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Getting cognitive: The limits of George Lakoff's politics

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A review of Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea by George Lakoff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).


One of George Lakoff's key observations in his work on contemporary political discourse is that "frames trump facts" -- when facts are inconsistent with the frames and metaphors that structure a person's worldview, the facts will likely be ignored.

Ironically, Lakoff's new book -- Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea -- demonstrates that problem all too well. His worldview seems to keep him from the very critical self-reflection that he counsels for liberal/progressive people.

Lakoff's "frame," simply stated is: (1) Right-wing Republicans are the cause of our problems, and (2) progressives working through the Democratic Party will deliver the solutions. So, out the window must go any facts or analyses that suggest (1) the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states, no matter who is in power, and (2) the Democratic Party is not only not a meaningful vehicle for progressive politics but, as a subsidiary of that corporate system with its own history and contemporary practice of empire-building, is part of the problem.

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To deal with those obvious and difficult challenges to his political proposals, Lakoff fudges certain facts and ignores others. Whether he does this unconsciously -- trapped by uncritical acceptance of his own frames and metaphors -- or is aware of it, we cannot know. But the result is a book that offers little to citizens who want to deepen their understanding of our political crisis and start to strategize about a new direction that can bring this country -- and human society more generally -- back from the brink of the collapse we face on many fronts. Whose Freedom? also has a sloppy, slapped-together feel which, together with its serious intellectual and political problems, raise serious doubts about Lakoff's fitness to play intellectual guru to any liberal/progressive movement, a role to which he has been elevated by many.

Lakoff, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, invites this blunt assessment of his book by the way in which he tries to establish himself as an expert. He asserts that his analysis deserves such serious consideration because he writes not only as a political activist but as a linguist and a cognitive scientist, working "in the service of a higher rationality that the tools of cognitive science provide" (p. 15).

So, let's hold Lakoff and his book to the standards of a higher rationality.

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First, in a book on freedom by a cognitive scientist, we might expect some measure of scientific precision in defining the term. Instead, Lakoff uses "freedom" as a dumping-ground term for any positive value he wants to endorse and attach to progressive politics. Near the end of the book he ties freedom to opportunity in general, economic opportunity, health, social security, unionization, education, and privacy. "Every progressive issue is ultimately about freedom," he says (p. 243).

In some superficial way that may be true, but such a laundry list hardly advances the critical thinking needed to counter the reactionary right's formulations, which also are rooted in assertions about the nature of freedom, as Lakoff points out. The advantage right-wing folks have is that they are comfortable with intellectual simplemindedness in a complex world, which makes for rhetoric that can soar but policies which tend to sink. It's not clear that an equivalent simplemindedness by progressives will pose a successful challenge. The goal for progressives should be honest accounts of the complexity that can be communicated clearly, not equally vapid platitudes that will never have the same power to propagandize.

What progressives need to shape more successful rhetoric is a bit of analytical clarity, which is nowhere to be found in the book. In academic philosophy there is a rich, though often highly technical, literature on freedom. Mining those insights and translating them into ordinary language there would be a contribution, but one Lakoff doesn't attempt. For example, the distinction between negative freedom (simply stated, the "freedom from" outside control) and positive freedom (the existence of conditions and resources that create the "freedom to" pursue one's interests) that has developed in philosophy is directly applicable to modern political issues. Lakoff makes no mention of it, or any other consistent and coherent framework for understanding the concept of freedom.

The book's analytic shortcoming are exacerbated by the haphazard writing and non-editing. In some places, Lakoff throws out aphorisms and slogans without bothering to develop them beyond a single sentence. Whatever organization he had in mind for the book, it is not readily apparent. Many readers are willing to wade through bad writing for good ideas, but the frustration level grows quickly when no coherent ideas appear as the pages turn.

And then there's the problem of evidence -- those fudged facts. For example, Lakoff makes the perfectly sensible claim that religion has no special claim to superiority in moral reasoning, and he contests conservative Christians' attempts to define their religious morality as superior. I couldn't agree more. But to support his argument that this conservative position is the minority view, he states that "only 12.7 percent of Americans claim to be evangelical Protestants" (p, 201). Since the book has no footnotes, it's impossible to know where the figure comes from, but that's considerably lower than many surveys report.

A 2004 poll for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News and World Report found that white evangelicals make up 23 percent of the population. A 2002 ABC News/Beliefnet poll found that of the 83 percent of Americans who identify as Christian, 37 percent consider themselves to be born-again or evangelical, which would be about 30 percent of the general population. Meanwhile, a 2004 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life put the percentage of white evangelical Protestants at 26.3 percent, of which 12.6 percent were categorized as "traditional evangelical." In that study, black and Latino Protestants were in separate categories, and there is a category of white Catholics labeled "traditional." So, it's easy to imagine that conservative Christians are a considerable segment of the population.

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The question isn't trivial, and in fact is crucial to Lakoff's claim that follows: "Most Christians are progressive." It's not clear that the factual claim is accurate, unless one defines progressive so expansively that it becomes meaningless.

The book's second major problem comes out in this same paragraph, in which
Lakoff argues that "many evangelicals, like Jimmy Carter, are progressives." Jimmy Carter, a progressive? Is this the same Jimmy Carter who while president coddled the Shah of Iran as that brutal dictatorship was collapsing? The President Carter who ignored the pleas of human-rights advocates like the late archbishop Oscar Romero, whose request to Carter that the United States stop funding the brutal Salvadoran military government and its death squads was ignored?

It's true that Carter has been a stronger advocate for justice and peace since leaving office, and in those endeavors he deserves support. But meaningful social change requires that we understand how institutions shape political decisions as much as, if not more than, individuals; ignoring the actions of Democrats while they were in power leads progressives to ineffective strategy and tactics.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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