Posts Tagged ‘progressive’

George Lakoff: The (Extreme) Political Mind

October 2, 2014

UnknownGeorge Lakoff is a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Berkeley. His 2008 book, The Political Mind, says “progressives” are losing out because they imagine people think and vote rationally, whereas in fact most are guided by unconscious narrative “framings,” which conservatives more successfully exploit. And that this is destroying America. Because the un-American conservative ideology encompasses “an authoritarian hierarchy based on vast concentration . . . of wealth; order based on fear, intimidation, and obedience;” it’s “anti-democratic;” and so forth.

This sets the book’s tone, on page 1. As if anyone actually thinks that way. Lakoff seems to believe they do; that conservatives really are that nasty – and pursue these evil ends with an equally ruthless disregard for morality and truth. Unknown-1Whereas “progressives” of course are all truth, justice, morality, and the American way.

An example of what Lakoff means by issue “framing” is the locution “tax relief,” which he calls a triumph of conservative spin. He says progressives should push back by stressing what good things taxes make possible. Well, people do understand why we pay taxes; but still would rather pay less than more. Lakoff’s proposed campaign to make us love taxes seems Orwellian – or just plain silly. (And Lakoff himself is not in love with everything taxes buy – he hates military spending.)

Unknown-3Lakoff’s main theme is that progressives wrongly believe they need only give people the facts and they’ll respond rationally. He says progs should instead wrap their advocacy in morality, specifically the morality of empathy, which he casts as the touchstone of prog politics. Thus progs should argue for, say, higher minimum wages not as (allegedly) good economic policy but as moral, the right thing to do, the empathic thing.

Yet – if someone thought like that – he’d be a prog in the first place, would be for higher minimum wages in the first place. But some people don’t think that way and aren’t receptive to such argument. Not because they’re not moral, or empathic, but because they have a different take on morality than progs. (And maybe they think higher minimum wages would be bad economic policy.)

Lakoff’s ideology blinds him to this. His whole book is, “progressives won’t win with rational arguments.” But it’s just as wrong to think they’ll win with emotive moral arguments. People have reasons for what they believe and feel; progs have no monopoly on rationality and morality; conservatives have not only emotive but also rational and even moral reasons for their views. Changing them isn’t a mere matter of how “progressivism” is packaged and sold.

imagesMoreover, while Lakoff preens as though presenting a dramatically new insight, to say that progs have not sufficiently cloaked their advocacy in morality and empathy is, well, bizarre. In fact, the left has forever been shouting from a high horse of asserted morality, empathy and compassion; while loudly vilifying the right as lacking in the same. What planet has Lakoff been living on? (Maybe Berkeley is a different planet.)

Progressives (Lakoff strangely denies they’re on the “left”) do tend to be baffled when they lose political arguments. images-4Lakoff’s book shows why – not because he’s right about anything but, rather, because the book itself exemplifies the ideological tunnel vision that handicaps the left. If you really believe conservatives want an authoritarian, undemocratic country, ruled by intimidation and heartless corporate power – which Lakoff says on almost every page – you haven’t got a clue.

I’m reminded of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, describing studies wherein liberals were asked to fill out questionnaires as though they were conservatives, and vice versa. While conservatives were pretty accurate in guessing how liberals would answer, liberals did poorly in anticipating conservative answers – because they do tend to harbor the demonizing stereotype of conservatives that pervades Lakoff’s book.

Typifying this obtuseness, Lakoff thinks conservatives’ devotion to free market economics is about one thing only: profit, and the freedom to make profits. Thus, any government intervention that restricts or reduces the opportunity to profit is bad.* But do conservatives really think this way? It’s preposterous. Most are not in business themselves, so why should business profits be the sine qua non of their economic views? No – what any sentient conservative actually believes is that a market economy allowing businesses to profit is desirable not because of the profits per se but because that system benefits society as a whole. You’d never guess this from reading Lakoff.

images-1He is especially scathing about what he calls “neoliberals” whose heart may be in the right place, but who are too coolly rationalistic, not fire-breathing moral scourges like him. So black-and-white is Lakoff’s view of politics that he talks of “biconceptualism” – where people don’t conform to either of his two starkly opposed worldviews, and don’t see an inconsistency. They’re “hypocrites” (though Lakoff puts the word in quotes); or merely confused!

This would apply to me. According to Lakoff’s taxonomy, I actually have a fundamentally “progressive” brain. But I reject most of the prog political ethos. Maybe that makes me especially confused. But I think it’s most progs who are confused, with their heads up their rears on many stances that are illiberal (in the classic sense). To name a few: opposition to free trade, school choice, genetic modification science, and of course their twisted relationship with freedom of thought and expression, which I’ve addressed. (And here’s something delicious on that topic.)

Lakoff says there’s no such thing as a “moderate” center in American political opinion – indeed, he thinks the “mainstream” has shifted way to the right – but it’s the “confused biconceptuals” whom he urges progressives to target with a stepped-up emphasis on empathy. Because empathy is (almost) universally wired into the human brain – even the brains of conservatives, but especially the partly conservative, who should be moveable by such appeals. Yet this seems to contradict the nasty stereotypes with which he otherwise talks about conservatives. He doesn’t seem to notice that inconsistency. Talk about confusion!

At the end of the day, not even most progressives meet Lakoff’s standard for ideological purity. For instance, he says they should have stood up to Bush 43 and opposed domestic surveillance. images-3Well, maybe they should have; many in fact did. But many either felt the surveillance was justified, or else disagreed with Lakoff that opposing it would have been a political winner. Meantime, I seem to recall that a certain amount of Bush-bashing did take place – or, rather, an orgy of it. But whenever Bush comes up in the book, Lakoff says there was far too little Bush-bashing by progressives.

Heaven help us.

* Lakoff sees this as stemming from a “strict father” conservative family mind-frame (as against a prog “nurturing parent” frame), with the market’s rewards and punishments based on merit and effort mirroring patriarchal discipline!

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Mexico and India: Some Good News For a Change

July 12, 2014

imagesThe world is always full of bad news, but here’s something in line with this blog’s title.

Background: Mexico had a big revolution/civil war a century ago. When the dust settled, power was monopolized by the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” (PRI), whose rule was anything but revolutionary. Mexico stagnated with a closed rentier economy of crony capitalism, its big shots labelled “dinosaurs.”Unknown

The PRI’s chokehold was finally broken by the opposition PAN party winning the presidency in 2000. PAN’s program was right, but it was stymied not only by PRI holdovers but also a third left-wing party. So after two PAN presidencies, little had actually changed.

Peña Nieto

Peña Nieto

In 2012 the PRI recaptured the presidency with Enrique Peña Nieto. Bad news? To the contrary. No dinosaur he. The Peña administration’s tone was set at the start. Emblematic of Mexico’s dysfunction was a teacher’s union so politically entrenched that it controlled the whole school system. Unknown-1Its boss: Elba Esther Gordillo, a quintessential dinosaur. Peña had her arrested on charges of (flagrant) embezzlement and organized crime.

But he was just getting started.

Carlos Slim

Carlos Slim

Peña has moved boldly to reform, shake up, and open up Mexico’s politics, educational system, and economy, by promoting competition and curbing the kind of monopoly power that has so long hobbled the country. (His telecommunications stranglehold made Mexico’s Carlos Slim one of the world’s richest men.) A centerpiece of Peña’s agenda is to break what for generations has been a PRI sacred cow: exclusive government control of the energy sector.Unknown-2

Not all of Peña’s initiatives have yet been successfully pushed through, and inevitably, there have been stumbles and criticisms. And Mexico still has some very bad problems, notably horrendous gangster violence. But you can say this: Peña has changed the rules of the game, and shown what true visionary leadership looks like.  Now this is what I call progressive. (What a contrast to loudmouth lefty populists of the Chavez sort.)

Modi

Modi

Similarly heartening was the recent smashing election victory by Narendra Modi in India. His BJP party won an outright parliamentary majority – seemingly impossible given India’s fractured politics with numerous regional and caste-based parties usually divvying up the spoils. The stale old Congress party was practically annihilated. This gives Modi a tremendous opportunity to remake India for the better. He’s been talking the right talk. Now let’s see the walk.

Why Both Left and Right Are Wrong

June 26, 2014

The Left’s calling itself “progressive,” while in some ways annoying, isn’t entirely wrong. A key element is caring about other people, including those outside the traditional ambit of human concern (our own families and tribes), and even sometimes including non-people. UnknownThis is indeed progressive; this widening of human concern, working toward a better, fairer world, with lessening conflict and violence, compared to the past, reflects very real progress. It’s ironic that another typical attribute of the “progressive” temperament is denial of such progress.

It’s because being critical and cynical flatters the Left’s intellectual vanity. Indignation is a satisfying emotion. To be an optimist, on the other hand, to believe well of others, and that we’re making progress, seems just too sappy. It isn’t hip.

The Left views market capitalism with hostility, as though it’s some kind of perverted system artificially imposed by a conspiracy of a few to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest; which could be changed if we wanted to. Not a single element of that catechism reflects reality. A market economy is merely the natural, indeed inevitable, way that any bunch of humans interacts. Yes, with friends and family, we do a lot of sharing. images-1But otherwise if you have something of value – be it an object, or your labor – you won’t give it without getting something in return, indeed the most you can get (bar fraud or cheating). That is in fact merely justice (a word the Left loves). Striving to do well for oneself isn’t wrong; mostly people do that by creating value for others who’ll pay them for it. And this is how we’ve made a better, richer world — by people putting in efforts in order to improve their own situation. Is this the “greed” we hear so much about?

And the Left’s conception of justice tends to omit what ought to be its principal component: deservingness. While they do insist no one deserves to be poor, they meantime seem to deny that anyone deserves to be rich. At least they don’t see any entitlement to keep riches one has earned.

The right is less confused about the economics, but frankly tends to be grinch-hearted. images-2Its conception of justice is flawed in mirror-image of the Left’s – believing that when people don’t succeed it’s because they didn’t deserve to. That the less successful are basically slackers and moochers (this is why Romney’s infamous “47%” comment was so resonant). The right doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge how much luck determines one’s situation. And if the Left is overly obsessed with inequality, the right is too complacent about it.

Even cave people were humane enough to take care of the sick, infirm, or injured. Today’s right no longer seems to regard this as a fundamental societal obligation. Part of the problem is that the whole issue of helping the needy is crapped up by the fact that the great bulk of “help” goes to people who aren’t needy at all (look at the farm program, for example, most of whose subsidies go to millionaires). Unknown-1This blatant milking of the government teat tends to taint all such spending.

But we are a very rich society that can easily afford to take care of those less fortunate – if only we focused on just that.