Tuesday, July 11, 2006

These Aren't The Droids You're Looking For

The Berkeley comedian George Lakoff seems to be of the opinion that politics is really all about Jedi mind tricks. He thinks that Republicans excel at these, and that Democrats need to learn the secret. His latest book attempts to sell the concept: "If you are not free to take your neighbor's money, then are you truly free?" You see, American is all about freedom, and the socialist Dems and their redistributionist thievery is the true essence of this freedom.

Anthony Dick at NRO reviews the book.


Lakoff’s approach to politics makes him a pioneer of what might be called “clinical liberalism.” Instead of engaging conservative arguments directly and seriously on the merits, he treats conservatism as an affliction that needs to be cured. Thomas Frank took a similar approach in his recent book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, in which he essentially took it for granted that Republican policies are bad for most people, and then puzzled over why these people continue to vote for Republicans anyway. One way to resolve this paradox is to divide conservatives into two rough taxonomic categories: the small elite of evil geniuses who spend their days spinning sinister plots, and the masses of ignorant dupes who can be tricked into following them. Conservatives can thus be diagnosed as either evil or stupid — masters of sinister language manipulation, or hypnotized victims of it. In either case, Lakoff wants to conclude, their ideas can be dismissed out of hand.

Lakoff’s latest proposed cure for the common conservative is on display in his new book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. Reading it, one has to struggle mightily to suppress the impression that the author is an intellectual charlatan who specializes in passing off banalities as genuine insights. The book is a conceptual muddle, with a persistent strand of historical inaccuracy; Lakoff’s popularity is an indictment of his admirers.

A few short sentences from the book capture Lakoff’s central argument: “Freedom and liberty are progressive ideas that are precious to Americans. When the right wing uses them, it sounds as if aliens had inhabited, and were trying to take possession of, the soul of America. It is time for an exorcism.” Lakoff is thus claiming that leftists are the guardians of the traditional American idea of freedom, and that conservatives are using their dark arts to try to trick the American people into embracing a new and dangerous definition of freedom.

Lakoff is mercifully clear in explaining what his “progressive” conception of freedom includes: “Freedom is being able to achieve purposes,” he writes, “either because nothing is stopping you or because you have the requisite capacities, or both.” He elaborates with a barrage of italics: “Freedom is the freedom to go as far as you can in life, to get what you want in life, or to achieve what you can in life.” This, he explains, means that freedom has a significant positive component: “Freedom requires not just the absence of impediments to motion but also the presence of access. . . . Freedom may thus require creating access, which may involve building.” What Lakoff is describing, in other words, is a type of “positive freedom,” in the sense that it requires the provision of certain goods and services to citizens to ensure that they have the capacity to achieve their goals. On this view, you aren’t “free” unless you have been provided with what you need in order to be successful.


By the time Lakoff gets to this point, it hardly comes as a surprise that his conception of “freedom” has boiled down to nothing more than a left-wing wish list of big-government programs. As you wade through his book, you steadily develop the sense that it is something quite different from a serious analysis of the concept of freedom. It is instead a how-to guide for left-wing rhetoric — an exhibition of how progressives can manipulate language to advance their political agenda. At one point Lakoff boasts: “You give me a progressive issue, and I’ll tell you how it comes down to a matter of freedom.”

Here Lakoff reveals his grand design: to show his fellow left-wingers how to perfect the very type of sophistry that he claims the Right has used so effectively. In an effort to harness the emotional force of the term “freedom,” he’s willing to twist the word’s meaning to serve his political ends without any concern for the underlying truth: How has freedom actually been understood throughout American history? How do most Americans understand freedom today? What is the most sensible way to define freedom, apart from partisan goals?


The American Revolution was fought in the name of liberty, conceived as a basic type of freedom quite different from the one Lakoff describes. The freedom of the American Revolution was understood as liberty in the negative sense, defined by the lack of external interference and the absence of tyranny. The Founders had no interest in a sprawling welfare state. The Constitution was carefully crafted to limit the scope of government, the powers of which were narrowly defined within a federalist framework. There wasn’t even a provision for a federal income tax — it had to be added by constitutional amendment in 1913.

Perhaps because he is dimly aware of such uncomfortable facts, Lakoff occasionally attempts to account for them by portraying his “positive freedom” as simply a more robust and updated version of the original American ideal — much like the “living Constitution.” But in fact, the Founding Fathers anticipated the possibility of a government powerful enough to provide substantial entitlements to its citizens — and they were adamantly opposed. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson explained that “the policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.” The Founders were wary of government power because of its coercive nature and its susceptibility to abuse; as George Washington famously wrote, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”


People who don’t have food or health care or education have not been deprived of freedom. What they lack is not freedom but material goods and services. This is a matter of vocabulary, not ideology. The court of common word usage simply rejects Lakoff’s claim that being free means having the capacity to achieve one’s aims. It would be wrong, for example, to say that Lakoff lacks the freedom to write an insightful book about politics. What he lacks is the ability.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

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