Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lakoff's NEWspeak: Framing as the alternative to history

George Lakoff:  making up
history one counterfactual
at a time
George Lakoff should be celebrated as the Father of Progressive NEWspeak.  His conscious, cynical, and largely successful attempts to use "framing" to make facts and history irrelevant in political discourse have been credited by many as faciliating Barack Obama's original victory in 2008.

In rare moments of candor, Lakoff's naked preference for political victory at any cost shows through. Take, for example, his earnest seeming defense of trial lawyers against the very idea of tort reform:
Another multifaceted conservative strategic initiative is "tort reform," which has been made to sound like it is just about capping large damage awards and lawyers' fees. It is really a destruction of the civil justice system's capacity to deter corporations from acts that harm the public, since it is the lawyers' fees that permit the system to function.
Ah, very principled, isn't it?  At least until you add the dreadfully (and accidentally) honest last sentence to the paragraph:
Moreover, if successful, it will also dry up one of the major sources of campaign finance for progressive candidates, which comes from trial lawyers.
Lately, Lakoff has been building on his rather remarkable idea of THE PUBLIC in an attempt to invert the role of the State (which is really what THE PUBLIC is) and the individual (either as citizen or entrepreneur), with this wonderful mantra:

Perhaps the most important omission from the Obama speech was any overt mention of The Public -- everything that our citizenry as a whole provides to all, e.g., roads, bridges, infrastructure, education, protection, a health system, and systems for communication, energy development and supply, and so on. The Private -- private life and private enterprise -- depends on The Public. There is no economic freedom without all of this. So-called "free enterprise" is not free. A free market economy depends on a strong Public. This is a deep truth, easy to recognize. It undercuts Romney's central pitch, that is it private enterprise alone that has made our country great, and that as much as possible of The Public should be eliminated.
Romney calls free enterprise "one of the greatest forces of good this world has ever known." In reality, American free enterprise has always required The Public.

Savor those embedded memes:

"The Private--private life and private enterprise--depends on the The Public."
"In reality, American free enterprise has always required The Public."
They'd be remarkable and even more powerful ideas if they were true.

They'd also be less seductive if Lakoff didn't just brush blithely past the long history of the mis-use of coercive power by THE PUBLIC aka THE STATE, and completely misunderstand from which era in American history the concept derives.

Let's unpack that just a little, going all the way back to the beginning:

The British North American colonies that we like to remember in school as being started primarily for things like religious liberty, were also quite cold-blooded pieces of imperial foreign policy.  The colonies, as colonies, were to perform the typical economic servitude to the State (THE BRITISH PUBLIC if Lakoff wills) of being (a) dumping grounds for undesirable populations; (b) physical bulwarks against French, Spanish, and Dutch expansion in the New World; (c) sources of raw materials at low prices for imperial markets; and (d) captive markets for the dumping of imperial manufactured goods.

Such infrastructure as the British Empire provided those colonies (colonial governors; tax collectors; British Army; Royal Navy) were provided in typical colonial fashion for the benefit of the empire, not the benefit of the colonists.  The colonists were denied any voice in the decisions made by the imperial government, denied the right to control the issue of currency, and all infrastructure, towns, roads, schools, etc. were built via free enterprise or as cooperative ventures at the very lowest levels of local government.  Taxes and government intrusion into private lives and private enterprise were so low as to be non-existent by today's standard.

It is important here to take a brief detour back to Great Britain and understand that a gigantic public-private coal cartel, operated by the Hostmen of Newcastle, had a greater stranglehold on the British energy supply and public infrastructure than OPEC ever dreamt of exercising over the industrial west in the 20th Century.  Virtually every piece of so-called PUBLIC infrastructure was operated for the profit of not the 1%, but the .001%, and the British people were among the most heavily taxed people on the planet.

In British North America, by contrast, there was not just an abundance of land (leaving aside the issue of indigenous inhabitants for the purpose of refuting Mr. Lakoff) but a virtually limitless supply of ultra-cheap energy.  Britain ran on coal, supplemented by some water power.  Wood was far too bulky and in too short a supply on a small island to power the first industrial revolution.  But in America with a much more widely dispersed population and gigantic untapped forests, effectively free wood energy made American goods inherently so much cheaper than British goods that the empire was forced to create the Navigation Acts in order to hinder American competition.

Putting this in other words:  prior to the American Revolution and up into the beginning of the Federalist period, the American political norm was the understanding that THE PEOPLE (as individuals) should be the basis of all political and economic power, and that it was necessary to rein in THE STATE with as many limitations as possible, because they saw their social, economic, and political success as occurring despite THE STATE rather than because of it.  The very first government of the United States of America lacked any mechanism for levying direct taxes precisely because there was such a suspicion of the coercive power of THE STATE.

The idea of THE PUBLIC as Lakoff understands (or pretends for political purposes to understand) it existed only in the minds of a very few political thinkers, and was tied to fiscal theory and the need to establish and defend the US as an independent nation (we're talking Alexander Hamilton and etc. here).  But even Hamilton saw institutions like a central bank and a focused tariff policy as the means to a very specific end:  he believed the US must industrialize via government policy to defend itself rather than as an intentional piece of modern social engineering.

--snip snip the decades--

The idea of THE PUBLIC as Lakoff understands it did not truly exist in American government or political theory until after the Civil War and in the beginning of the (heavy) Industrial Revolution when large corporate interests reprised the vertical and horizontal (anti-competitive, anti-free enterprise) tactics of the Newcastle Hostmen of a couple centuries earlier.

As Fernand Braudel has explained in great detail, what occurs between the end of the medieval, mercantilistic world and the begining of the capitalistic, industrial world is the differentiation between the market economy and capitalism.  I say again:  a market economy and capitalism are two different if related animals.  "Robber Baron Capitalism" was, as Alvin Toffler might put it, a "new wave" of economic organization that we still have not completely integrated into our political and economic discourse effectively.

The various responses to the industrial revolution--from vertical/horizontal integration to the labor movement, from social darwinism to progressivism, from the emergence of the middle class to agricultural populism--shaped our modern world.  The institutions that created the very concept of THE PUBLIC which Mr. Lakoff so mendaciously employs as a root metaphor, including things like the Federal Reserve, the income tax, anti-trust laws, the New Deal, and so on, were in fact consequences of the industrial revolution in a steam-powered world wherein the Great Powers controlled not just massive colonial empires (de facto or de jure), but also had colonialist monopolies on nearly unlimited supplies of cheap energy.

During this time it is also important to note that Mr. Lakoff's THE PUBLIC was a force that institutionalized racial segregation, eugenics, political violence against all but the mildest forms of dissent, and kept final political power firmly in the hands of the .01% (which was, I guess, an improvement over the .001% of the earlier period).

Unfortunately, Mr. Lakoff's partial understanding of the creation of THE PUBLIC is further flawed by his failure (shared by Paul Krugman) to comprehend how the Post-1945 world both at home and abroad profoundly differed from everything that went before.

Not that this would matter to Mr. Lakoff (or to Mr. Krugman for that matter) because he doesn't really care about facts, or history, or even economics.  He cares about winning elections and propagating a particular brand of progressive ideology.

What Mr. Lakoff cares about is "framing," and possibly "memes," or just his "narrative."

He is a con man, not a great political philosopher, who aspires to be remembered as a Noam Chomsky or even a Marshall McLuhan, but who will eventually end up being exposed as sharing the same caliber with Herbert Spencer or Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.


Dana Garrett said...

Maybe you could explain to us how interstate commerce doesn't depend in large part on say, say, a PUBLICLY FUNDED highway system. Maybe the invisible hand of capitalism magically picks up all those goods in one state and disperses them in some other state.

Chuck said...

No. Individuals do that, you worthless lemming. What you assclowns can't seem to grasp is that EVERYONE is a member of the blessed "public". That said, only about a quarter of the "public" pay a goddam dime toward highways and such. The rest are leeches who should have a little gratitude for what they've been given for doing little more than growing hair.

Steve Newton said...


Please look up your history. A PUBLICLY FUNDED interstate highway system was largely a consequence rather than a cause of the industrial revolution. Go all the way back to the beginning and you will find that the National Road (which was made obsolete by privately funded railroads, canals, and river shipping companies before it was ever completed) was almost as controversial as the National Bank.

Where Lakoff screws up his history is in (a) conflating cause and effect in the period of the industrial revolution; and (b) making the fallacious assumption that what has held true since about a century ago was the norm throughout all America history.

My problem with Lakoff is that I think he clearly knows he has the history wrong, and simply proceeds because he believes his pseudo-history is necessary for frame "deep truths."

Find me the massive Federally funded interstate highway system before Eisenhower . . . .