thoughts on george lakoff

Well, not on George Lakoff himself, I don't know the man. On the ideas of his that I've read.

Lakoff is the author of an essay, first published in The Nation, called "Our Moral Values", and two very popular books, Moral Politics and Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

I tried to read both books at the urging of a hyperactive person on my voter-registration trip. She was a recent convert to activism and couldn't stop talking about Lakoff and his supposedly new approach. I tried to read them... but failed. Couldn't get through either one.

After the election, the "Moral Politics" essay was making the rounds big-time. It was all over the internet, and appeared several times in my inbox. Each time, I had the same reaction. I tried to be open to it, but found myself rejecting it, for reasons I found difficult to articulate.

So when Crabletta recently asked me to share my thoughts on Lakoff, I used it as an opportunity to try to flesh them out. So, some thoughts on "Our Moral Values".

I agree Democrats should not try to act like Republicans. Lakoff and I are in complete agreement there. However...

I am unconvinced that the Democrats lost the election because the Republicans are seen as the party of morals and the Democrats are seen as the unprincipled party of "anything goes". If this were true, how do we account for Clinton's election and re-election?

I am unconvinced that the Democrats lost the election because of gay marriage or abortion rights. It may be true that the anti-gay-marriage fervor increased reactionary voter turn-out. But I still don't think the majority of American voters vote in national elections based on these issues. Those that do would never, ever vote Democrat. Hard-core anti-choicers don't vote Democrat. But most Americans are not hard-core anti-choice. They are ambivalent about abortion and don't think the government should be in the business of deciding individual, personal decisions.

I spoke to thousands of voters in the crucial battleground states, either personally, or looking at the survey results of the phone crew I coordinated. To the question, What issues are most important to you in the upcoming presidential election, an infinitesimally small fraction of them mentioned gay marriage or abortion rights. Those who did generally said they were voting to preserve individual freedom on both issues.

So it's not that I disagree with anything Lakoff wrote. I disagree with the premise on which his essays are based.

It lets the corrupt, corporate media off the hook for its part in swaying the electorate with lies and deception.

It does not allow for the very real probability of fraudulent elections in several key counties.

It assumes the Republicans won the election because they were perceived as more moral. If they won the election at all, it was, I think, because:

- they continued to instill and stoke the public's fear of terrorism, and to capitalize on that fear,

- using extremely adroit media manipulation and complicity, they appeared to be fighting that threat,

- using those same skills, they spread lies about John Kerry, and

- they cheated.

I believe this. There is lots of evidence to back it up.

I'm not absolving the Democrats or saying the Kerry campaign didn't make mistakes. There were problems there, too. But no campaign is perfect. The Republicans made many missteps, but the media helped them recover.

I have a very basic problem with trying to out-moral the morality police. I don't think the government should be in the business of discussing morals. I want to see election campaigns be less about morals, not more. I think if Democrats run around proclaiming "We are the more moral party!", they have already conceded the fight.


sleepybomb said...

while i haven't read laskoff, you are in the same mindset as i am.
i think the repubs just manipulated the media much better than the dems. i find it surreal the way they gloss over what should be said and gushes over what is said to them.
the morality ploy is perfect. the dems can't fight them on it, and it distracts from the real issues.
i can't belive there is still debate about the biased-liberal-media. what is funny to me is that rupert murdoch owns fox news and fox network. the two are like day and night.one is absorbed neo-con, the other pushing the limits of, well you name it.
i guess in this day and age we aren't suppose to question, so i better stop now.

laura k said...

question, question, question!!

you're so right, the claim of liberal-media bias is the great hoax of the 20th century.

should you ever find yourself in a debate, see eric alterman for evidence...

B. W. Ventril said...

I totally agree with your take on Lakoff. And there's another false premise many Democrats are operating with: although it's certainly true that the Republicans have done an excellent job of defining the terms of much political debate in this country, leaving Democrats on the defensive (or just floundering), the idea that the Democrats need to find some sort of equivalent discursive scorched earth policy is just plain silly. The Democrats don't have to get all Americans thinking the same way about political issues (or "moral values"). They just have to get a million more votes in a key state or two. And there are a many, many ways to do that. It just turns out that Karl Rove is a genius at manipulation who outflanked his Democratic counterparts. The anti-gay ballot initiatives in key states were designed to get more Republicans to the polls, who would also vote for Bush. And, as you point out, there was also much dodginess afoot.

Rove and others used anti-gay actions to make strategic gains. Blaming gays and lesbians misses this point entirely, and is of course evil in its own right. The homophobic idea that "gays were this election's Ralph Nader" (i.e. the "spoilers" that "cost" the Democrats the election) has shown just how bankrupt some supposedly liberal Democrats are. Anyone who thinks this might as well say that not being Republicans cost the Democrats the election, and then give up on the idea of democracy all together.

sleepybomb said...

is he bigger than me? i shall look him up.

laura k said...

thanks for making me laugh, mr. s. bomb.

and to both of you: i didn't know anyone agreed with me on this! the "liberals" have gone ga-ga over this moral value crap... it's a relief to hear your voices.

Crabbi said...

Hey L-girl,
Great post! I've only read Moral Politics, so I'll have to check out The Nation essay. I agree that we shouldn't try to "out-moral the morality police," but I think a discussion of real values is healthy and necessary. (Ultra) conservatives claim to have the upper hand on morality, but for them, morals seem to be limited to abortion and who one sleeps with. Many of us have a broader definiton of morality. Pre-emptive strikes and driving a Hummer are two immoral acts that come to my mind.

I couldn't agree more about the reasons for Bush's (questionable) victory. They played on people's fears of terrorism, and the media played right along. One of the ways they were able to accomplish this was skillful use/manipulation of language, which is one of Lakoff's points. A more recent example is referring to "personal accounts" instead of "private accounts, because the second term didn't "test well."

So, thanks - you've given me lots to mull over :)

laura k said...

Thanks, Crabby!

I believe the essay is a summary of the book.

They are certainly evil geniuses when it comes to language manipulation: the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind say it all. It's exactly what George Orwell wrote about in his famous essay on political language. (If I use his name one more time, I'll have to change the name of this blog to we move to orwell...)

There again, they get a huge assist from the media. For example, there is NO SUCH THING as "partial-birth abortion" - it's a completely made-up term, has no medical meaning whatsoever. But the mainstream media repeats it, usually without quotation marks...

Crabbi said...

Oh, that one drives me nuts! "Partial birth abortion" conjures up images of baby seal clubbing. As if a woman gets pregnant for the hell of it and then suddenly slaps her hand to her forehead in month 7 or 8 and says, "Damn, I knew I forgot something!" I understand that these late-term abortions are done rarely and only if the mother and/or the fetus are in danger.

I forgot to mention in my last post that I loaned Moral Politics to a few people and none of them could get through it, either. Perhaps one reason it struck such a chord with me is Lakoff's other premise, which is that conservatives and liberals view the world from the strict father or nurturant parent perspective, respectively, and our language reflects those world views. That's an oversimplification, of course, but it resonated with me. Guess I've been witness to one too many scolding lectures by conservatives.

Once again, you've got my wheels turning. I totally get your point about being more issues-oriented, but now I have to ask myself if I can separate that from progressive values. Perhaps I can't. On the other hand, maybe the values are implicit and by announcing them, we are playing the Repub's game. I dunno - I think I can go back and forth on this point for a while. Hmm...

laura k said...

Ha! I love your characterization of D&X (the medical abbreviation for "PBA"). I'm intimately involved in the politics of second-trimester abortion, so don't get me started... :)

[For more details, look for posts about the Haven Coalition - also something I wrote right after this year's Roe anniversary. Grrrr...]

Lakoff's Nation essay gets into that strict father/nurturing parent thing. It was part of what didn't sit right with me.

The bottom line for me is that I don't think the voting public really does perceive the two parties in this way. I think it's a fictitious premise.

I do agree with you that there's nothing wrong with talking about liberal values - as long as those values are connected to actual issues that effect people's lives.

laura k said...

And I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who couldn't read it! :)

Crabbi said...

OK, this is a little weird. I was looking at another blog and saw a reference to both baby seal clubbing and abortion in the same post. What are the odds?

I have to check out Moral Politics again. It's with one of the people who has yet to read it :) I don't think Lakoff is the last word, but I have some thoughts on the parent models that I hope to post soon.

I'm sure there are lots of people who couldn't get through Lakoff's books. I remember when I first read MP, and I had a gut "yes" reaction to it. I may need to revisit it, or at least mull it over some more.