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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Don't be a Lakoff

Hi, long time listener, first time blogger. So this is a trial run. I'm excited about joining FFB's staff and will try to uphold its lofty standards with both pointed provocation and kindly decorum. The first comes naturally, the latter will take some practice.

In framing my first post, I thought I'd take up one of the most popular political books of the last year or so, George Lakoff's Don't Think Of An Elephant, the book that made "framing" the hot concept for angry Dems around the blogosphere. (OK, I know I'm late to the game, but I just read it.) He's even been holding workshops and consulting with Howie Dean and congressional Dems. Simple summary: language matters, and the GOP's current political dominance depends upon their skill in defining the debate before it has even begun. Who could possibly defend a "death tax," beg for a UN "permission slip," or oppose a "healthy forest" initiative? Lakoff has written extensively on morals and metaphors in modern politics, and he's got a few bits of decent practical advice here, especially his warning to beware what you concede to opponents through the language you use and his suggestion that Dems should think about their proposals in terms of how they contribute to long-term strategic narratives rather than short-term expediencies.

Mostly, however, the book's a disaster. Lakoff's main problem is that he couldn't find a decent "frame" if it bit him in the ass, a problem if you want to be a language guru. (Oh well, so much for decorum.) Take his biggest frame as an example. As Lakoff explains it, today's politics is based on familial metaphors. The GOP's issues all appeal to a "strict father" frame, whereas Dems are "nurturant parents." Even if you don't like the GOP positions on any given issue, you vote for them because you find the larger frame attractive. If Dems want to compete, they need to find ways to accent the nurturing parent frame that is their natural advantage. Unfortunately for Lakoff, it would be hard to find a better example of accepting your opponents's frame than Dems embracing something as embarassingly wimpy as "nurturant parent." This is nothing more than a watered down version of the "daddy party" vs. "mommy party" distinction that Chris Matthews rides every night, with "mommies" replaced by the vaguely androgynous "parent," evoking late-sipping, breast-feeding, mini-vanning dads, and shrewish, "ain't bakin' no cookies" moms. Now, I can't say I object too much to the co-parenting movement's effort to get fathers more involved with their kids, etc. But as politics, this is deadly. Who do you want fighting the war on terror, a strict dad or a nurturant parent? Not surprisingly, Lakoff makes some truly pathetic comments about foreign policy: "Do we really think that the United States will have the protection of innocent Afghans in mind if it rains terror down on the Afghan infrastructure?" Ack. If you want to attack the GOP claims to be "strict fathers," accuse them of being "spoiled children." It rings truer, it picks up on all the same "you're in it for yourself" themes, and it's less of a red state giveaway.

Lakoff's got other problems as well. He fails to adequately account for political infrastructure (talk radio, cable news, corporate think tanks), which are the GOP's real edge. And he also gives the GOP's frames waaay too much credit. Despite the framing, GOP tax policies have never been broadly popular, and nobody's really fooled by that "Healthy Forest" stuff--it just undermines your credibility when you twist language that much. In other words, try as he might, Lakoff still "thinks of an elephant."

4 Comments:

At 9:19 PM, Blogger Frances said...

Couldn't agree more. Lakoff's advice is awful. His diagnosis of Republican framing techniques is pretty good, but he doesn't have a prescription for the problem. "Nurturant parent" evokes all the worst stereotypes of liberals: paternalistic, condescending, soft.

How about justice, dignity & equal opportunity as our fundamental liberal frames? Americans are citizens, not CHILDREN to be cared for--neither by daddies nor co-parents.

 
At 9:31 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Frances, your frames kick the living crap out of Lakoff's. Given the current administration's foibles, I'd add "rule of law," but the basic point remains: values need to be punchy and clear, unlike Lakoff's "better future".

Importantly, your chosen terms are not really based on a family metaphor at all. There's a key precedent for this. Locke made a similar move. We often forget about this, but much of what he's trying to do in the Second Treatise is kill off the family metaphor for government, which he saw, rightly, as tending to justify absolute executive power. So he goes to lengths to show that political power has radically different origins than family patriarchy. Unlike the family and its benevolent hierarchy, politics takes place between adults who are naturally free and are equals with respect to each other. When you try to extend patriarchy from the narrow and loving sphere of the family to a large nation without similar affections, you introduce tyranny.

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger Paul said...

C'mon, Frances, didn't you know the Bush administration passed the "No Child Left Behind Act"?

Of course, if you don't allow any children to get ahead, then none are left behind...

 
At 11:30 AM, Blogger DK said...

Lakoff is a nightmare, no question about that.

I find it amusing, though, that he's so trapped within the frame of Berkeley.

Most of his prescriptions seem aimed at winning the Whole Foods vote.

 

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