The Limits to Lakoff

Let’s have Christ our President
Let us have him for our king
With a job and pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring

–Woody Guthrie, Arch-progressive

“Let’s have Christ our President!” Never have truer words been spoken. Why not make the exemplar of morality the chief executor of public policy? Then all our vexing social problems would be solved. As always, truth comes from a poet.

(Note to self: supposed moral exemplar currently in Whitehouse has not worked out so well ­ at least not for folks from Beirut, Falluja and New Orleans.) As it stands, the only problem with the ‘Nazarene for Pres.’ suggestion is the question of whose Jesus we’re talking about.

Far too many imagine him alternatively – depending on whether it is the December or April consumption season – as a swaddled babe in a manger or as the helpless, exhausted and soon to be bloody torture victim condemned to his fate by his austere Father. A Father, who also happened to create the “struggle for survival” in seven days and, like Cartman, patiently waits for the moment when those who question his “authori-tie” will be consigned to the flames. This Nicene narrative emphasizes the myth of Woman’s fall for the serpent and consequently requires the violent myth of the masculine, metaphysical, scapegoat’s blood to redeem it. This Jesus is not exactly, well uh, presidential material in either incarnation. Besides, that Jesus left, behind the clouds, back to heaven.

On the other hand, some know Jesus as a social revolutionary and political visionary. For them, his defining feature is not a myth but a message. He emerged in the agrarian hinterlands of 1st century Palestine and spoke out against the Roman empire and the Jewish enforcers of empire. He called for a revision of the moral law to enable the emancipation of the Jewish serfs and was crucified for it. Jesus nurtured the prostitute instead of stoning her. A radical egalitarian who threw the money changers out of the temple, an act whose significance was at least as much economic and political as theological, Jesus sought to reframe the moral conversation of his time.

As near as I can tell, George Lakoff has out Jesused Jesus! He is here right now miraculously reinventing progressivism. He is a cognitive linguist (thank God for socially conscious linguists!) who speaks truth to power. He is reframing and clarifying America’s political discourse in terms of Jesus’ moral ideal, but with a theory of human cognition, one that helps us understand ourselves and the other side, enlisted to arm our progressive soldiers in their onward march. I’ve got an idea! How ’bout George Lakoff for president?

Our American Values

In his early work, Lakoff revealed to cognitive scientists what poets have known for some time; that metaphors structure the conceptual relations that organize our everyday cognitive lives. Then, with a stern cross examination of the western philosophical tradition and its myth of disembodied objectivity, Lakoff revealed the limits of traditional theories of categorization in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. He updated these findings in Philosophy in the Flesh. Those works present a new paradigm of human cognition that Lakoff calls “experiential realism” which emphasizes embodied, imaginative, and metaphorical thought. The prototype theory of categorization expounded in them provides the theoretical foundation for Lakoff’s interpretation of American politics.

Lakoff’s big entry into politics came in 1996, when he pointed out in his work Moral Politics, that political discourse in the United States is structured by the metaphor of the Nation as a Family and by two competing cognitive models of the family contained in that metaphor: the strict father and the nurturing parent. He inferred that recent conservative electoral successes have been largely due to their ability to frame political debate in terms of the strict father model. Since then he has developed these ideas into a full blown political strategy for left-leaning soccer moms, union activists and presidential speech writers.

His most recent work, Thinking Points: A Progressives Handbook, reads like a 21st century sermon on the mount. It clearly formulates the elements of the progressive moral vision that Lakoff shares with Jesus but it also goes beyond the vision to its implementation. Lakoff teaches progressives how to communicate their values by framing the debate in their own terms.

The core elements of the progressive vision come as no surprise. Empathy, the capacity to experience in one’s own self the humanity of another person, and responsibility, the will to act on one’s empathy in such a way that humanity’s overall capacity to extend and experience empathy increases, define the progressive vision. Lakoff argues that the realization of fundamental human empathy implies several values and conditions.

Progressive moral action creates a fully human Community as its ideal goal. Such community presupposes the values of Freedom, Equality and Fairness. These in turn require conditions of Prosperity, Opportunity and Personal Fulfillment. All rest on the bedrock of Protection. These values and conditions are interrelated aspects of the progressive moral vision and together aim at the universal extension of well-being to the Family of Man.

According to Lakoff, four political principles naturally flow from the progressive moral vision.

The Common Good Principle grounds individual flourishing in the larger social context. Consumer protections, firefighters, public schools and social security are examples of this principle enacted.

The Expansion of Freedom Principle can be inferred from the expansion of empathy. It is manifest in the provision of rights; worker rights, civil rights, voting rights.

The Respect for Human Dignity Principle follows directly from the core element of empathy. This principle implies opposition to torture and genocide but it also implies the positive duties of provision of food, shelter, education, healthcare and transportation for all.

Finally, The Diversity Principle also follows from empathy as the appreciation of difference. Diversity as a political ideal is the full acceptance of the other’s “otherness” ­ even if the other wants to wear fairy wings and a Mardi Gras mask while parading down fifth avenue!

Lakoff sets these progressive political principles over and against their conservative counterparts. The Moral Authority Principle extrapolates the absolutism of the strict father to the political realm. It sets up a hierarchic and unchanging moral order requiring obedience as the moral priority. The Individual Responsibility Principle blames the poor for their poverty and praises the wealthy for the moral superiority that their wealth demonstrates. It eschews explanations of social phenomena like poverty or homelessness in terms of social forces or class. The Free-Market Principle is the natural consequence of conservative “folk behaviorism” ­ the idea that human motivation can be explained in terms of simple calculations of rewards and punishments. It assumes the market as the mechanism of meritocracy. The Bootstraps Principle enshrines the deeply held American myth that our system provides equal opportunity to all. It requires the further inference that anybody can be Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, or Rupert Murdoch if only they develop the self-discipline to realize their dreams. To anyone who watches cable news regularly, these views seem like common sense.

Lakoff vociferously argues both morally and pragmatically for the superiority of the nurturant parent model of the family and the progressive political vision implied by it. However, his bifurcation of the political landscape is not some overly simplistic, Manichean pure-good and pure-evil world-view. Lakoff makes it clear in his notion of the biconceptual that everyone understands both ideal family models, the strict father and nurturing parent, and that people often employ the different models in different areas of their lives.

According to Lakoff, these two conflicting sets of political principles inform the policy debates that occupy our political class, and shape the discourse offered for public consumption in the mass-media by pundits and politicians. The progressive aim is to change the electorate using both surface framing and the deep moral frame implied by the nurturant parent model of the family.

Reframing is not, although it can be, political spin. Lakoff uses surface framing as a short-term strategy for truth telling. His recent articles examining the middle-east imbroglio in which America finds itself are perfect examples. He explains that a “surge” of troops is more accurately framed as an “escalation” of a mistake. He makes the compelling case that “decider’s” much prepared for “surgical attack” on Iran is accurately characterized only if we call it “nuclear war,” given the public statements concerning the use of nuclear weapons by those with the power to initiate such an attack.

Understood as a long term political strategy, reframing provides a clear plan to enact a progressive moral politics. Surface framing only works to the extent it connects with deep frames. Deep framing means consistently appealing to and activating the core progressive moral frame, the nurturing parent model, in order to change “common sense” in swing voters and conservatives alike. In both our national political discourse and conversations over the backyard fence, Lakoff gives progressives hope for success by showing them how humans think.

Dr. Lakoff tells us to push for true community by communicating in terms of the progressive moral ideal. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone in the Whitehouse who might use that bully pulpit to re-establish Our American Values? Someone who takes the common good and human dignity seriously? Someone with a strategy to enact moral progress? Again I ask – George Lakoff for president anyone?

Playing the Frame Game with Progressive Politics

After reading Thinking Points, I felt compelled to return to Lakoff’s earlier works in order to rethink for myself the categories, metaphors, and cognitive models present in American political discourse. Interestingly, I discovered a set of principles that shape American politics and “flow naturally” from the core progressive moral commitments. These principles remain largely unconscious and unstated as fundamental presuppositions of American politics.

Our American values require a set of metamoral political principles that enforce the expansion of the material base of American society. In the most basic sense, prosperity, opportunity, and protection require more stuff. Evermore recourses are necessary to extend empathy to the entire national family to say nothing of the family of man. Moral progress, as Jesus and George Lakoff envision it, requires “material improvement” as its basic precondition. Let me explain.

In Moral Politics, Lakoff is careful to distinguish what he calls “experiential morality” from our metaphorical structuring of it. He writes “the most fundamental form of morality concerns the experiential well-being of others and the avoidance and prevention of experiential harm to others.” Lakoff correctly conceives of morality as embodied, physical, and material. Moral progress is the extension of well-being to other bodies.

The experiential concept of “well-being” is metaphorically structured through the “Well-being As Wealth” metaphor. This is a primary metamoral concept that allows both progressives and conservatives to keep the moral books. Lakoff points out that this metamoral metaphor is so fundamental and so ubiquitous to our moral reasoning that it is barely recognized as metaphorical. It is also literally true. Some minimal degree of wealth is a necessary condition for well-being.

So, well-being is unconsciously and fundamentally structured in terms of material things that we categorize as wealth. This is not to say that well-being is simply lack of material want; food, shelter, and water are the minimal requirements. Well-being in the sense of human fulfillment and human flourishing requires much more than these. The uniquely American understanding of fulfillment remains particularly resource intensive.

An increase in wealth is material improvement. Material improvement takes different forms depending on whether it is taken in the sense of more stuff or better stuff. If moral progress is the extension of well-being to other bodies and well-being at least in part is wealth, then in these two fundamental senses we have the following cognitive models: “moral progress is growth” and “moral progress is innovation.” These cognitive models are at the heart of the progressive moral vision and have direct entailments for American politics.

The “moral progress as growth” model has two basic subcomponents; external and internal growth. External growth implies a “growth as reproduction” model. This cognitive model, shared-but not always employed-by all, favorably predisposes us to the material replication of human environments and human organisms.

The external growth model has a corresponding political principle; The No Limits to Reproduction Principle. It effectively prohibits any scrupulous politician, progressive or otherwise, from suggesting policies meant to curtail population growth. Making as many babies as one’s reproductive organs will allow is moral progress. After all, a country of three hundred million and a planet of six billion allow ample opportunities to extend the scope of empathy!

This principle also implies that legislators shall pass no law that limits the building of more subdivisions, strip-malls or big-box retail. Flourishing American human beings require cul-de-sac castles with all of the accompanying services; tanning salons, nail boutiques, leaf-blower armies and carryout versions of every cuisine (except French). This cognitive model understands well-being as little more than covering the entire planet with people and sprawl.

Internal growth implies a “growth as accumulation” cognitive model. This model favorably predisposes us to view the natural world as a mere resource and to regard private concentrations of resources positively.

Despite the apparent contradiction between the nurturant parent morality and the planet as a resource mentality, there really is no conflict. Gaia, mother-earth, is our nurturant parent and her breast is always there to fill our stomachs. We don’t nurture nature, nature nurtures us in the largest sense. In theory progressives recognize the need to care for nature since our ultimate well-being is linked to its well-being, but regarding nature as a resource is no way inconsistent with human well-being in the immediate and practical sense. We need to keep suckling at nature’s breast or die-acute mastitis not withstanding.

This model understands personal moral progress as the accumulation of assets and public progress as the growth of the stock market and GDP. As Lakoff points out, the nurturant parent moral perspective requires the maintenance of one’s own well-being.

Growth as accumulation implies the Don’t Fuck with Capitalism Principle as its prime political directive. No fundamental change of the institutions that enable ever greater suckling is permitted. Questioning the legitimacy of corporate power, the institution of the Federal Reserve, the need for military industrial complex, the IMF, or the World Bank is off the table just like impeachment.

How many politicians out there are calling for the revocation of Exxon-Mobil’s corporate charter? Or Halliburton’s? Of course we can sue a few “bad apple” corporations for dumping poison in the Hudson, but asking whether or not the Corporation should be the dominant social institution of our time is out of the question.

Material reproduction and material accumulation imply the further human colonization of nature through the extension of the human life-world. They require the unlimited consumption of the finite natural world. The increase of experiential well-being requires more people and more of the stuff those people need to flourish. Moral progress as growth is progress as consumption. Don’t think of Cancer!

The “moral progress as innovation” cognitive model is also structured in terms of inner and outer. Internal innovation implies a “moral progress as technological simplicity” cognitive model. Here technological innovation is understood as bringing ease and simplicity to one’s daily life activity. After all what is the promise of technological rationality other than a release from insecurities and finitude human existence?

This model favorably predisposes us to the idea that instrumental efficiency is the only shared value. We can all agree that the “one best means” to accomplish any narrowly defined task is the morally correct way. Utility becomes the lowest common denominator of morality. This attitude affirms that technological modernity is the best of all possible worlds because of I-pods, cell phones, laptops and cars.

This cognitive model has its correlated political principle. The Personal Convenience is Non-negotiable Principle summarizes this model as political ideal. No politician could run on a platform that sought to implement real changes in the American way of life; the way of life involving electric everything, fast-food, constant driving, air-conditioning, commuter airlines, and minimal physical exertion (all components of profligate energy consumption). It interprets well-being as the continual extension of the technological atmosphere in which we live and breathe.

External innovation implies a “moral progress is technological complexity” cognitive model. This model predisposes us to the idea that high-tech is always better than low- tech and the attendant belief that our basic environmental and resource problems have or will have, sometime in the techno-glitz future, technological solutions.

As a political dogma it might be described as The Technology Will Save Us Principle. It affirms that systemic dependencies and interdependencies (e.g. globalization, industrial agriculture, Wal-Mart) and an ever increasing degree of abstract productivity (e.g. hedge funds and derivative markets) are desirable goals for America. This political principle is what has made outsourcing and the service economy such an easy political sell. This principle explains American enthusiasm for science fiction; hydrogen cars, nuclear fusion and nano-mythology.

Technological progress implies the necessary and complete subordination and exploitation of the natural world. Modern technology is not a thing or an instrument but a system of inter-linked methods and procedures that augments and extends itself to every corner of the life-world we inhabit. Progress as technological advance is progress as domination- domination of nature by man and man by man. Don’t think of a Chain-gang.

Well-being is the basis of morality and it requires more stuff for its realization. Some of the core values of the progressive vision, e.g. opportunity, personal fulfillment, prosperity, and protection depend directly on increases in natural resources available for human use and further they entail the creation of more people. This brings us to the question of the actual material basis for progressive political change and the deep challenges to the contemporary manifestations of progressive politics.

The Limits to Lakoff

In 1972 a group of scientists working with a think-tank called the Club of Rome published a demographic analysis examining several interrelated factors; world population growth, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. They argued for Limits to Growth. Economists scoffed since infinite growth is a basic assumption of classical economics and more importantly of our fractional-reserve banking system. However, the thirty-year update to their original study published in 2004 confirms many of the trends they observed and dire projections they made way back in 1972.

While their research describes ten different response scenarios to these problems, America and the world are now following out what the Club of Rome described as the “business as usual” scenario. This scenario assumes no fundamental change from policies pursued throughout the 20th century. They predict a population peak of seven billion people by 2030 followed by an abrupt collapse in economic, industrial and agricultural systems. This will not be good for the well-being of bodies and they are not alone in their less than idyllic premonitions.

The anthropologist Joseph Tainter points out in his work, The Collapse of Complex Societies that technological innovation eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns. He asserts that human societies are problem solving institutions that require increasing energy inputs for their maintenance. Increased complexity requires more energy per capita. At some point, investment in sociopolitical complexity as a means of problem solving reaches a point of diminishing returns. The result is a breakdown in agriculture, resource production, sociopolitical control, and overall economic productivity. Tainter explicates this thesis through the historical examples of the Chou, the Egyptians, the Mayans, the Hittites, the Minoans, and the Chacoans among others. Interestingly the Roman Empire, the first imperialistic Christian world-hegemon, serves as the paradigmatic example of resource-based collapse.

Collapse is fundamentally an economic phenomenon that manifests in an overall lowered standard of living which often is significantly exacerbated by the inability of the populace to produce its own local food (think mega-cities). Tainter claims that collapse of a nation state in the modern era appears unlikely due to the community of other complex societies to absorb or support it. Zimbabwe now seems like a definitive counter-example to this claim.

We now have a globalized complex society. This globalized comples society manifests all of the classical symptoms of imminent collapse. The twin problems of peak energy production and pollution-induced climate change coupled with the inefficacy of proposed technological solutions practically guarantee collapse of the global system. The horror show of energy scarcity now playing in Zimbabwe will be coming soon to a theater near you.

William Catton’s work formulates the problem of limits to growth in ecological terms. The family of humankind is now in a state of Overshoot. Any environment has limits to its carrying capacity for any particular species. A species goes into overshoot when its numbers exceed those that its environment can permanently support. The result of overshoot is die-off. The number of that species is reduced “naturally” to sustainable levels.

The bloom and crash cycle of yeast in a beer barrel exemplifies this phenomenon. The yeast simply reproduce and consume sugar (sound familiar?). They reach their maximum population at the point that half of the available food source is used. The population then crashes as millions of yeast die of starvation.

Catton identifies the ghost acres of the green revolution as the source of our overshot human population. Through the industrialization of agricultural production and the ubiquitous use of hydro-carbon based fertilizers and pesticides humankind has temporarily increased the carrying capacity of the planet. Petroleum has added millions of ghost acres to annual production. We have learned to transform ancient sunlight into food. Today, in the United States, for every food calorie consumed, ten calories of fossil fuel energy were used in its production (not counting cooking). We are eating fossil fuels; a finite resource half of which has now been consumed

Clearly there are limits to material growth and technological innovation; however the most imposing limit we face is that of the human imagination. Jared Diamond’s prescient work Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed explains how cultural commitments to traditional social arrangements prevent societies from acting collectively to avert collapse. His collection of historical examples of collapse sounds the alarm in the present. In particular, Diamond recounts the fate of the Viking settlement of Greenland.

The first Viking settlers arrived in Greenland in 986 and their civilization had totally disappeared by 1500. The descendants of these settlers faced two environmental challenges: climate change and resource depletion. The advance of Greenland’s glaciers during the little ice age from 1300-1700 led to a shortening of Greenland’s growing season and a general worsening of an already hardscrabble existence. Overgrazing, deforestation, and soil depletion undermined the resource base that the first settlers found so attractive. The advanced technologies of iron working and animal husbandry that the colonists brought with them did not, ultimately, ensure survival. While the environmental conditions were demanding, Diamond asserts that mal-adaptive cultural commitments caused the starvation of the Greenlanders in the midst of abundant foodstuffs.

Several factors were involved. First the Greenlanders managed to create enemies of their co-inhabitants, the Inuit, by killing 2% of the Inuit adult male population at their first meeting just to see how they bled. The distain for the “wretched” Inuit extended to some of their most important food sources: ring-seals, whales, and fish. They eschewed Inuit technologies perfectly adapted to the conditions. Rather than cooperation, racism characterized the Norse attitude. The Vikings choose to starve rather than change their diet and eat like the sub-human “skraelings.”

Second, the Norse commitment to a preferred life-style involving dairy farming, Christianity, and an annual hunting expedition to the Arctic Circle called the Nordesta Hunt, had the effect of limiting the possible solutions to the climactic and resource challenges they faced. In essence they made poor decisions about their use of energy. In the end, they carried on their own “business as usual” scenario as long as possible.

Finally the hierarchical power structure of the Greenlander’s society concentrated the wealth of the settlements into a small number of hands. The clergy and chiefs controlled the best farms, the boats, and large numbers of tenant farmers. The structural result was a society where the short-term interests of those in power conflicted with the longer-term interests of the society as a whole. The Greenlanders were reduced to eating their dairy cows and hunting dogs because they could not collectively imagine their society differently.

We are no longer concerned with merely the interests of a society as a whole but the interests of the species as a whole. The ideal extension of empathy to the Family of Humankind implied by American progressive politics, no less than Wal-mart, Disneyland or the interstate highway system, requires a petroleum platform to function. In fact an extension of our preferred American life-style is a physical impossibility, since to extend that lifestyle to those in China and India alone would require the resources of four additional earths. Our consumption of 25% of the planet’s resources by a mere two percent of its population cannot continue. The same basic problems that have characterized historical instances of collapse now confront us on a planetary scale. The situation of Americans in 2007 is a lot like that of the members of the Norse settlements in Greenland in 1325.

Concluding Thoughts

The totalitarianism of consumption co-opted moral progress some time ago. Total capitalism is the complete comodification of reality. Marx’ conception of commodity fetishism manifests itself today in the imperative to put up every parcel of the planet for sale, right down to the genes that are the very building blocks of life to the water every living thing requires. Bottled water is the surest sign that capitalism has won. Where do we go from here?

The utopianism of progressive politics, in its current form, in addition to being an idealism of social form also requires a cornucopian mindset in regard to resources. Progressive politics undertaken from within the “business as usual” paradigm commits us to collapse. Progressives must reclaim their morality from the system and reframe that morality as against the system. We must ask ourselves the big questions about life-style and resources that remain hidden from view in our political discourse.

The reality is that we, the citizens of the United States, are now, unbeknownst to many, engaged in sequential war to control the planet’s remaining hydrocarbon resources for the short-term benefit of those in power but also in order to maintain our preferred life-style.

All wars are fundamentally resource wars and the justification for those wars is always manufactured in the same workshop of ideals. Those progressives with “war is not the answer” bumper stickers must realize it is the only answer if we want to keep driving. The choice we face is stark despite the fluffy, feel-good, rhetoric from the Rifkin-Lovins-Friedman-“green smoke up your ass” crowd. Kill the competition or kill the system!

The 450 million economically futureless citizens of the greater Middle-East provide a convenient scapegoat for America and the West’s energy woes. The War on Terror disguises and justifies our blatant resource grab. A direct manifestation of resource scarcity is always the demonization of the “other” with the resources. After all, our oil is under their sand, as my more Hobbsian minded associates often repeat. The fundamental logic is well understood – we kill you so that we may live; or in our case we kill you so that we may drive incessantly. It is Paul’s Jesus in a nutshell.

Is it possible that our energy accent has made universalized moral progress a goal whose ultimate realization will recede in to the realm of quaint naiveté as we make our energy decent? Will empathy become a characteristic of which survival deprives us?

Wendell Berry has suggested that our energy crisis, and yes “energy crisis” is the most truthful frame here, is really a crisis of character. A conflict between what we are and what should be. Maybe he is right. Old Woody read the tea leaves true when he opined “Every year we waste enough to feed the ones who starve; we build our civilization up then we shoot it down with wars.” The beauty of progressivism is that change is at its very core. Morality is not necessarily about what we are but about what we ought to be. Can we imagine America differently? Really differently?

What would Jesus do about peak-oil? What is the proper moral response? It will have to be more than reframing die-off as down-sizing. Telling the truth about the difficulties our world will face in the coming decade is the place Jesus would start! He’d call on the people of salt and light to prepare a new kingdom. He’d reprogram the 300 million American consumption-bots.

I can’t imagine that the office of President in January 2009 is one that anyone in their right mind would accept, let alone, campaign for! But if George Lakoff were elected he’d be the best man for the job. At the very least he would write his own speeches! He could use his understanding of how we think to help us think differently. Maybe he could even sneak Kucinich in the backdoor as the Veep.

If he can figure out a way to feed the six billion or so people on this little planet with two fish and a loaf we ought to elect him president for life. Of course that miracle would have to be accompanied by the greater miracle of convincing all of those people to stop reproducing ­ a much a much harder task once they have full stomachs. Then there is the problem of convincing Americans that their fair share is not one whole fish and two-thirds of the loaf.

Better yet, the good Doctor might help us re-imagine the American dream from the ground up in order that we might truly build the city on the hill for the rest of the world to emulate; a kingdom of post-petroleum empathy. Then maybe we could have Woody’s ending after all!

Be on the way
Prosperity bound

Matthew Miller is a Lecturer in the Department of Humanities and Philosophy
at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. He can be reached at:

© Copyright by MATTHEW S. MILLER 2007