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.

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