George Lakoff on "Name It and Frame It" in political discourse...

jbone at jbone at
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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