Lakoff, Metaphor, and the world

Alan Ampolsk on Lakoff, via Andrew Sullivan’s blog.
Lakoff’s focus on frames is useful, but too shallow to be sufficiently powerful. It misses the depth of emotion and myth, and the reality-transforming power of reason.

I’m interested in metaphor and politics, so I’m supposed to admire Lakoff. But I don’t. Sure, he did important work on the central role of metaphor in our lives. Worth a look. But even there, you run up against the problem — which is that at the end of the day, he’s a linguist. That means he’s all caught up in the superficial mechanics of language, and has no handle at all on deeper, darker, messier stuff — such as, for example, values, beliefs, core myths — the things that drive actions and power movements.

To Lakoff it’s all a matter of “framing” — frame better, and the human sheep will follow. Because, you know, enlightenment has failed, and the best manipulator wins. Being a progressive, Lakoff is angry at the way Republicans frame. But, in despair over the need to frame — and operating far from the emotional core — the best he can come up with are tinny alternative phrases. Call trial lawyers “public protection attorneys.” Campaign for “poison-free communities.” And you’ve solved it.

Meet the Fockers / Moral Politics

Meet the Fockers is a lowbrow comedy version of George Lakoff’s political theory. Ben Stiller’s embarrassingly touchie-feely parents — his mom’s a sex therapist for senior citizens, his dad’s an ex-radical-lawyer house husband — meet his fiance’s parents — a macho, uptight ex-cia agent and his repressed wife.
In case you couldn’t decipher the contrast in parenting style, the movie has an otherwise gratuitous Byrnes grandchild who’s supposed to be toughened up by letting him cry it out before he’s old enough to say his first word; the Fokkers soothe him with hugs, and the occasional chocolate and thimble of rum.
Many bathroom and sex gags later, the goofy yet loving Fokker family shows up the authoritarian Byrnes style. Meet the Fokker’s was apparently the highest-grossing movie of the Christmas weekend — I wonder how it’s doing in red states?
George Lakoff’s theory — explained in Moral Politics, and popularized in the last election cycle — contends that conservative politics is modeled on a “strict father” family, while liberal politics is based on a “nurturant parent” theory. Conservatives draw on the parenting philosophy of James Dobson, based on harsh discipline and physical punishment, where liberals draw on the empathetic philosophy of T. Berry Brazelton, where discipline is based on teaching the child to understand the feelings of others and consequences of their actions.
Lakoff’s definition of “nurturant parents” includes the notion of responsibility, which stacks the deck, giving liberals too much inherent credit for balance. Extreme viewpoints on the left of the spectrum can be statist and absolutist, not just “nurturing.” Not to mention the “nurturing” nature of old-style, big-city spoils-system Democratic patronage politics.
Opposition to big budget deficits has crossed party lines in recent political cycles. When Republicans oppose budget deficits, presumably they wish to cruelly restrict social programs. When Democrats oppose budget deficits, they are being prudent stewards for future generations.
A theory this general can be used like a horoscope to explain any occurrence. Lakoff describes right-wing opposition to Bill Clinton’s philandering in terms of defense of the father’s moral leadership. Perhaps right wing silence on the moral pecadilloes of Tom DeLay can be explained in terms of authoritarian obedience to the leader. Or perhaps both of these can be explained in terms of aggressively self-interested party politics.
I appeciate Lakoff’s efforts to find a coherent underpinning to liberal beliefs. Lakoff is right that liberals need to do a better job of conveying an emotionally and morally compelling story. He’s right that recent Democratic campaign messages have been a grab-bag of policies, rather than a coherent vision. He’s right that liberals need to reframe issues in a favorable light — Pell Grant and National Science Foundation spending as investment in the country’s future.
But I’m uncomfortable with the psychoanalytic approach explaining people’s beliefs in terms very different than ones they would use to describe themselves.
Lakoff’s theory doesn’t leave room for the very different flavors of self-defind conservative; the corporate capitalists; the small-government libertarians; the socially conservative christians. Conservative message discipline seems to be better explained by publicists effectively crafting and distributing responses than a psychologically driven natural affinity.
Also, the family dynamics theory is blissfully blind to history; the response of Progressive reform to Robber Baron excess, the New Deal to the Depression; the Civil Rights movement to segregation. It can’t see the stasis and complacency that afflicted liberal groups after they won major 60s battles.
Compelling political philosophies work at multiple levels — they resound emotionally, make sense intellectually, and respond historically to the challenges of the time. Lakoff’s family dynamics are part of a valuable effort to explain the moral basis of liberal beliefs. They’ve clearly filtered into mainstream popular culture. But they aren’t the whole of a compelling political story.
To respond to Peterme’s perennial call for explicit opinion, I found “the Fockers” a moderately amusing and entertainingly silly movie for a Christmas weekend night out. I found Lakoff a bit disappointing for a thoughtful airplane read, against billing that he had the secret explanation for conservative success and liberal redemption. Opinions, of course, are all relative to expectations.

43 things – we are our plans and dreams

43 things is an amusing and delightful social tool for sharing goals and resolutions like learning to cook, visiting italy, and getting through the holidays without being grumpy.
All it needs is a meetup feature, and links to blogs and wikis and it would be just perfect. Oh, and maybe a flickr import.
Why do I find this so much more cheerful than those horrid social networking sites? It’s because who we are is built of our dreams and aspirations and daily projects (take more pictures, grow my own vegetables, save money, write more love letters), not just our t-shirts (“I like Neal Stephenson and Terry Gilliam”).
Thanks for the invitation, Ed.

MSN Blogs – what’s yours is mine

Catching up on the RSS reader and the furor over MSN Spaces, the new Microsoft blogging service. Most of the noise was about the nifty censorship features, but to my mind, the most offensive bit of the terms of service is the sharecropper’s intellectual property clause.

For materials you post or otherwise provide to Microsoft related to the MSN Web Sites (a “Submission”), you grant Microsoft permission to (1) use, copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, modify, translate and reformat your Submission, each in connection with the MSN Web Sites, and (2) sublicense these rights, to the maximum extent permitted by applicable law. Microsoft will not pay you for your Submission.”

Microsoft infers that, because most bloggers don’t make money from their blog content, they therefore don’t mind if you sign your rights over to Microsoft. This is tyrannical record-company contract terms transferred to the long tail.
You start as a blogger, and become a successful novelist, inventor, consultant? Sorry darling. Your ideas already belong to Microsoft. Free is pretty darn expensive.
The censorship features wouldn’t be so bad, if only they could be turned off. I gave a talk a while ago at a conference on community uses of technology. The main audience questions about the use of blogs in schools and community centers were about obscenity, and trying to keep a kid-friendly environment without overwhelmingly time-intensive moderation.
The problem with general-purpose censorship and IP sharecropping is that it keeps out grownups. Who is MSN Spaces trying to appeal to?

The Metaphysical Club

The Metaphysical Club joins the list of my favorite nonfiction books.
The book tells the story of four thinkers who helped create the intellectual foundation for modern America — Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey.
These thinkers, in Menand’s analysis, responded to two challenges to conventional 19th century certitudes. The writings of Charles Darwin destroyed faith in the determinist hand of the Deity in history, and also in the determinist clockwork of enlightenment science. The bloody US Civil War, in which the combination of modern weapons and premodern tactics caused horrific carnage, cast doubt on the purity of prewar sanctimonious convictions.
The response — expressed differently in the lives and works of the main characters — was American pragmatism. For Holmes, a judicial philosophy that valued circumstance above absolute principle. For Peirce, a philosophy based on probability rather than certitude. For Dewey, an educational philosophy based on the integration of thinking and doing. For James, the death of religious and scientific determinism led to an experiential take on religious experience, where the value of faith is its benefits for the mental health of the believer.
Menand tells the stories of the main characters in the context of their personal and professional biographies, with plenty of colorful, telling, and gossipy anecdotes. Peirce, who was the least successful in his lifetime, and most obscure because of the lack of institutional success, was acoholic, drug addict, depressive, and sometimes violent. Holmes held the race, gender and class preferences of his day, and helped exclude women and black students from Harvard. James took years of vacillation to make personal and professional decisions (but despite that had a dramatically successful career).
The main characters pursued their careers at a transitional time for American intellectuals. They were the last generation of semipro thinkers. They shifted between disciplines, and between university and practical life, with a flexibility lost to later generations, while they helped to build the structure of siloed, professional academia that gave scholars a measure of professional security and independence, while confining them to narrow topics and cloistered resistance to practical life.
This trajectory is similar to other charismatic figures in the early years of American modernity; John Wesley Powell, the self-educated geologist whose expeditions mapped the American West and whose institutional prowess helped create the US Geological Survey; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the self-educated pioneer of American landscape architecture who designed Central Park and helped create the field.
One of the curious omissions in the book is money; the industrialization that reshaped of the American economy during the time covered by the book; it is omitted except for the reaction of John Dewey to the Pullman strike. In the book, Dewey’s story is mostly about the development of his ideas and academic career; a different picture might emerge from a fuller review of his work. Dewey sees and responds to the creation of an American proletariat; the rest of the characters live in an insulated, upper-class world, transitioning from family money to professional academic prestige and comfort.
By contrast, the work of Henry Adams, a contemporary in the social circles of the Holmes and James families; whose autobiography is full of resentment of the nouveau riche businessmen and enterprising professionals of his generation; and the masses of immigrants crowding American cities, staffing the factories and urban stores. Adams doesn’t like industrialization, but he sees it.
The Metaphysical Club traces the rise and fall of pragmatism across American history. The contingent and qualified worldview went into eclipse during the Cold War, where aggressive certainty was seen as necessary to combat world communism; and during the triumphs of idealistic liberalism in the 1960s, when civil rights and women’s rights movements made progress because of their rejection of conventional social compromises. Pragmatic thinking rose again briefly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is occluded again after September 11, when doubt-free confidence is in favor once again.
The core ideas of the pragmatists; pluralism, the need to protect diversity of thought, the social nature of meaning, are fundamental to American liberalism, at a time when liberal thinking seems to be eclipsed by confident, militant conservatism, which seeks to return to a pre-Darwin world of cheerful imperialism and militant moral certainty.
Menand’s training is in literature, where the mantra is “show but not tell”. This is a strange attribute for nonfiction; where the conventional principle is to explicitly state and then support a hypotheses. Compared to typical nonfiction, Menand emphasizes storytelling and de-emphasizes argument; his analysis and conclusions grow on the reader, on later association and reflection.

Life without mental prosthetics

The helpful folks at the local computer shop were unable to find the part for my Fujitsu laptop anywhere on the planet. So back it goes to Fujitsu, for an expected $500 repair.
I’ve figured out how to recover Thunderbird mail after a crash. The next step today is to figure out how to recover the mail folders, so I can have a working foldering system.
It’s an interesting experiment in discovering the level of dependence on a working, email-based folder system; and on a portable computer for productivity and mental clarity.
Living without a living, foldering system feels like having short-term memory loss. Work-related stuff lives in Socialtext. Customer correspondence from our sales and service systems is fine. So my long term memory is ok.
Immediate correspondence is by phone and instant message/IRC, and that’s fine.
But correspondence that’s not tied to a repository, and doesn’t get immediate responce, goes into a deep black hole. I usually have an excellent assisted memory of what happened 3 days ago, or last week. For the last month or so, that part of memory has been crippled.
My volunteer projects have suffered most, since they depend more on email, and less on database-backed systems.
The other piece that’s missing is computer-aided reflection. The core, daily/weekly/monthly priority setting and planning uses paper. But there’s a more meditative process of reading and thinking and writing that requires a laptop, coffee, background noise.
I haven’t used a desktop computer since… 1991 maybe, when I bought a beloved Powerbook. The desktop works for “leaning forward tasks”. But not so well for reflection.
Blogging will be lighter til I have a laptop back in hand.