Saturday, August 09, 2008

Who Framed George Lakoff?

George Lakoff wrote the recent book, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain (Viking), which irritated some liberals with its assertion that using logic to appeal to voters is foolish when most voters are making emotional decisions fro which they have to create logical defenses after the fact.

He's also been in a very long-term feud with Noam Chomsky (and, more recently, Steven Pinker) in the realm of linguistics, but that's a whole other post.

So this article comes from the The Chronicle Review, and it looks at how Lakoof has been demonized by the very Democrats who once worshiped at the altar of view of embodied consciousness. It's a long and informative article, so this is only a small bit of it.
In May 2003, Lakoff got his chance to directly influence politics. Invited to address a gathering of Democratic senators at their annual retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he encountered a scene filled with despair. President Bush was enjoying record-high approval ratings, which he had parlayed into historic gains for the Republicans in the 2002 midterm elections. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, was speaking plausibly of building a durable Republican majority.

The beleaguered senators were primed for a solution. Lakoff offered one: Learn the art of framing, and you can turn the electoral tide. The idea carried the allure of a quick fix. And Lakoff — who exudes unflagging self-confidence — became a political player.

He had been allotted 20 minutes to make his pitch. "As it turned out, they gave me 35," he recalls. "The senators were blown away." True enough. Tom Daschle, then-leader of the Senate Democrats, asked Lakoff to extend his stay on the East Coast and return with him to Washington. On Capitol Hill a few days later, the scholar joined a meeting of other Democratic senators. "When I entered the room, these senators got up and hugged me," Lakoff says. "It was an awesome situation."

Bush's re-election the following November put more pressure on Democrats. As their stock plummeted, Lakoff's skyrocketed. Shortly before the 2004 midterms, a small environmental press in Vermont, Chelsea Green, published his Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate — The Essential Guide for Progressives, a hastily assembled primer for liberal activists. The slender paperback sold an improbable 250,000 copies and was distributed to every Democrat in the House of Representatives.

Inundated with invitations to brief lawmakers, strategists, and advocacy organizations, Lakoff began a life of perpetual motion, dashing to engagements around the country. Howard Dean, at that time mounting a surprisingly successful insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, predicted that Lakoff would be "one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement when the history of this century is written." The conservative National Review joked, "If the American Left believed in sainthood, they would have resolved to beatify George Lakoff by now." There was even a DVD, How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff.

Over the next four years, Lakoff brought out three more books: Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006); Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea (Farrar, 2006) — about the right's largely successful attempt to redefine freedom as relief from government intervention — and, most recently, The Political Mind. All the while, Lakoff continued to teach at Berkeley and churn out white papers from his office at the Rockridge Institute, a think tank that he helped start in 2000 to promote the use of framing by progressive candidates and issues. (It closed in April because of lack of funds.)

Just as quickly as lakoff's star rose, a backlash began. For a few years, "he was the man of the hour from top to bottom and bottom to top on the part of floundering Democrats," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author, most recently, of The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals (John Wiley & Sons, 2007). "He was more than the flavor of the week. He was the messianic flavor, the flavor to end all flavors."

Gitlin recalls running into Lakoff at a progressive-policy conference in Washington in 2005, after not seeing him since their time as colleagues at Berkeley in the early 1990s. "He'd changed," Gitlin recalls. "He was very tense and embattled."

Shortly before the meeting, The Atlantic had run an article by Marc Cooper, a lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Titled "Thinking of Jackasses," the essay dismissed Lakoff's work as "psychobabble as electoral strategy." Next the magazine published an essay by Joshua Green, a senior editor, "It Isn't the Message, Stupid." Green derided Lakoff for offering no new ideas and questioned whether the Democratic Party could bring about its own reversal of fortune merely with "snazzier packaging and a new sales pitch."

Lakoff was particularly stung when Rahm Emanuel, an influential Democratic representative from Illinois, devoted an entire chapter of a book to attacking him. In The Plan: Big Ideas for America (PublicAffairs, 2006), Emanuel and his co-author Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, rejected the view that the Democrats' problems stemmed from an inability to get their message out; the problem was the substance of that message. Framing, the authors said, amounted to little more than slapping a new coat of paint on failed old ideas. Most cutting to Lakoff, they called him one of the "highbrows" who harbored the "fallacy that we can game history to our advantage." Although The Plan might not have been read much beyond the insulated world of political strategists and consultants, it made Lakoff a persona non grata on Capitol Hill. "All of a sudden I was controversial," Lakoff says.

Another intellectual blow was delivered by Steven Pinker, an evolutionary and cognitive psychologist at Harvard University. Writing in The New Republic in 2006, Pinker chastised Lakoff for his "cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons" and declared his political efforts "a train wreck" and "jejune nonsense." Lakoff blasted back with an essay-length reply on The New Republic's Web site. He accused Pinker of misrepresenting his ideas and falling prey to his own ideological blinders, such as the view that thought is universal and disembodied rather than an emotional process that relies on frames, image-schemas, and metaphors. The spat endured for another round, a distilled version of which appeared in the journal Public Policy Research (March-May, 2007).

It is sometimes difficult when reading Lakoff to know where his political advocacy ends and his cognitive-linguistics scholarship begins. When I ask him about that, he acknowledges that his political celebrity has put a strain on his scholarly work, but he insists that he has not abandoned linguistics for politics: "The work I do in politics is linguistics, it is linguistics about political subjects it is advocacy linguistics." That means, he says, "I do a simple linguistic analysis, and then I say based on that analysis you should do this, this, and that. But it all rests on doing the linguistics."

Owen Flanagan, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University, is even more skeptical than Pinker, declaring Lakoff a member of the "neuroenthusiasta," his term for cognitive scientists who overstate the implications of their research, and the journalists who breathlessly hype their findings. According to Flanagan, brain science is only helpful to the extent that it tells us something we don't already know. To illustrate his point, he offers an analogy: When children learn how to ride a bike, something changes in their brains. If a scientist offers parents a detailed description of that neurological transformation, it might be interesting, but it won't help children learn to ride a bike.

Similarly, Flanagan sees Lakoff's insight — that successful politicians know how to use emotionally appealing narratives to rally support — as "one of the main topics in ancient political philosophy." Understanding it has nothing to do with neuroscience, he says. "But as soon as you put 'neuro' in front of an idea, especially an old idea, it sounds interesting to people in a way that it wouldn't if you just said, Hey, I have an idea. It is a way of credentializing yourself."

Lakoff himself says that the politicians and news media who courted him had only a superficial understanding of his work. He knew things had gone wrong when he was invited to a meeting in 2006 with Bill Clinton and a team of political strategists. Lakoff says that he delivered a short presentation emphasizing how the Democrats' strategy for the midterm elections should highlight progressive morals, ideas, and principles but that Clinton kept bringing the conversation back to slogans, phrasing, and marketing. "It became clear to me that I was brought there as a spinmeister," Lakoff says. "Finally I gave up."

I think Lakoff's experience proves, in part, that scientific logic and politics haven't found a way to peacefully coexist. Too bad.


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