The Consolations of George Lakoff

George Lakoff has been enlisted by the Democratic Party to advise and consult. He been endorsed by Howard Dean, Arianna Huffington and Robert B. Reich. He has become the intellectual taste of the season among the Greens and left-Democrats. He’s frequently sought as a speaker. Heis directs the Rockridge Institute, devoted to an ostensible “cognitive science” approach to politics. In short, he is a figure of some consequence.
The following essay is devoted to a short piece that Lakoff wrote around the turn of the present year

Were the brief article that George Lakoff published in The Nation (December 6, 2004) not so insidiously dangerous, it might be thought to have met the highest standards of political farce and parody. That is the way I would have taken it were I not simultaneously involved in reading some of Lakoff’s other panegyrics to the great “democratic”, “progressive” American citizenry, who, we are told, in the article cited above, initially, “came together in this election, voted for Kerry and rejected the Bush agenda”.

Any attentive reader can see how utterly careless these opening assertions are: those who voted for Kerry are immediately described as “progressive”, with no evidence or analysis provided, and they are held to have “rejected the Bush agenda”, not in some part while accepting the remainder, but apparently in totality while accepting the Kerry position, even though it was indistinguishable from Bush’s in the majority of its contentions, particularly in support of the war in Iraq, the most important aspect of both candidates’ proposals.

We are credited, those of us who bear the banner of “progressive”, with embracing such moral values as “care and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfillment in life….cooperation and trust, honesty and openness” and the remainder of the boy scout credo and the Norman Rockwell portrait of America which is an aspect of official American grandiose hyperbole of the sort usually preached during Sunday morning religious revivals and other ceremonial occasions.

But the piece is so stitched together of exactly such platitudes that it is difficult even to comprehend: for example, Lakoff claims that we are united behind “political principles: equality, equity (if you work for a living, you should earn a living) and government for the people-all the people”. Before we reach the issue of agreement or disagreement, can anybody honestly claim to understand these phrases? What, for example, do such terms as “equality” and “earn a living” mean? Their emotional value is rich and dense; their cognitive content is vaporous. And this is an essential point because Lakoff provides an analysis according to which the fundamental “frames”, as he puts it, determine which concepts and arguments will actually prevail in a political conversation. The “conceptual frames” that supposedly determine the comprehension of “progressives” appear saturated with self-congratulatory appraisals devoid of content. This does not auger well for progressive intelligence.

Borrowing from the “radical right agenda”, our failure is described as the absence of an articulated moral vision, an inability or unwillingness to “celebrate our values and principles”. So, according to Lakoff, we must “convince our leaders” to defend the highest American ideals. If we only “communicate our values clearly, most people will recognize them as their own”. Ah, if only we knew what these values and principles were and could offer any credible justification for them; and if they only bore some resemblance to forms of “progressive” political activity in the world.

Now this last contention – that we only need to clearly celebrate our values – might be held in good faith by some set of thinkers who believe that it is we progressives who are the protectors of this high “common moral vision”. That is, some compassionate analysis might claim that America, at its foundation, is a land of moral idealism but that this vision has been obscured by the hysterically induced fear which is the hallmark of “right-wing” corrupters of the democratic populace. Beneath the surface, supposedly, we all believe in the view of the founders, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

But this cannot be Lakoff’s position, because he derives the entire contour of his argument from the opposition between the conservative, strict-father family and the liberal, nurturant-parent family. (Note the contrast between the “father” in the first instance and the “parent” in the second.) It is his fundamental contention that the nation is understood on the metaphor of the family and that there are two deeply contrasting understandings of that family arrangement, and consequently, two contrasting understandings of the nation as a political entity.

There appears, therefore, to be no common ground awaiting articulation even though Lakoff states quite clearly that “If we communicate our values clearly, most people will recognize them as their own”.

A fatal contradiction stabs through the very heart of Lakoff’s position: his family metaphor analysis of framing and cognition is in contradiction with his proposal that clear communication will bring unity to our troubled land. Clear communication is the apparent solution though we have been informed that there are two conflicting metaphors that would appear to determine two contrasting definitions of “clarity” and even of intelligibility. Recall the central place of Lackoff’s family theory of national identity:

Moral values at the national level are idealized family values projected onto the nation. Progressive values are the values of a responsible nurturant family, where parents (if there are two), are qually responsible. Their job is to nurture their children and raise them to be nurturers of others. Nurturance has two aspects: empathy and responsibility….from this all progressive values follow, both in the family and in politics…..

On the other hand, the strict-father model assumes that evil and
danger will always lurk in the world, that life is difficult, that there
will always be winners and looser and that children are born bad –
they want to do what feels good, not what’s right-and have to be
made good.

However, if “(m)oral values at the national level are idealized family values projected onto the nation, what is the nature of these values in the family prior to their being idealized? Since progressive family values center around nurturance, which requires empathy and responsibility, “all progressive values follow, both in the family and in politics”. But precisely what is the nature of these actual family values, the empathy and responsibility that are the two aspects of nurturance?

Although Lakoff speaks of national moral values as family values projected onto the nation, he offers us no account of “projection”, and this lack is a considerable failure in the theory. In the psychoanalytic perspective projection is a compensation for some initial failure. Fenichel, in a classic psychoanalytic account refers to it as a “restitutional attempt”, that is, a procedure by which the individual relocates an unsatisfactory aspect of itself in another person or aspect of nature. It is a defense and always carries the germs of the initial dysfunction and the defenses against it into its eventual idealization. And this consideration is not a mere hypothetical conjecture, for there is considerable evidence available that the American family is rife with abuse and interpersonal destructiveness. It would be surprising, according to Lakoff’s own argument, therefore, if these values did not appear in the projections that structures national political principles and even more, national practices.

Simply put, if the family is the source of the metaphor constituting national political consciousness, we will have to conclude that the national consciousness is equally imbued with destructive content. This is a crucial issue that Lakoff ignores, because his view of actual American life, including that of so called “progressive” relations is so abstract and idealized as to be blatantly obfuscating, and because his view of these projected family values equally mystify the nature of the national condition.

Of course, all of this depends on the “metaphor of the metaphor”, as it were, an idealist conception of metaphor that fails to account for the initial position upon which the metaphor is based. Now, while all societies contain some equivalent of a family, it does not follow that families are in any sense basic or fundamental to society in the sense that they provide for larger cognitive patterns of thought. For the particular nature of the family and the trajectory of its changes seems to be constituted by transformations occurring in the larger political economy. Therefore, from a larger historical and functional point of view, the family is the microcosm of the society, rather than the society appearing as the metaphorical projection of the family.

Society, therefore, would appear to contain the failures of the family in all instances. But perhaps Lakoff has a simple way out of this unpleasantness. All we need do to avoid the difficulty at hand is to propose another sort of family, an “evil” family, so to say, deemed by Lakoff the “strict-father family”, from which the “bad” aspects of society are ultimately derived. This family is based on a sense of evil and danger in the world, the perpetual fact of “winners and losers”, bad children who must be made good through punishment severe enough to teach them the discipline they naturally eschew and that will actually serve their apparent self interest by rewarding them with power and wealth:

Apply this, via metaphor, to the nation: We need a strong President who knows right from wrong to defend the nation. Social programs are immoral because they give people things they haven’t earned and so make them undisciplined – both ` dependent and less able to function morally….The President is to be obeyed; since he knows right from wrong, his authority is legitimate and not to be questioned. In foreign policy, he is also the absolute moral authority and so needs no advice from lesser countries.

The so-called “moral issues” are affronts to strict-father morality…
Consequently, “moral issues” can be rejected almost by definition, for the strict-father family cannot tolerate gay relations, abortion or the obfuscation of identity boundaries. (Lakoff does not insist on this last point but it follows from his principles.)

If we can reasonably postulate these two family systems then we can simply propose that the good family produces the good in society and the bad family produces the bad in society. (We might want to know what produces the good and bad family initially but that is another matter.) Of course, we are the good persons who derive from the “good family” and produce good social and political developments.(There now, feel better?) We, being progressive, produce the progressive values of society, which are, of course the ultimately good values, though we must not hesitate to announce our convictions if we wish to dominate public discourse. Of course, the projection of the “strict-father” model will only construct a national system of greed and social dominance founded on self-interest and the rights of the more powerful. From the perspective of traditional political theory this is the struggle between Rousseau and Hobbes; from the perspective of a psychoanalytic theory of defenses, it is what is commonly called “splitting”, a rudimentary, fragile and very distorted defensive posture.

But in order to clarify the development of political positions as they arise out of family values, we must turn back to Lakoff:

If you empathize with your children, you will want them to have strong protection, fair and equal treatment and fulfillment in life. Fulfillment requires freedom, freedom requires opportunity and opportunity requires prosperity. Since your family lives in, and requires, a community, community building and community service are required. Community requires cooperation, which requires trust, which requires honesty and open communication. Those are the progressive values-in politics as well as family life.

The reader will not have been able to escape notice of the structure of Lakoff’s procreative argument wherein one concept or hypothetical conditional “requires” or generates another until the entire system is derived from the original notion and the total progressive social system is articulated. What we are offered is a system of social-political-conceptual patrimony, a sort of theoretical “begatting”. The process was certainly more provocative and interesting in Hegel, though Marx noted that the methodology bore a striking resemblance to the manner in which pear trees were thought to engage in a kind of conceptual procreation, producing the pears that were their conceptual ” offspring”.

One could go on citing Lakoff’s glowing exultation of American principles, but let us instead ask a few simple questions: first, what is the empirical evidence that there actually exists in the United States these two particular forms of family and that they embody the values that Lakoff asserts? Second, even if it could be established that the “job” of the nurturant family is to raise “nurturant” children, what evidence is there that this task is more often accomplished by the liberal than the conservative family, or by any specifically denominated family at all? I know a considerable number of individuals who might well be called “progressive” and I must report in good faith that a considerable number of them seem to me to have failed to raise children who are particularly nurturing, and even more sadly, seem even to have failed to establish nurturing relations with these same children.

But at this point an even more portentous problem arises: if a major portion of Americans actually adhered to our wonderful values – equal treatment and nurturance of others, for example – how would Lakoff explain the long train of American oppression of other peoples in the world, not to mention those it has exploited, disfigured and murdered in the United States itself. Let us glance quickly at the last 50 years or so: we will find American imperial involvement in China, Italy, Greece, The Philippines, Iran, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Ecuador, the Congo, Brazil, Indonesia, Ghana, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Iraq, Angola, Zaire, Jamaica, Grenada, Morocco, Surinane, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Yugoslavia, etc. I hope I will be forgiven my omissions. But the essential point is that the majority of these “adventures” are the work in whole or in part of that very population that Lakoff deems the “nurturant progressives”.

Of course it may be said in response that the great majority of “progressive” knew nothing of these sordid adventures and should not be held responsible. But this is merely to demolish the meaning of the word “responsible”. If the great progressive mass actually cared for equal treatment and nurturance of others, how could it avoid understanding the place of American power in the world. Perhaps, at root, it cares very little for the suffering and exploitation of others and shares more that we would like to acknowledge with the expansionist, reactionary motive we reject.

The domestic scene is no less inflamed with a similar hypocrisy. The nurturant family is supposed to be concerned with strong protection and equal nurturance of its children whom it raises with the capacity to nurture others. One has to be blind to view the history of the United States as the embodiment of such values. It has, rather, been a long continuous elaboration of a power elite shaped more and more by the structure of corporate capitalism until today, when the corporate elite is the defining power in American capitalist culture and more prone to vicious and brutal violence then ever in its whole history. Yet according to Lakoff we supposedly have realized environmental protection, worker protection and consumer protection, as well as ‘safety nets – Social Security, Medicare and so on. Equality means full political and social equality, without regard to wealth, race, religion or gender. Openness requires open government and a free, inquiring press. Progressive political ideals are nurturant moral ideals.

By these pollyanish sentimentalities Lakoff can mean either of two things: either progressives continually press for such values, though they come up against significant resistance from “others”, “the strict-family” advocates and their projections, and we cannot expect that they will always be successful in the face of this opposition; or, progressives actualize these values whenever possible and have a long line of successes to show for it. Both views are absurd, as a moment’s reflection will indicate. For recall that Lakoff has strongly asserted that progressives came together to vote against Bush because of our moral values:

care and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfillment in life…cooperation and trust, honesty and openness. …

If we communicate our values clearly, most people will recognize them as their own, personally more authentic and more deeply American than those put forth by conservatives.

But if most people actually embrace progressive values, and even more authentically and more deeply than conservative values, why have progressive values not prevailed through American history, or in recent years? If we are a country committed to equality (a term Lakoff does not define) why have we never had equality nor even approached in any significant area of American life? In the critical dimensions of class, gender and race the prevailing system of values is one of extraordinary domination by one group over others, and this system shows little tendency to eliminate the structure of invidious power.

Of course, the reason for Lakoff’s failure here is that he has no theory of power and this deficit constitutes a devastating failure in regard to the basic dimensions of oppression I have just noted. His unwillingness to face, even in his own terms, the relation between the family and larger social evaluations, derives from an absence of any consideration of unconscious social-psychic factors, in short, an absence of depth analysis. And his parallel inability to note the contributions of Marxist theory to an understanding of power leaves him with a system of concepts entirelyunmoored from the prevailing structure of exploitation, and so, free to float unanchored above the actual terrain of the denigrations and sufferings of bleeding, terrestrial life.

For finally, Lakoff lacks any theory of ideology in Marx’s sense; that is, he seems incapable of grasping the manner in which the conceptual realm of capitalism fails as a lucid revelation but functions instead, quite successfully, as a veil of mystified power. He takes Americans at face value, abstracted from the real political and economic privileges and powers in which they are set and by which they are defined, and he takes their articulated consciousness for the extent of their psychic existence. And that is why the whole account finally reads as a children’s fairy tale in which concepts dance about forming constellations according to their evaluative affinities, completely indifferent to the powers that have spawned them.

Finally, the family, to which Lakoff attributes the power of metaphoric generation of national understanding is, in fact, structurally, more the result of that national structure than it is the cause. But once again, Lakoff inverts appearance and reality.

“Swing voters have both models” and, naturally vacillate from one election to another. Does this imply that most of the rest of us are dominated by our purer adherence to one of the two models that Lakoff has proposed? Such a proposition seems most unlikely or the nature of the American society would be so polarized as to be unrecognizable. The critical phenomenon determining current social life, as it has at least since the rise of capitalism, is the lascivious embrace of the “good” and the “bad”, the liberal, progressives, conservative and reactionaries around a set of values, nuanced in their differences, but incredibly compatible over long periods of time in mutual adherence to systems of invidious capitalist power and privilege.

It is comforting to us as the good progressive that we are identified with the progress of American society, but the truth is that America has not been engaged in progressive change for a period of at least fifty years or more. Any substantive transformation, by which I mean a movement toward socialism, will require extremely arduous work on the part of a very large portion of the American constituency. For Weber, from a very different political perspective than the one I am adumbrating here, admonished us correctly that politics is “…the slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective..”. and the grim and painful truth is that we seem to lack both. Idle flattery is worth less than nothing. Lakoff’s saccharine appeal to our progressive nature may gratify the better angels of our superiority but it will not bring us one step closer and more likely, many steps further away, from a productive political movement.

In Lakoff’s new idealism, radical transformation, if not revolution, is accomplished by conceptual reframing, that is, by the utilization of cognitive structures that shape our view of the world. As he puts the theme of the next stage of our inquiry:

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.

But ultimately, though we obviously cannot ignore our conceptualization of the world, we must ask why we utilize one frame rather than another to understand the world. Is it not the case that our goals, plans, actions and norms are dialectically related to these mental structures? In fact, as the social world is always “conceptualized”, the changes that take place within it cannot be the result of sheer conceptual determination rather than changes that occur in actual embodied social movements. Otherwise, the frames would become independent of society and we would be free to simply choose which ever one appealed to us; except that we would have no reason for finding one more appealing than another, for the attractiveness of the frame cannot derive simply from the frame itself, but must find support in the world as framed, that is, in the concrete world as formed. Either the frames are autonomous and choice of one or another determines the society that follows from them, in which case it is impossible to provide social evidence to support one or another. Or the fame are embedded in social structures, in which case we must look to social organization to understand the functioning of these frames.

Lakoff is an idealist of the new cognitive psychology tendency, a position I am sure he believes is born out by the evidence and not simply by a radical choice of framing. But if his theory needs to be supported by “facts”, so, of course does the view of the world he simultaneously attempts to defend. Unfortunately, the facts are more obdurate and complex than his framing can comprehend and not quite of the sort that the simple polarization of “good” and “evil” can accommodate. In fact, one of the strangest aspects of Lakoff’s position is that he condems reactionaries for their dualisms of good and evil, and then replicates the very same polarized structure in his own account of the bad disciplinarians versus the good nurturants. Obviously, something else lies behind this galactic fantasy, and it is this to which I need turn in a subsequent account.

RICHARD LICHTMAN is the author of “The Production of Desire,” “Essays in Critical Social Theory,” and most recently, “Dying in America,” which among other aspects, includes a memoir of the death of his father. He can be reached at: