from a different definitional starting place. Freedom, to them, involves responsibility not to limit the freedom of others. Government regulation is necessary against robber barons, unscrupulous business practices, etc. And when the two talk, and use words like freedom and liberty they are usually unaware they are working from different concepts.

What needs to be done, Lakoff insists, is we have to appeal to the mass of people currently satisfied to allow the strict authoritarian notion of freedom to sit unquestioned in the subconscious. We have to revitalize concepts such as commonwealth before we can begin to hope people will revitalize a sense of responsibility and civic duty. To the right, the left’s notion of freedom is license – undisciplined self-interest. To the left, the right’s notion of freedom is license – undisciplined self-interest. We don’t disagree on the problem. We disagree over the need for a single paternal force in bringing discipline back into our lives.

Everybody knows the power to control the topics in a conversation is as important as having facts at your fingertips. When you control the topics, you can work to your own strengths. The right knows how to speak to the average citizen’s fear of license by tweaking their revulsion of abortion and unwanted pregnancy as well as newly evolved definitions of family. Once there, it has no trouble getting them to associate drugs with criminality rather than illness; it fits the simpler causal model of a bad man doing bad things rather than the systemic causal model which requires a more complex interpretation of significance. And it is able to define immigration as a problem of lawbreaker immigrants (single actors doing bad: breaking the law) rather than a problem of the unlawful employment of immigrants (multiple actors doing good: expanding the economy) and the consumption of the service of immigrants (i.e., all of us – and how can we possibly blame all of us?)

The left too, has a fear of license. It’s just that their focus is on the license of those in authority. What has to happen is that the left has to learn to talk to the fear of license on the part of the average person and redirect it to seeing the solution as greater social responsibility, not more unfettered freedom to move against the common good.

The great move in our society from mainstream churches to Pentecostal (what we used to call “holy rollers”) and Baptist bodies where people wave their arms and sing and cry ought to make it clear something is going on, and it isn’t rational thinking. We are dealing with fear, and frustration, and anger, and confusion. Lakoff (the previous comment is mine, not his) illustrates this with a criticism of John Edwards – a good man still hung up on talking economics to people who are no longer listening.

So much for the thrust of Lakoff’s argument.

The highlight of the evening for me came from another direction. Apparently unaware that George Lakoff is Jewish, a woman stood up and asked, “Everybody’s talking these days about toxic religion. Can you give any advice to a Christian like me who wants to get people to focus on the message of Jesus’ love in the New Testament, rather than going on endlessly about an Old Testament God?”

George Lakoff didn’t miss a beat. “You know,” he said. “If your are raised as a religious Jew, you get used to the idea that your time studying the Torah will be spent reading one single line followed by sometimes dozens of pages of commentary. Self-contradicting commentary. The good schools try to include everything ever written of note on the subject. You never come out of a study of the scripture thinking there is only one literal way to read it. Quite the contrary.”

“Let me give you an example,” he said. And he told the story of Abraham and Isaac. Most people, he said, use that story to illustrate what a wonderful obedient servant of God Abraham was, to be willing to sacrifice his beloved son on demand.

“That’s not the way I learned it,” Lakoff said. “I came to see Abraham as an idiot. God comes to Abraham holding the knife in his hand and says, “Shmuck! What’s the matter with you? That’s not the way it’s supposed to go! Can’t you think for yourself? Must I do everything for you? Send an angel down to stay your hand? Geesh!”

Wonder if the good Christian lady got the point. It’s not really about Jewish vs. Christian values. The battle is over whether Enlightenment values should prevail or the values of the patriarchial authoritarians, religious or otherwise. Whether one fits the abrahamic tradition into an enlightenment context or the other way around.

July 20, 2006

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