29 Dec

Book review: “The Little Blue Book” by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

I’ve been at sea for a while, literally; on a sailboat in the islands of the South Pacific. It was a strange contrast to be under the tropical sun reading George Lakoff’s latest book, co-authored with a student of his, Elisabeth Wehling. But although the context is almost exclusively US, the lessons of George Lakoff’s work are universal and, in my view, essential reading for any wishing to change the world for the better. I’m speaking of Lakoff’s work in general. This new book, unfortunately, as the review here shows, is somewhat of an exception.

The Little Blue Book is described as “a handbook for Democrats, intended for immediate use in the current political moment”. But of course the real point of the book is to get people understanding the world in terms of language, frames and values. Specifically, the values systems that Lakoff says govern political thought and action: the opposing poles of “Strict Father” conservative and “Nurturant Parent” progressive thought.

Now, since the Green Words Workshop blog is all about political values campaigning, I’ll assume you know a bit about it already and my role in this review will be to critique the book, not to explain the values (if you want a quick introduction, look here ). So, let’s plunge straight into the critique:

In his mission to popularise values campaigning, Lakoff introduces a number of new or altered concepts, frames or wordings. One of the first new frames he introduces is “Extreme Conservatism”. I can see why he does this, in order to not alienate people who think of themselves as “small-c” conservatives. But it makes it sound as if “a little bit” of Conservatism is OK, when in fact we know through Lakoff himself that it is not. Somehow, since Lakoff’s last book, the enemy is no longer the “Strict Father model” but the “Extreme Strict Father model”. But equally this might reveal Lakoff’s own implicit personal political position, which I suspect is that he would be happy with American democracy and consumer capitalism as long as it had the rough edges taken off of it. Lakoff specifically writes in this book (for the first time, I believe) that anticapitalism is “neither likely nor desirable”.

My own reading of Lakoff’s work however, is that more than ever, anything less than positive actual nurturance is not sufficient. “Mild” conservatism is not sufficient. “Non-extreme conservatism” is not sufficient. To me, Lakoff’s broader analyses reveal just how fundamentally conservative the whole of American culture and global capitalism actually is. There are very few chinks of progressive light in an otherwise monolithic structure of conservative dominance – in terms of values as well as concrete power structures. This new book as a whole does not communicate that, and the reframe of “extreme consevatism” is a case in point. Lakoff and Wehling write: “Extreme conservatism’s all-encompassing nature and ambition are usually hidden from view”. But to me this is just untrue and naive, maybe faux-naïve. It seems obvious to me, even in terms of Lakoff’s own values systems, that America always had that “Extreme Conservatism” within it, ideologically and constitutionally, if only as a seed waiting to grow. And experienced political campaigners know the face of extreme conservatism all too well. In this sense the frame of “Extreme Conservatism” neither helpfully outlines the problem nor guides us towards a solution.

Another example of a new but unhelpful reframing is “The Public/The Private”. Lakoff and Wehling draw a distinction between The Public (e.g. government and regulation etc) and The Private (private, unaccountable money, corporations etc).

But to me this seems an incredibly un-useful if not retrograde step. It certainly fails to reframe the conventional Political Spectrum. And at its worst it sounds like Socialism on one side and free enterprise on the other. The authors compound this by writing things such as “Private is, for conservatives, a moral ideal, sacrosanct, where no government can tread, whether to help or hinder, regulate, or even monitor”. To my mind this is simply mistaken: conservative ideology – as set out by Lakoff himself – is very much about interference; it is about moral prescription and control. It is the surveillance state, and ultimately it is a strict father or an omniscient God looking down on you checking you are doing the right things. Sentences like the above appear to be mistakes or strange misreadings of Lakoff’s previous work. That particular sentence credits “The Private” with something that it does not deserve and over which it has no unique claim. And if The Private is really sacrosanct for Conservatives, how can we explain their interfering attitude towards women’s bodies?

Yet Lakoff and Wehling are enthusiastic about this idea, as a political manifestation of the corresponding Strict Father and Nurturant Parent value systems: “Democrats need to be talking nonstop about the Public as the necessary foundation of the Private.” I disagree. I really hope they don’t. It’s an unfortunate frame, it sounds just like socialism (which therefore presses so many Conservative’s buttons) and it is not really what we want anyway. We want openness, empathy, communication and care; fairness and protection. To start equating that at this stage with “The Public” just locks us back into socialism, or at best welfare-statism, since the authors state The Public and The Private “need each other”.

Furthermore, the arguments are not consistent. They write: “What distinguishes the Private from the Public is that the Private entails no moral obligation to people in general…. Government has a moral duty to protect and empower its people. Private corporations have no such duty to citizens”. But in Conservative ideology that cannot be true. Lakoff has previously argued – repeatedly – that Conservatives do what they do because they believe it to be right, even though progressives disagree. To say that The Private is empty of moral obligation is not just a negation of Lakoff’s previous work, it is a trap – because it sets-up The Private to be the (amoral) engine of the economy, bounded-in by Public (socialistic) welfare statism. The Private in this frame is therefore an essential evil at the very heart of the economy. This is very unfortunate and not an alternative economy or alternative paradigm at all. It all just seems like it’s leading back to mainstream US Democratic ideals (delusions).

To my mind, any “Private” should come to embody nurturant principles too, otherwise you are framing yourself into the Private Corporations Bad – Public Socialistic Government Good box, which as well as creating a false dichotomy, is easily turned against you, especially in times when the motor of the economy seems to be turning slowly because it is too “constrained” by The Public.

The mixed messages don’t help… “Sometimes privatization is sensible, but it can sometimes be predatory”. And all in all the whole chapter reads like an all-too-familiar socialist mantra of “private is bad”, “government is good”, which I’m sure that Lakoff himself does not wholly agree with anyway.

This Public/Private reframing is one of the key thrusts of the book. Unfortuately however, it is highly flawed.

Another, connected reframing that Lakoff and Wehling attempt is this: “There is a liberal version of the free market that overlaps with the conservative version. In the liberal version, the free market functions for the betterment of the nation and all of its citizens”. Unfortunately this has never really been true. It’s simply what Liberals tell themselves about the Conservative-based capitalist free-market. It works neither in theory nor in practice, and that should by now be obvious. It can still be an ideal, but to think the idea can be achieved without significantly changing the conservative basis of a free-market economy is politically naïve, and as political activists here at Green Words Workshop, bitter experience has proved that to us.

Lakoff and Wehling create two new definitions in relation to religion and the state, namely “institutional morality and deep morality”. But the way they talk about them seem to be far more wishful thinking than anything. To say that “deep morality originates outside of and is independent of religion” seems to me to be completely wrong; at least wrong in terms of how a deeply devout person, especially a conservative person, would view their relationship with God (according to Lakoff). It is simply an argument by progressives to seperate moral (religious) thought from moral (political) action. It is a strategy of seperation of church and state, yet Lakoff and Wehling write as if it’s a cognitive fact, which I think is confusing and unwise in a book where a serious attempt is made to scientifically explain something like “cascades” of neural circuits, and then the water is muddied by confusing progressive frame and neutral scientific hypothesis.

There are other faux pas, such as this: “Workers are profit creators. Corporations can profit only if people work for them”. But it makes no sense to champion workers as “profit creators” for corporations that you’ve just said are fundamentally amoral. No – a broader realignment is necessary.

Another faux pas: “Here is what to say: Public education is necessary for a democracy and a vibrant economy”. But why go only halfway towards nurturant values, and tie people into a neural cascade that starts only with “democracy” and “economic growth”? Neither of these concepts are explicity nurturing, and they are not very near the top of the neural cascade pyramid. This is a perplexing book; for every good lesson it teaches, it ignores past lessons.

Among the other suggested reframes introduced in this book are “revenue depletion”, “revenue neglect”, and “deficit creation policies”. But really, is this emotive language that is going to set people’s moral passions on fire? There is talk of “civic tasks” and “task forces”. But still no epiphany. The reframing of “worker-earned health care” is better, yet still plays into the Conservative frame of earn/deserve (and its corollary: “don’t earn/undeserving”. When he is at his best Lakoff is pointing out the devastating and practically-invisible Conservative frames that are in everyday use, for example: “Government Services”, “Government Spending”, “Safety Net”, and “Redistribution of Wealth”, which all play into Conservative hands. He makes some particularly excellent points about the framings of “birth control”, which is really of course pregnancy prevention. There is a genius observation of the verticality involved in the metaphor of “the 1%”: a warning about how movements like Occupy Wall Street need to be incredibly conscious about framing. Yet Lakoff and Wehling themselves don’t seem to have taken the degree of care that they urge others to take. It’s as if they have run out of steam.

The book has some very useful US political history, and a whistle-stop overview of how all-encompassing Strict Father values are, from their effect on the economy to their effect on the world community and the human spirit… (which somewhat gives the lie to framing them as “Extreme”). There is a truly excellent critique of food production and the invention of the frame “Sun Food” (which would, however, be better formed into a sentence). There are some inspired insights, for example how corporations take-over and govern our personal time. There are good pointers on how to keep language real and accessible, and helpful analysis of the US political situation, especially the health care debate. But even there, concepts of “Patriotism” cloud the arguments, and I can’t help thinking this is a step backwards. In a UK or antipodean context, patriotism automatically sounds alarmingly right-wing, and simply inappropriate.

There are many disappointing details; for example: “The massive control of corporations over our lives impinges on our most basic freedoms. To protect ourselves from this imposition, we need regulations”. But who really wants to champion something as dull and hackneyed as “regulations” when what Lakoff has really taught us is the power of an alternative form of moral authority?

Lakoff and Wehling make a fairly good attempt at condensing and explaining his overall philosophy, including such things as bursting the “marketing” myth of politics (but then again, people such as Joe Trippi have been doing that for years). In the process however the authors seem to have introduced some “short-hand” methods to explain Lakoff’s ideas, which to me actually fatally distort and misrepresent the broader philosophy. It is of course Lakoff’s philosophy, which he is free to expand as he chooses, but I view these innovations as replication errors rather than faithful reproductions of Lakoff’s philosophical DNA.

For some people this book will be a revelation: Lakoff’s work is truly ground-breaking, his reputation well-deserved, and this book a tolerable introduction. But in this book Lakoff does not shine. There are two many lame duck reframes and too many tacit contradictions of his previous work.

Lakoff fans need to read this book, despite my criticisms of it. But for newcomers to Lakoff I would instead recommend “The Political Mind” or “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.

You can buy the Little Blue Book on Kindle here at Amazon