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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

George Lakoff Frames Progressive Morality: Part VI

How the Prince Should Keep His Word

This is the last installment of a series analyzing George Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics. Here is
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

One frame Lakoff never mentions is the Victim As Protagonist, which is typical of American rhetoric. Our culture is characterized by a suspicion toward authority. We are favorably disposed to anyone who appears to be a victim, bucking the establishment or taking on The Man. If a speaker can come across as fighting forces greater than him, he has gained a rhetorical advantage with his American audience.

Lakoff plays this frame effectively in Don't Think of an Elephant. Incrediby, he argues that “TV is 80% conservative.” The facts simply do not support this assertion, but his assertion does reinforce the criticism that for Lakoff the frame is the truth. The frame determines the truth. Apart from ideologically constructed frames, there is no truth.

Progressives are not without their highly successful frames. Some are so successful that they have passed into that folk understanding of objective structures in the universe. In his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault observes that the homosexual was not a "species" until the 19th century: "The sodomite was a recidivist, but the homosexual is now a species." Foucault was certainly not caught in the folk understanding of a species having essential properties. Truths, for Foucault, are the products of a regime. They emerge from socially constructed discourses. Foucault's philosophy has an affinity with Lakoff's theory of framing.

Despite this apparently enlightened understanding, Lakoff reinforces the Natural Order metaphor by arguing from the "homosexuality is genetic" position. (p. 225 - 228) There is, of course, no philosophically neutral, scientific evidence of a genetic cause for homosexuality from twin, genome, or other studies. What little evidence there is depends upon ideological framing. But putting this aside, why would enlightened academics be depending on a genetic cause unless they wanted to convince the masses, contrary to enlightened belief, that homosexuality is an objective structure in particular human bodies? Why do we never hear the anti-essentialist arguments from homosexual advocacy groups?

Nevertheless, despite their successes, there is a sense that Progressives are losing their grip on the American consciousness. It isn't just the losses in the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government. If Democrats win more seats this year, it will not matter. There is an undeniable resurgence of a conservative ethos in the country as a whole. I’m going to suggest that Progressives are losing battles in the culture war because they have failed to heed Machiavelli's counsel. As Machievellian as Lakoff's program is, it isn't sufficient to turn the conservative forces back.

Probably the most notorious counsel offered by Machiavelli is that the ruler should appear religious, even if he is not. It is worth noting that this advice comes under the chapter teaching rulers "in what way princes should keep their word", that is, how the ruler frames his speech. He insists rulers must take care never to utter a word that is not implicit with mercy, faithfulness, humaneness, frankness, and religion, but especially religion. In his “Discourses”, Machiavelli observes

"As the observance of religious rites is the foundation of a republic's greatness, so disrespect for them is the source of its ruin. Where a fear of God is lacking, the state must either fail or be sustained by a fear of the ruler which may substitute for the lack of religion. But since rulers live only a short while, such a state must vanish as soon as the abilities that sustained it have vanished."
The 20th century was an experiment in sustaining a state that progressively lacked religion in its public expressions. The interpolation of "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance should be seen as a counter-response to the gradual, but ineluctable, advances in secularizing public expression. In terms of the overall struggle, the Pledge of Allegiance victory pales in comparison to the removal of school prayer, Nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments, and the emerging PC and hate crimes legislation that apply to religious bodies.

However, the ability to sustain a secular public square is eroding. The general impression is that our culture is losing its moral foundation. The public is concerned with increasingly violent and sexual content in the arts. The age for sexuality appears to be getting younger and younger. American youth culture is considered dangerous and debauched by traditional families. Many immigrant families living in Harlem and the Bronx will not let their children participate in it. The public, perhaps hypocritically, complains about commercialism and consumerism. Corporate financial ethics often appear to be practiced only when it's convenient.

Trying to link all these evils to Capitalism seems like nothing more than a nostalgic glance back to Marx. Five hundred years have done very little to change the truth of Machiavelli's analysis. To say it from the ruthless perspective, the masses need their opiate. To say it from another perspective, religion is a vital force in politics, especially with regard to social stability. Lakoff is aware of this and spends a complete chapter comparing two models of Christianity. My critique of his analysis of religion will have to wait for another time, but one thing can be said to reveal Lakoff's problem. If morality isn't an objective structure in the universe, then promoting religion in any form is a Machiavellian deception. The idea that moral concepts are the products of human brains eviscerates the idea of true religion.

As long as conservatives can continue pointing to this weakness in Lakoff without succumbing to the same mistake, Lakoff’s Morality As Metaphor model will fall under its own weight.

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