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Naming and Framing: George Lakoff’s Moral Politics

     George Lakoff of Berkeley is one of the giants of modern linguistics and brain sciences–an authority on neural networks, how the mind works, and most especially how the body politic responds to words that cue frames of moral meaning.  He gave me a provocative earful the other day and I post it here in two twenty-minute takes. 

     In Part One, Lakoff exults in the Internet ventilation of political talk; its visible effect in MoveOn and the Dean campaign is “only the beginning.  He maps the “naming and framing” dimensions of the California recall campaign and Arnold Schwartzenegger’s election.  The “competent clerk” Gray Davis walked into a trap of energy prices and brownouts that had been contrived by the Bush White House.  Arnold was no eccentric, in Lakoff terms, but the modern machine Republican, the embodiment of “individual discipline in a difficult, dangerous world… a strict leader who’s got moral authority to protect you.  Who better than the Terminator?”  And then Lakoff picks his way through the mostly disguised meanings and motives around the Iraq war.

     In Part Two, I begin with the paradox of our times: that we are learning to live with both an information revolution and a culture of propaganda.  “What the Right has done,” Lakoff answered, “is creat a populist art form known as the rant.”  He laments the lost language of world leadership: who makes good use these days of key words like fairness, freedom, trust, cooperation, treaty obligations, the values of the United Nations charter, respect, competence, responsibility and openness?  Lakoff sets Howard Dean’s language and body-language in the Harry Truman tradition.  Dean is “forceful, serious, honest–not namby-pamby.”  He thinks that a medical doctor makes “a very good messenger.”  He wishes Dean would campaign in the South around doctor’s visits to Veterans Hospitals.  “Talk to the patients and the doctors there about what it means to fight in a war–about what happens to you… and what happens to the other people you see.” 

     George Lakoff is a devout progressive with cold comfort for the Democrats.  Conservatives, he says, have won the fight over political language.  It’s a central argument of Lakoff’s book Moral Politics that over 30 years right-wing foundations have put a network of thinkers and writers to honing symbolic phrases like “tort reform” and “tax relief.” 

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  1. leke kremi | March 31, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

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  2. Medical Research | January 16, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

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