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Dec 7, 2011

Left Behind

George Lakoff isn't a historian. But that excuse only goes so far.

Lakoff's endlessly simpleminded political noodling disappears whole vast swaths of history, entire conceptual categories, and every thin final molecule of nuance from human existence. His writing couldn't be more of a cartoon if Snoopy showed up and got into a dogfight with the Red Baron. (Is this a Berkeley thing? How can one campus have George Lakoff and John Yoo and Robert Reich? Practical joke, or cosmic accident?) Speaking of cartoons, Lakoff says things about the origins of his political conceptions that no self-aware being could utter without blushing the color of a fire engine.

Look at this bizarre and drifting conception of "the Public" from a recent blog post Lakoff coughed up on a blog hosted by UCLA:

All the hundreds of the occupiers’ legitimate complaints and important policy suggestions follow from a simple general moral principle: American democracy is about citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that care. 

The idea is simple but a lot follows from it:  a government that protects and empowers everyone equally, a government of the Public — public roads and buildings, school and universities, research and innovation, public health and health care, safety nets, access to justice in the courts, enforcement of worker rights, and practical necessities like sewers, power grids, clean air and water, public safety including safe food, drugs, and other products, public parks and recreational facilities, public oversight of the economy — fiscal and trade policy, banking, the stock market —  and especially the preservation of nature in the interest of all. 

The Public has been what has made Americans free — and has underwritten American wealth. No one makes it on his or her own. Private success depends on a robust Public. 

The rationale for the Occupy movement is that all of this has been under successful attack by the right wing, which has an opposing principle, that democracy is about citizens only taking care of themselves, about personal and not social responsibility.  According to right-wing morality, the successful are by definition the moral; the one percent are taken to be the most moral. The country and the world should be ruled by such a “moral” hierarchy.  Except for national security, the Public should disappear through lack of funding.

So Lakoff begins with a "government of the Public" (emphasis added), constituted from the will of and serving the whole body of "citizens caring for one another." The "Public," here, is something very much like civil society by another name. Isn't that a fair reading? Not a dozen sentences later, though, "the Public" can "disappear through lack of funding." Civil society can cease to exist if you don't send it a check drawn on the Treasury? In between these two competing notions of "the Public," we have a "robust Public" that creates private success. The public sector? Or the "public" that creates it and calls upon it?

A professional linguist, who writes about the importance of calculated political framing, muddles the definition that sits at precisely the very center of his argument: government is of the public, and government is the public, and the public ceases to exist if it's defunded, which appears to suggest that government calls civil society into being and can also switch it off with the merest appropriations bill. I'm sorry, society, we pulled your funding for FY 2013. Please cease to exist on or before 30 June.

But then here comes Lakoff with another post at my favorite cartoon syndication site, explaining what Good People want and Bad People hate (until a house falls on the bad people, and they melt):

Progressives need to be both thinking and talking about their view of a moral democracy, about how a robust public is necessary for private success, about all that the public gives us, about the benefits of health, about a Market for All not a Greed Market, about regulation as protection, about revenue and investment, about corporations that keep wages low when profits are high, about how most of the rich earn a lot of their money without making anything or serving anyone, about how corporations govern your life for their profit not yours, about real food, about corporate and military waste, about the moral and social role of unions, about how global warming causes the increasingly monstrous effects of weather disasters, about how to save and preserve nature.

Lakoff frames his discussion as Left versus Right, a clear set of distinctions between precisely binary choices. So let's only reference sources from the Left: Would Gabriel Kolko agree with the concept of "regulation as protection," or would he maybe complicate it a bit? Would William Appleman Williams agree that the "moral democracy" of a "robust public" -- that word again, whatever Lakoff means by it this time -- provides for unambiguously just and decent outcomes?

Anyway, yes: If Lakoff wants to argue that "a robust public is necessary for private success," I encourage him to jump on a BART train and go make that argument in front of Leland Stanford's mansion. Or Henry Kaiser's house. I agree with you, George, but I don't mean it as a prescription.

If you start by framing the world in terms of "Left" and "Right," or whatever variation on that binary choice you use, then you're already forcing complications out of the frame. Poke at anything Lakoff writes, it gives way like it was never there. I am, again, disappointed by the thinness of argument from what currently passes for public intellectuals. If people at the dance think George Lakoff has great moves, I'd rather just hang out in the parking lot.

ADDED LATER: See also.

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