Try as he might, the mole can’t help thinking of an elephant. Herein a disquisition on the danger of false assumptions.


I wrote a long piece about Michael Schiavo but I don’t think I’ll change any minds about him, and I don’t think he’s worth my time or yours. I also mentioned I’d return to George Lakoff, since I was just about to tear my hair out during his lecture. Lakoff is a Berkeley linguistics prof who consults for the Democratic party about refining their message, and in the long run he’s much more important to their core identity.

Sorry if this gets a little wordy, but I was pleasantly surprised by the sudden appearance of an actual idea I could engage, instead of unsupported slogans that just presumed the Lambdas and the Mus would be clapping along. Actually, the rest of the crowd seemed really intrigued by Lakoff. I think you will be too.

Lakoff believes—and in his books, offers proof—that the Right and the Left have divergent ideas about the meaning of freedom because they have such different ideas about family, and about political causation. Let’s look at what he says about those things:

FAMILY: Lakoff says there are two theories of the family, both of which everyone believes in to some degree. Conservatives prefer the “strict father” model. There’s evil in the world, both outside and in every child, so you need a strict father to chastise and punish the evil until the correct values prevail.

Conservatives, he construes from this, have no real sympathy for the poor because they must be poor because of some moral defect. On the other hand, the rich are that way because they’ve internalized correct values, and God blesses them with money.

Laughable. First, many or most of the conservative bloggers I read are agnostic, atheist, Jewish, or just not all that religious. But even for conservative Christians, this is an absurd caricature. Most believe in salvation by faith and not by works. And there are no promises made of earthly riches to devout Christians. Lakoff appears to attribute a principle of high five-point Calvinism—the notion of the prosperous Elect whom god chooses to bless—to all conservatives. Sorry Catholics, Pentecostals, Jews, sorry, pretty much everybody, but your theology doesn’t fit the Professor’s model.

Okay, but what about the liberal’s idea of a family? The Pushover Mommy Family model, right? Well, pretty much, but I suspect he wouldn’t get too many DNC consulting calls if he called it that, so he calls it the “Nurturing Parent Model.” He didn’t spend much time explaining it, but judging by the nods around me, he didn’t need to. I think he’s at least got the germ of a good idea with the mommy party/daddy party distinction; but he keeps pretending that conservatives believe things that Democrats wish they believed.

How does this apply to different ideas of freedom? Well, Lakoff gave an example of the NSA wiretaps. If you’re on the strict father plan and there’s evil in the world, you can use the Devil’s tools against him because you, the strict-daddy government, are inherently good.

This is just goofy. To think that you are inherently good is precisely the opposite of what is preached in most churches in America every Sunday—that every man is fallen, sinful, and profoundly screwed up, and fixable only by divine grace. Similarly, it’s dead backwards from what conservatives actually think about government. (I’d love to see him try to explain that part about how the Right thinks government is “inherently good” at the Cato Institute.) But Lakoff got the secular equivalent of a chorus of amens from the Kossacks. It felt right to them.

CAUSATION: The other explanation Lakoff proposed for differences between conservative and liberal thinking about freedom had to do with how each sees political responsibility. Once again, he’s kind of on to something, then he just flies off the rails.

Conservatives, he argues, believe in very direct causation and in individual responsibility. Liberals use complex and systemic causation—in other words, they’re likely to blame institutions or rules or “the system” instead of individuals. He gave an example of differing explanations for Abu Ghraib: Conservatives attributed it to “a few bad actors” and considered the problem fixed when they were removed and punished—but liberals demanded systemic change. Plausible so far, but wait:

Conservatives actually understand systemic and complex causation quite well. We’re in Iraq right now in part because Saddam’s regime was screwing up the entire Middle East. We struck terror-sponsoring Baathism in Iraq, and Libya coughed up their WMD’s and Lebanon had a revolution. To take another example, conservatives understand systemic bias quite well—ask us about the media, Hollywood, academia, whatever.

Whether you agree with us or not, it’s just wrong to say that conservatives don’t understand these sorts of arguments. We make them all the time. But the nutroots types liked this description, I suppose because it made them feel like smart people who could perceive complexities that conservatives can’t.

Let me give one more example of Lakoff misrepresenting what conservatives think. He cited a “neocon theory” that freedom comes from free markets. Once you have free markets, you get rich people, who will demand reforms like the rule of law, freedom of the press, etc. to protect their property. Bush once said “markets are freedom”; we have free markets now in Iraq, therefore (according to Lakoff’s bizarro conservative logic) we have liberated Iraq.

This “neocon” theory Lakoff is advancing (actually it’s a sort of neoliberalism) was quite cutting edge, until Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington (himself a neoconservative) debunked it in, oh, 1959. You need freedom and security and rule of law first, so you can have working markets, and the institutions then get stronger. That’s how it works, and that’s why crushing the insurgency in Iraq before we leave is so crucial to its success.

And that’s what neocons today actually think—or they would, if they were capable of understanding complex, systemic theories, which of course Lakoff says they’re not.

One of the last things Lakoff said, in response to a question I didn’t quite hear, was that conservatives, according to their daddy-party logic, believe that the mentally ill are evil and must be punished. He really said that. And you know, if the Democrats keep listening to this guy make stuff up about conservatives, they’re crazy—which (by my daddy-party logic) means that they’re going to get the punishment they deserve at the polls in November.


Update: The Jawa Report says it’s “the end of the beginning.”


Previously: Infiltrating Yearly Kos: Harry Reid’s red meat; Infiltrating Yearly Kos: Tinfoil hats spotted; Infiltrating Yearly Kos: “Heh, indeed” edition; Infiltrating Yearly Kos: The taunting of Byron York; Infiltrating Yearly Kos: Now with photos!; Infiltrating Yearly Kos: “No, no, no, don’t call them a Nazi”; Infiltrating Yearly Kos: Post 1