Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Taking as a given our rule that "All comedy is conservative," Mr. Lakoff amply demonstrates one key corollary : the Left is often, though unintentionally, hilarious. His thesis is as follows:

(1) The key to successful communication is to get your listeners to accept how you choose to frame what you're saying.

(2) In politics there are essentially two frames, both of which model society as a family

(a) The conservative frame is based on a Strict Father:
The strict father sees the world as a dangerous and difficult place, where evil lurks, and competition will always produce winners and losers. His job is to protect and support his family, and as moral authority, teach his kids right from wrong. Through example and painful punishment, he instills in them an internal discipline to act morally and become self-reliant.

Moral people are disciplined and deserve to prosper. Those who are undisciplined are not moral and should not prosper. Mothers may comfort, but must be prevented from coddling, lest the children become undisciplined, immoral, and dependent. When the children are mature, they are on their own and parents should not meddle in their lives.
(b) The Left's frame is based on a Nurturing Parent (note the required PC use of "Parent" rather than Mother):
Nurturance here is defined by two central values: empathy and responsibility, for oneself and others. From these two values other values follow. If you empathize with a child, you protect the child, care for her, treat her fairly, and promote her fulfillment in life. To be fulfilled, she will require sufficient freedom and opportunity. Communication must be open, honest, and two-way. Trust and cooperation are essential. And since no one does it all alone, you need to build community. And above all, you have to be strong to be a good parent.

In progressive politics, the core values again are empathy and responsibility. From these, all the other progressive political values follow. For example, protection becomes consumer protection, worker protection, and environmental protection, as well as security. Fairness becomes social justice. Open communication becomes open government. Trust and cooperation become central values in many areas, especially trust in business and cooperation in foreign policy. Strength translates to political will, courage, dedication, and effectiveness. And care translates into social programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.
(3) The return to power of conservatives after the long epoch of liberalism--from the Depression until at least 1980, perhaps until 2002 if we consider control of all three branches of government--is a function of the Right using language to trick the American people into accepting its frame. All that is required for the Left to defeat the Right is for it to make better use of language in its own right.

Now, let us begin by noting that not all of that is silly. Strip away the self-serving bits and it is indeed appropriate to consider the fundamental human struggle as between those who lean towards freedom vs. those who favor security instead. You can go back as far as the Garden of Eden and see that the basic human choice is between a sheepish security or a rather riskier freedom. We, of course, chose the latter even at the expense of incurring God's displeasure.

It's easy enough to trace human history through this lens (a kind of metaframe for Mr. Lakoff's two frames) and, in doing so, to arrive at one key moment where the West divides along this line. The American Revolution institutionalized the idea of republican liberty as the God given foundation of our system of government, while the French Revolution set its cap for egalitie, or state imposed security. The last two centuries have essentially been characterized by a Long War between these two models, with various "-isms" rising up to promise that they will provide complete security and our having to go0 to war with them sooner of later because their totalitarian nature is an affront to our faith.

We did obviously flirt with the French model of thoroughgoing economic security following the Depression--the New Deal and Great Society--but snapped out of it in time, thanks in large part to Ronald Reagan's ability to remind us that it ran counter to our core principles as a people. Since then leaders of both parties and in the other nations of the Anglosphere have striven to come up with a system that will provide some minimum level of social security but to do so by using free market means that jibe with our traditions and beliefs. This Third Way/Compassionate Conservatism, whatever you choose to call it, is anathema to the Left even where Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have been the ones instituting it, so it does seem fair for Mr. Lakoff to say that conservatives have been winning for the past twenty something years.

However, when we extend our view out this far we can see the inherent problems with Mr. Lakoff's thesis. Not only is the conservative frame the one that's consistent with the Judeo-Christian understanding of Man's Fall and our subsequent lot in Creation, but the very nation is Founded upon that frame and our history is one of extending it at home and abroad. No matter how much Mr. Lakoff gets the Left to change the language they use, the only time they got Americans to shift to the progressive frame, even temporarily, was after the disaster of the Great Depression. Barring some similar catastrophe or the wholesale rejection of religion, by a nation where 85-95% of folks believe in God and a like rejection of the Founding by a notoriously patriotic and satisfied citizenry they just aren't going to get Americans to shift to their basically French frame. The title of the book seems especially appropriate when you consider that Mr. Lakoff ignores this one very big elephant in the room.


Grade: (D)


See also:

George Lakoff Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Don't Think of an Elephant (Chelsea Green Publishing)
    -Senior Fellow: George Lakoff (Rockridge Institute)
    -George Lakoff (Wikipedia)
    -EXCERPT: A Man of His Words: In this excerpt from his new book, "Don't Think of an Elephant!" George Lakoff talks about how transforming the language of politics can help win the good fight. (George Lakoff, September 8, 2004, AlterNet)
    -ESSAY: The Hidden State of the Union: The President's speech, like most right-wing discourse these days, was in a kind of code, based on a moral system that not all Americans share. (George Lakoff, January 27, 2004, AlterNet)
    -ESSAY: Framing the Dems: How conservatives control political debate and how progressives can take it back (George Lakoff, 9.1.03, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: The Progressive Morality: If progressives communicate their values clearly, most people will recognize them as their own, and more deeply American than those currently put forth by conservatives. (George Lakoff, November 24, 2004, The Nation)
    -ESSAY: Freedom, Liberty, Freedom: George W. Bush yet again used the crutches of "liberty" and "freedom" to frame his candidacy. (George Lakoff, September 3, 2004, AlterNet)
    Framing Katrina: Hurricane Katrina: With millions of Americans displaced, injured or dead in the disaster's aftermath, America watched modern conservative ideology -- less government, lower taxes, a strong defense -- crumble. (George Lakoff, John Halpin, Oct 18, 2005, The American Prospect)
    The Post-Katrina Ere: Hurricane Katrina: Katrina's tragic consequences were not just due to incompetence, natural disaster, or Bush policies (though he is accountable). This is a failure of moral and political philosophy (George Lakoff, Sep 6, 2005, AlterNet)
    -ESSAY: The 'Language of Values' in Politics: Renowned cognitive scientist George Lakoff expounds on how moral and spiritual beliefs affect political beliefs and actions. (George Lakoff, Jul 21, 2005, AlterNet)
    -ESSAY: Rove Rides Again -- With the Help of the Democrats (George Lakoff, 06.29.2005, Huffington Post)
    -ESSAY: The Foreign Language of Choice: Winning the debate over unwanted pregnancies requires Democrats to embrace four powerfully moral ideas -- and none of them have to do with 'choice.' (George Lakoff, June 2, 2005, AlterNet)
    -ESSAY: The Frame Around Arnold (George Lakoff, October 13, 2003, AlterNet)
    -ESSAY: Framing a Democratic Agenda (George Lakoff, September 24, 2003, The American Prospect)
    -Metaphor, Morality, and Politics,: Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust (George Lakoff, 1995)
    -ESSAY: Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf (George Lakoff, November 1991, Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter)
    -ARCHIVES: Stories by George Lakoff (AlterNet)
    -ARCHIVES: George Lakoff (The Nation)
    -ARCHIVES: "George Lakoff" (Find Articles)
    -INTERVIEW: Excerpt: Interview with George Lakoff: An excerpt from the Start Making Sense section Understanding the Right Wing. (AlterNet, Apr 20, 2005)
    -INTERVIEW: "Philosophy In The Flesh": A Talk With George Lakoff (EDGE 3rd Culture, 3/09/99)
    -INTERVIEW: We'll Grant This to the Republicans: They Know How to Frame Issues and Keep the Democrats on the Defensive. A BuzzFlash Interview with "Framing" Expert, UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff (A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW, 1/14/04)
    -INTERVIEW: Naming and Framing: George Lakoff's Moral Politics (Christopher Lydon Interviews)
    -INTERVIEW: with George Lakoff (James Verini, The Believer)
    -INTERVIEW: How to Talk Like a Conservative (If You Must): The left�s linguistics guru says liberals have to watch their language (Interviewed By Dave Gilson, October 18, 2004, Mother Jones)
    -PROFILE: The Framing Wars (MATT BAI, 7/17/05, NY Times Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Meet George Lakoff (Eric Salzman, Jan. 15, 2004, CBS News)
    -PROFILE: Don't Think of the Environment: Enviros recruit Lakoff for reframing project, but concerns mount that he might leave them in the lurch (Amanda Griscom Little, 29 Mar 2005, Grist)
    -PROFILE: The Man Who Framed Himself: How George Lakoff got trapped in his own metaphors (Jesse Walker, January 12, 2005, Reason)
    -PROFILE: Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics (Bonnie Azab Powell, 27 October 2003, UC Berkeley NewsCenter)
    -PROFILE: Value words, a linguist advises Democrats (Blair Anthony Robertson, December 22, 2004, Sacramento Bee)
    -ESSAY: Time for Progressives to Grow Up: Beyond Lakoff�s strict father vs. nurturant parent, a strong community manifesto (Frances Moore Lapp�, 23 Dec 2004, Guerilla News Network)
    -ARTICLE: Chelsea Green Hits Big Time With �Elephant' (Tom Hill, 1/14/05, Valley News)
-REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives by George Lakoff (Marc Cooper, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Kenneth S. Baer, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Ron Faucheux, Campaigns & Elections)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Judith Lewis, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Mark Satin, Radical Middle)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (JEREMY ADLER, Berkeley Political Review)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Katy Butler, Sierra)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Rebecca Wolfe, Project for the Old American Century)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Hal Pawluk, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Don't Think of an Elephant (Jonathan Steiman, Theory B)
    -REVIEW: of Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Edward Rothstein, NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Frame Wars: Whoever wins on November 2, the fight over reality and political language will continue (MICHAEL ERARD, 11/5/2004, Texas Observer)