Another look at Lakoff’s “Whose Freedom?”

Published online 26 May 2007.

This diary offers a fresh re-visitation George Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom? after SusanG’s review of said volume.  Mostly, I am interested in placing Lakoff’s advice in historical and political-economic contexts.  His concepts of “freedom” seem to be bound up with particular historical actors, and his opposition to “rationalism” seems to be overstated even if there is a core of truth to what he is saying.

Further book review:

Whose Freedom?
The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea
By George Lakoff
Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York, 2007

Kudos to SusanG, WB Reeves, and Wufacta

This is a book about two concepts of the word “freedom” – the concept held by the “progressives,” as Lakoff defines them, and the concept held by “conservatives,” as Lakoff defines them.  Lakoff’s motives, in writing a book about two concepts of freedom, are perceived as noble by many DKos readers: discuss ways in which the “progressive” concept of freedom can triumph politically over the “conservative” one, in expectation of eventual “progressive” electoral victories.  His argument proceeds by three steps: first he examines the concept of freedom, in an effort extending over much of the book, then he explains the family models of the “nuturant parent” and the “strict father” in an extended metaphor of “the nation as family” (65-72), and, lastly, he makes suggestions about overall political strategy.

Here I shall offer a historicizing critique.  As the concept of freedom is a concept of “whose freedom?” so indeed the word “freedom” plays itself out against an overall historical context.

The Concept of Freedom: Whose Freedom?

The “progressive” concept of freedom is given a comprehensive definition at the beginning of the book, as a celebration of the progress of freedom in American history.  This celebration includes:

The expansion of citizen participation and voter rights from white male property owners to non-property owners, to former slaves, to women, to those excluded by prejudice, to younger voters

The expansion of opportunity, good jobs, better working conditions, and benefits to more and more Americans…

The expansion of public health and life expectancy…

The expansion of access to capital from wealthy landholders and bankers to all the ways ordinary people – more and more of them – can borrow money today… (3-4).

So this is the progress of “freedom” as Lakoff sees it happening in American history.  Given all this, then, Lakoff wants to understand why the George W. Bush concept of freedom, which he regards as anti-freedom, carries so much currency anyway.  The conservative concept of freedom (in general) is described in its most controversial form on pp. 138-140:

Here are some examples of conservative freedom – or liberties – that conservative populists claim are either under attack or already taken away and need to be reclaimed… (among others)

The freedom to get rid of waste in the easiest and cheapest way – burning leaves, dumping waste in streams, burying garbage in the earth or the ocean.

The freedom to hunt – regardless of whether I am hunting an endangered species.

The freedom to extract and use any natural resource to make a living – without having to care about environmental effects.

The freedom to hire or promote or fire anyone I please – without having to worry about discriminatory hiring or labor policies.

The freedom to offer any wage to an employee – without having to worry about unions, minimum wage laws, working conditions, or medical benefits.

The freedom to decide how I spend the money I earn.

The freedom to live in a community without threats to myself or my family from immoral people – drug addicts, ex-convicts, sexual predators, pornographers, gays.

Now, one of the things that stands out in my understanding of these definitions of freedom is that neither of Lakoff’s definitions of freedom, neither the conservative nor the progressive one, are definitions that hold for everybody.  Now, Lakoff thinks there are “biconceptuals,” people who hold in part to both definitions, but I don’t see that as the end of it.  These definitions of freedom are, in fact, focused upon the aspirations of particular groups of people.  The second, conservative, definition is a definition that holds mainly for capitalists and their hangers-on.  George W. Bush’s “Ownership Society,” duly noted by Lakoff (154), offers a literary device whereby everyone can imagine herself as a capitalist.  This device is properly debunked in the pages after page 154: there, Lakoff argues that there simply aren’t enough good jobs to propel everyone into the owning classes.  Of course, the Republican circle of true believers doesn’t care: if there is a good job for me, each of them thinks individually, then everyone else can “go fish.”

But the Lakoff “progressive” definition of freedom has a particular constituency as well: that of the ascendant middle classes of the era of populist Keynesianism in American political economy, between World War II and the 1970s.  The notion of “expansion of access to capital” as a basic freedom of American society belies this, as well as the notion of “better jobs.”  This is the “progressive” version of the theme of “every one a capitalist,” only in a more populist vein.  (One is inclined to wonder, moreover, if at the end of the great home equity boom of the 20th century there is still any point for the aspiring middle class in borrowing money.)  And a thoroughgoing anti-capitalist would look at “better jobs” as being like “better exploitation” – such people would view it as better to have no job, or to be communally employed, than to sell one’s labor on the open market.

So we might be able to argue, through this analysis of “freedom,” that one part of freedom is economic freedom, and that what economic freedom is (in any time and place) depends upon who is exercising economic freedom in what context.  I am not suggesting, here, that this particularity of the concept of “freedom” is a bad thing, and that we must create a concept of freedom that is good for all times and places.  But, given that the rest of the 21st century is expected to produce an ecological reckoning with the capitalist system, then, the future might need a new concept of freedom other than those which Lakoff has proposed, one more in line with what Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen call the “subsistence perspective,” or like Kovel’s “union of free producers.”

The Nation-As-Family Metaphor

One reason why Lakoff thinks his two views (“progressive” and “conservative”) of freedom are so politically prevalent is what he calls the “Nation-As-Family Metaphor.”  For him, two dominant metaphors correspond to the two views of freedom: the “nurturant parent” metaphor of government, and the “strict father” metaphor of government.  The “nurturant parent” model corresponds to the infrastructure that uses “the common wealth for the common good” (77-78): basic services, highways, communication, health care, education, banking, and so on.  The fundamental frames of the “strict parent” model are supposed to be lodged in the gospel of individualism listed on p. 102:

It’s individual initiative that has made this country great.

The unfettered free market is the engine of American prosperity.  It is natural and moral.

Everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Responsibility is individual responsibility.

The government just gets in the way; it is inefficient, bureaucratic, and wasteful.

It’s your money; you can spend it better than the government can.

So how is the gospel of individualism connected to the “strict father” model?  “The good people – the moral ones,” Lakoff continues, “are disciplined.  They can become prosperous via the market if the government doesn’t get in the way.” (102)  I suppose the “strict father” is supposed to offer that discipline, or what is typically called “the discipline of the market” by IMF lenders imposing austerity plans on Third World nations.

I don’t have a lot of quibbles with Lakoff’s proposed models, nor do I have any quibble with him about the importance of frames.  I suppose the real “strict father” is the corporate boss, and one’s curriculum vitae (Latin: “life course”) is one’s record of obedience.  Patriarchy and capitalism intertwine.

Lakoff’s suggestions

Now I am not going to get into Lakoff’s reframings of conservative rhetoric.  Lakoff suggests we go after the conservatives as “antifreedom,” which may or may not work.  The most provocative suggestion of Whose Freedom? is that rationalism is a mistake, and that people do not behave rationally.  Once again, I am left wondering if popular irrationalism doesn’t have something to do with the irrationalism of our economic and political systems.  Lakoff explains irrationalism as follows:

If the frames that define common sense contradict the facts, the facts will be ignored.  Cognitive science tells us why: The frames that define common sense are instantiated physically in the brain.  When you hear a fact that is inconsistent with a physical structure in the brain (a frame), the physical structure (the frame) stays and the fact is ignored or explained away.  Nonetheless, progressives keep using facts alone to argue against radical conservative frames.  (251)

Now, I do agree that cognitive dissonance has a certain power to keep people “in line” with conservative doctrine.  But I also think that “the facts alone” are an important part of the debate about politics in America.  Why, for instance, do the mass media refuse to discuss so many particularly newsworthy facts about the world?  Why does the Bush administration strive so hard to conceal so many facts from the public?  And why has the Bush administration, whose stated policies rely upon contradictions of actual states of fact (eg “al Qaeda is responsible for the insurgency in Iraq”), lost so much popularity?  Do people eventually wake up from the conservatives with their powerful yet pernicious frames?

Frankly, I suspect that “the facts” point to the necessity of a far deeper re-evaluation of American life than even “progressives” such as Lakoff are willing to admit.  This is why I’m an anti-capitalist, and not a progressive.  Thus we anti-capitalists might see Lakoff’s logic of “frames” and of cognitive dissonance as applying to progressives, too.  If common sense says, “capitalism will be around forever,” the mind is free to ignore evidence of its death rattle.

Lakoff summarizes his dispute with rationalism by citing “five major rationalist mistakes”:

Believing that you can argue effectively against established frames with raw facts – that is, thinking that the truth will set you free

Believing that voters vote on candidates’ positions on the issues, rather than identity, values, trust, and authenticity – and on the symbolic value of the issues

Believing that candidates should follow the polls, rather than try to change them

Ignoring how biconceptuals (those who vote partly according to the “strict father” metaphor and partly according to the “nurturant parent” metaphor) work

Believing that reframing is just spin or propaganda, rather than a means of telling deep truths effectively (255)

Sure, “progressive” candidates need to be able to reframe debates about the issues – but mere verbal reframings allow listeners to question all fancy language about politics.  Once you’ve heard the “estate tax” reframed as the “death tax” in a serious debate, you begin to focus upon what an “estate tax” really is, rather than on what sort of gloss has been spread over it to make it look unattractive.  Since “frames” are essentially empty, their power over us should tend to diminish once it is exposed.

In terms of “message,” rather than merely relying upon words to convey what we mean, I think we do better to advertise our ideas by creating what Joel Kovel calls “prefigurations” – images and institutions that convey what the future might look like if we transformed our society in an ecologically sustainable, peaceful direction.

And I don’t really think that anyone tries to argue with “just facts.”  Rather, we frame arguments with our choices of fact, and our arrangement of facts in an argument.  And sometimes the so-called “conservatives” of the Republican Party use “facts” that are just plain lies to get where they want to go, and their usages as such end up being quite effective.  As Frances Moore Lappe notes in her powerful critique of one of Lakoff’s earlier books:

So here’s one point progressives might want to savor as they think about frames: A broad swath of the American people may share the “strict father” frame just enough to be vulnerable to manipulation; but this does not mean Americans broadly, deeply share the worldview of those in power. The Left must get much better, not just at placing its issues in a compelling moral frame, but at exposing and holding the radical Right accountable for its lies and deception – without, and here is the tricky part, making those who have been manipulated feel ridiculed and put down.

Could there be anything more damaging to one’s identity, values, trust, or authenticity than to be publicly known as a liar?

And it would be nice if candidates decided to change the polls (by, of course, showing some real leadership), rather than trying to follow them? But candidates for important public offices typically need the sponsorship of some over-financed fraction of capital in order to win office, and so the real leaders in such a process end up being the financiers, not the politicians.

That having been said, I’m sure there’s room for Lakoff’s ideas, about freedom or otherwise, in a successful campaign to move American politics to the Left.  Maybe Lakoff won’t move American politics as far Left as I want it to move, but events will overtake everything anyway.



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