It never stops

George Lakoff, the Chomsky protege wannabe* who’s a big fave with Democrats these days, has a new book out urging leftish politicians to spin more. Steven Pinker is not impressed:

There is no shortage of things to criticize in the current administration. Corrupt, mendacious, incompetent, autocratic, reckless, hostile to science, and pathologically shortsighted, the Bush government has disenchanted even many conservatives. But it is not clear what is to be gained by analyzing these vices as the desired outcome of some coherent political philosophy, especially if it entails the implausible buffoon sketched by Lakoff. Nor does it seem profitable for the Democrats to brand themselves as the party that loves lawyers, taxes, and government regulation on principle, and that does not believe in free markets or individual discipline. Lakoff’s faith in the power of euphemism to make these positions palatable to American voters is not justified by current cognitive science or brain science. I would not advise any politician to abandon traditional reason and logic for Lakoff’s “higher rationality.”`

I’ve always been amazed that anyone takes Lakoff seriously, but he does have a following. Doc Searls, for example, practically worships him. Some Democrats, frustrated by a decade of Republican rule seek a magic bullet that will put them back in power, and Lakoff claims to have one. The Republicans are all set to relinquish the government this election regardless of what the Dems do, so Lakoff and his ilk will no doubt claim credit. It’s best for Republicans if Democrats believe Lakoff, but not so good for the Republic.

The ultimate issue is whether the Democrats have failed for the last decade because the public rejects their policies, or because they simply haven’t packaged them as well as the Republicans have packaged theirs. It’s seductive to believe it’s all matter of packaging, but ultimately wrong. The Democrats haven’t had a new idea since Roosevelt, but the world has changed substantially.

The Democrats are going to do very, very well in this year’s elections, but not because of better euphemisms, more blogs, or louder screams. They’re going to do well because the Republicans are corrupt and incompetent. This isn’t going to be an election about policy or language, it’s going to be decided by the public’s lack of patience with an endless string of failures and broken promises.

Don’t be deceived.

Here’s Lakoff’s response to Pinker.

*UPDATE: See commentary on the meaning the term “protege” and Nunberg’s complaints. For clarity, I’ve re-worded the first sentence. Chomsky and Lakoff disagree on some fine points of linguistic theory and political ideology, but from the layman’s perspective they’re essentially interchangeable.

6 thoughts on “It never stops”

  1. There is something to Lakoff, but not much. And his prescriptions aren’t necessarily right.

    But take his “Republicans are authoritarian father figures” meme. There might be something to that, and it is why, for example, lots of folks recoil from from Republicans, in particular African Americans: this meme is the slaveholder meme; you cannot be a slaveholder without being inherently authoritarian.

    But Lakoff’s prescription that Dems should be “nurturing” is absurd too, and it’s a meme they should avoid. People like being independent and in charge not “nurtured.”

  2. Somebody pointed out that Lakoff’s opposition of “strict father” and “nurturant parent” isn’t exactly symmetical. I’ve long characterized our two parties as the “mommy party” and the “daddy party” and it seems to fit.

    By the way, many parenting experts subscribe to an “authoritative parent” model that doesn’t include right so buy and sell children.

  3. George is a friend and a mentor. I’ve learned a lot from him and respect him a great deal. If that amounts to practically worshiping him, I’ll cop.

    Doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says, however.

    I think George has some excellent and useufl insights into what makes liberals and conservatives tick the ways they do, and I think he’s right about many of the concepts that anchor political differences and the vocabularies with which those are expressed . I also think he’s wrong about libertarians, for what that’s worth. And you’re right that his ideas have limited relevance when the deciding factors are corruption and competence.

    As with all tools, George’s are good for some things, not for others.

    Also, for what it’s worth, George may have been a protege of Chomsky somewhere back in the Jurassic, but since then the two have parted ways by enormous distances. At least as linguists, anyway.

    Oh, and the strict father/nurturant parent distinction wasn’t meant to be symmetrical. But your mommy/daddy observation (which I agree with) is consistent with two others.

    One is by Andrew Morton, the head Linux kernel maintainer and a very insightful guy. Upon hearing me compress George’s left/right characterizations, Andrew said “That’s why the left thinks the right is evil, and the right thinks the left is stupid.” The winners in the long run will be those on both sides who do not pander to either of those characterizations, temping though they might be. (Actually, Bush the Younger won with that strategy, early on.)

    The other is by my old buisness partner, who said republicans were “the party of wealth produciton” while the democrats were “the party of wealth redistribution.” This to some degree explains my troubles with the left and my sympathies with the right, even though I’ve voted more often with the former than with the latter (though, quite often, with None of the Above).

  4. Lakoff’s linguistics are better than Chomsky’s (at this point), but the protege label sticks because he was a student of Chomsky’s who followed in his mentor’s footsteps from academic linguistics into political activism.

    The evil vs. stupid polarity is original to Charles Krauthammer from 2002, as far as I know. He wrote a column entitled “Evil vs. Stupid” in which he said: “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”

    I think we’re in agreement that there is a fundamental difference of opinion between liberals and conservatives about how best to achieve universal happiness or whatever end goal we desire, and that difference can’t be glossed over by clever packaging.

    And it seems to come down to one side having the best ideas for managing a thriving economy and the other for managing a sick one, so in some sense one party is a fitness coach and the other is a doctor. Sometimes we need the doc, sometimes the coach.

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