George Lakoff on "Name It and Frame It" in political discourse...
jbone at place.org
jbone at place.org
Mon Nov 24 15:14:15 PST 2003
Great interviews available as mp3s; Christopher Lydon talks to George
Lakoff. Chris's description of the interviews follows. Here are the
Christopher Lydon Interviews...
Naming and Framing: George Lakoff's Moral Politics
George Lakoff of Berkeley is one of the giants of modern
linguistics and brain sciences--an authority on neural networks, how
the mind works, and most especially how the body politic responds to
words that cue frames of moral meaning. He gave me a provocative
earful the other day and I post it here in two twenty-minute takes.
In Part One, Lakoff exults in the Internet ventilation of
political talk; its visible effect in MoveOn and the Dean campaign is
"only the beginning. He maps the "naming and framing" dimensions of
the California recall campaign and Arnold Schwartzenegger's election.
The "competent clerk" Gray Davis walked into a trap of deregulated
energy prices and brownouts that had been contrived by the Bush White
House. Arnold was no eccentric, in Lakoff terms, but the modern
machine Republican, the embodiment of "individual discipline in a
difficult, dangerous world... a strict leader who's got moral authority
to protect you. Who better than the Terminator?" And then Lakoff
picks his way through the mostly disguised meanings and motives around
the Iraq war.
In Part Two, I begin with the paradox of our times: that we are
learning to live with both an information revolution and a culture of
propaganda. "What the Right has done," Lakoff answered, "is create a
populist art form known as the rant." He laments the lost language of
world leadership: who makes good use these days of key words like
fairness, freedom, trust, cooperation, treaty obligations, the values
of the United Nations charter, respect, competence, responsibility and
openness? Lakoff sets Howard Dean's language and body-language in the
Harry Truman tradition. Dean is "forceful, serious, honest--not
namby-pamby." He thinks that a medical doctor makes "a very good
messenger." He wishes Dean would campaign in the South around doctor's
visits to Veterans Hospitals. "Talk to the patients and the doctors
there about what it means to fight in a war--about what happens to
you... and what happens to the other people you see." Lakoff thinks
Dean and the Democrats in general are "not there yet."
George Lakoff is a devout progressive with cold comfort for
liberals. Conservatives, he says, have won the fight over political
language. It's a central argument of Lakoff's book Moral Politics that
for the last 30 years, left-wing foundations have been doing what comes
naturally, "helping people who need help," while right-wing foundations
have put a network of thinkers and writers to work honing symbolic
phrases like "tort reform" and "tax relief." Even with Al Franken on
your side, there is no winning an argument around "tax relief" that
sounds like mercy and justice for the afflicted. "If you use their
language," Lakoff said, "you use their mode of thought; you use the way
they think about the world." It is the work of Lakoff's Rockridge
Institute to assemble the cognitive scientists and media masters to
build a fresh language of progressive ideas.
Lakoff thinks it's a 5-year assignment. I wonder why it should be
so complicated or so long. Listen to our argument here. And look for
yourself, please, at the December Atlantic Monthly. The cover story,
"Tour of Duty," is taken from John Kerry's war diaries and letters home
from Vietnam 35 years ago. For example:
"Wherever I went and young Vietnamese men would look at me I grew
scared. There really was no way to tell who was who. You could be in
a room with one and not know whether he was really a Charlie or not...
Whom did you begin to trust and where did you draw the line. Another
ludicrous aspect of the war."
On the death of a close friend from Yale, Dick Pershing, grandson
of the US Army legend in World War I, "Black Jack" Pershing, Kerry
wrote: "Then I just... cried--a pathetic and very empty kind of crying
that turned into anger and bitterness. I have never felt so void of
feeling before--so numb."
The closer Kerry came to fighting and death, the more absurd
everything felt, as on the night when his Swift boat escorted the
Vietnamese mercenaries, mostly ex-Viet Cong, who blew away four
evidently defenseless people in a sampan. Kerry wrote about facing a
young woman who survived: "I felt a certain sense of guilt, shame,
sorrow, remorse--something inexplicable about the way they were shot
and about the predicament of the girl... I hated all of us for the
situation which stripped people of their self-respect."
To his future wife, Judy Thorne, Kerry wrote home: "Judy, if I do
nothing else in my life I will never stop trying to bring to people the
conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this
George Lakoff argues that in America today "there is not a
publicly acceptable language of opposition to war." I don't believe
him. John Kerry named it and framed it in 1968. Yet Kerry seems to
have brought none of the hard lessons of Vietnam to bear on the
neo-imperial folly that has boobytrapped American troops in Iraq. A
renewed American conversation today needs candor and courage more than
cognitive science. If John Kerry had addressed Iraq on the Senate
floor with the simple heart of his letters home from war, if he'd
remembered what he'd written, he--and we--might have been spared the
mess we're all in now.
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