Getting cognitive: The limits of George Lakoff’s politics

By Robert Jensen

Published in CounterPunch · September, 2006

One of George Lakoff’s key observations in his work on contemporary political discourse is that “frames trump facts” — when facts are inconsistent with the frames and metaphors that structure a person’s worldview, the facts will likely be ignored.

Ironically, Lakoff’s new book — Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea — demonstrates that problem all too well. His worldview seems to keep him from the very critical self-reflection that he counsels for liberal/progressive people.

Lakoff’s “frame,” simply stated is:

(1) Right-wing Republicans are the cause of our problems, and

(2) progressives working through the Democratic Party will deliver the solutions.

So, out the window must go any facts or analyses that suggest

(1) the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states, no matter who is in power, and

(2) the Democratic Party is not only not a meaningful vehicle for progressive politics but, as a subsidiary of that corporate system with its own history and contemporary practice of empire-building, is part of the problem.

To deal with those obvious and difficult challenges to his political proposals, Lakoff fudges certain facts and ignores others. Whether he does this unconsciously — trapped by uncritical acceptance of his own frames and metaphors — or is aware of it, we cannot know. But the result is a book that offers little to citizens who want to deepen their understanding of our political crisis and start to strategize about a new direction that can bring this country — and human society more generally — back from the brink of the collapse we face on many fronts. Whose Freedom? also has a sloppy, slapped-together feel which, together with its serious intellectual and political problems, raise serious doubts about Lakoff’s fitness to play intellectual guru to any liberal/progressive movement, a role to which he has been elevated by many.

Lakoff, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, invites this blunt assessment of his book by the way in which he tries to establish himself as an expert. He asserts that his analysis deserves such serious consideration because he writes not only as a political activist but as a linguist and a cognitive scientist, working “in the service of a higher rationality that the tools of cognitive science provide” (p. 15).

So, let’s hold Lakoff and his book to the standards of a higher rationality.

First, in a book on freedom by a cognitive scientist, we might expect some measure of scientific precision in defining the term. Instead, Lakoff uses “freedom” as a dumping-ground term for any positive value he wants to endorse and attach to progressive politics. Near the end of the book he ties freedom to opportunity in general, economic opportunity, health, social security, unionization, education, and privacy. “Every progressive issue is ultimately about freedom,” he says (p. 243).

In some superficial way that may be true, but such a laundry list hardly advances the critical thinking needed to counter the reactionary right’s formulations, which also are rooted in assertions about the nature of freedom, as Lakoff points out. The advantage right-wing folks have is that they are comfortable with intellectual simplemindedness in a complex world, which makes for rhetoric that can soar but policies which tend to sink. It’s not clear that an equivalent simplemindedness by progressives will pose a successful challenge. The goal for progressives should be honest accounts of the complexity that can be communicated clearly, not equally vapid platitudes that will never have the same power to propagandize.

What progressives need to shape more successful rhetoric is a bit of analytical clarity, which is nowhere to be found in the book. In academic philosophy there is a rich, though often highly technical, literature on freedom. Mining those insights and translating them into ordinary language there would be a contribution, but one Lakoff doesn’t attempt. For example, the distinction between negative freedom (simply stated, the “freedom from” outside control) and positive freedom (the existence of conditions and resources that create the “freedom to” pursue one’s interests) that has developed in philosophy is directly applicable to modern political issues. Lakoff makes no mention of it, or any other consistent and coherent framework for understanding the concept of freedom.

The book’s analytic shortcoming are exacerbated by the haphazard writing and non-editing. In some places, Lakoff throws out aphorisms and slogans without bothering to develop them beyond a single sentence. Whatever organization he had in mind for the book, it is not readily apparent. Many readers are willing to wade through bad writing for good ideas, but the frustration level grows quickly when no coherent ideas appear as the pages turn.

And then there’s the problem of evidence — those fudged facts. For example, Lakoff makes the perfectly sensible claim that religion has no special claim to superiority in moral reasoning, and he contests conservative Christians’ attempts to define their religious morality as superior. I couldn’t agree more. But to support his argument that this conservative position is the minority view, he states that “only 12.7 percent of Americans claim to be evangelical Protestants” (p, 201). Since the book has no footnotes, it’s impossible to know where the figure comes from, but that’s considerably lower than many surveys report.

A 2004 poll for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News and World Report found that white evangelicals make up 23 percent of the population. A 2002 ABC News/Beliefnet poll found that of the 83 percent of Americans who identify as Christian, 37 percent consider themselves to be born-again or evangelical, which would be about 30 percent of the general population. Meanwhile, a 2004 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life put the percentage of white evangelical Protestants at 26.3 percent, of which 12.6 percent were categorized as “traditional evangelical.” In that study, black and Latino Protestants were in separate categories, and there is a category of white Catholics labeled “traditional.” So, it’s easy to imagine that conservative Christians are a considerable segment of the population.

The question isn’t trivial, and in fact is crucial to Lakoff’s claim that follows: “Most Christians are progressive.” It’s not clear that the factual claim is accurate, unless one defines progressive so expansively that it becomes meaningless.

The book’s second major problem comes out in this same paragraph, in which Lakoff argues that “many evangelicals, like Jimmy Carter, are progressives.” Jimmy Carter, a progressive? Is this the same Jimmy Carter who while president coddled the Shah of Iran as that brutal dictatorship was collapsing? The President Carter who ignored the pleas of human-rights advocates like the late archbishop Oscar Romero, whose request to Carter that the United States stop funding the brutal Salvadoran military government and its death squads was ignored?

It’s true that Carter has been a stronger advocate for justice and peace since leaving office, and in those endeavors he deserves support. But meaningful social change requires that we understand how institutions shape political decisions as much as, if not more than, individuals; ignoring the actions of Democrats while they were in power leads progressives to ineffective strategy and tactics.

Perhaps Lakoff understands that the unpleasant facts of Democratic leaders’ actions must be obfuscated or ignored if progressive people are to be persuaded to spend their time and money helping to put those same folks back in power. Some of the book’s most embarrassing material comes in this arena, concerning Bill Clinton.

In that section on religion, Lakoff asserts that morality “is ultimately about recognizing and responding to others’ needs — it is about empathy.” Again, I couldn’t agree more. That might lead us to ask questions about the empathy underlying some of the Clinton policies that Lakoff valorizes. For example, he gives high marks to the Democrat’s Iraq policy, “Clinton’s military containment of Saddam Hussein inside Iraq’s no-fly zones, which indeed succeeded in keeping Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction” (p. 232).

Lakoff conveniently ignores the fact that these no-fly zones were imposed illegally by the United States and Great Britain (initially along with France, which eventually pulled out of the deal), and the routine U.S./U.K. bombing that occurred in those zones had no legitimacy in international or domestic law. That is to say, they were crimes against peace. While Republican crimes demand condemnation, apparently Democratic ones are praiseworthy.

Legal considerations aside, a moral question pops up as well, which Lakoff also conveniently ignores. Key to Clinton’s policy on Iraq was the continued imposition on Iraq of the harshest economic embargo in modern history, which virtually the whole world wanted to lift — except the United States and its U.K. ally (which was every bit as much a lapdog to Clinton as to Bush). While Hussein shares the moral responsibility for the devastation caused by those sanctions, that Clinton policy is directly responsible for the deaths — by conservative estimates — of hundreds of thousands of civilians, maybe more than 1 million. Predictably, the most vulnerable — children and the elderly, the sick and the poor — suffered most from the economic sanctions. Clinton administration officials made it clear that no matter what Iraq did to meet the specifications of U.N. resolutions on weapons — the condition for ending the embargo — the sanctions would remain in place until Hussein was out of power, which effectively condemned to death those hundreds of thousands.

Remember, according to Lakoff, morality “is about empathy.” Yet when activists tried to build a movement in the late 1990s to change this cynical and cruel Clinton policy, we found few Democrats willing to listen. The longstanding U.S. goal of controlling the politics of the Middle East — consistent through Republican and Democratic presidents since World War II — trumped any empathy that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Madeleine Albright, or other individuals in that administration might have felt.

I suppose I can empathize, in some sense, with Lakoff: If he wants to help create the conditions for the return to power of the Democratic Party, perhaps its sins are best ignored. But it’s difficult to see how this serves the “higher rationality” that Lakoff invokes at the beginning and end of the book.

Though this critique may seem harsh, it is a friendly one. I agree with many of the policy prescriptions that Lakoff labels as “progressive,” though I would want to push his analysis to the left and move past the predictable and uninspiring liberal ideology. I would highlight the more fundamental issues around illegitimate systems and structures of power, primarily the corporation in capitalism and the nation-state in the imperial era. Such suggestions are typically derided by those in Lakoff’s camp as unrealistic and/or idealistic. Yet no one has ever explained how a progressive politics that entrenches support for failed systems is a realistic option for the future. Whatever short-term strategies we might devise to try to roll-back the advances of the reactionary right, those tactics have to be informed by honestly facing the depth of our problems.

If this does seem harsh, that’s good — because it’s crucial that someone with Lakoff’s public platform be critiqued sharply when such weakly argued and thinly supported ideas are tossed off in this shallow a book. Being rational — along with being clear and honest — are important if we are to create the needed shift in fundamental thinking necessary to make it possible to pull this world back from the brink of multiple disasters on ecological, cultural, political, and economic fronts.

In his concluding call to a higher rationality, Lakoff writes, “Perhaps the hardest reframing problem is reframing our own minds” (p. 259). Ironically, it turns out that his book is evidence for that very claim, which may be the value of Lakoff’s recent work. As he states at the end of Whose Freedom?, with no apparent sense of that irony: “Transcending the ideas that we were raised with — growing to see more — is the cognitive work of achieving freedom” (p. 266).