Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: 'Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea' by George Lakoff



Review by Susan Gardner
Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea 
By George Lakoff 
Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux 
New York, 2007
This book is about more than freedom in the political and patriotic sense. It is just as much about free will, about how we have begun to lose it and how to regain it. Parallel to the right-wing political machine is a right-wing mind machine.
Freedom’s just another word for ... well, completely different worldviews, according to George Lakoff’s new book, Whose Freedom?, and these differences are often unrecognized by progressives, making it nearly impossible to fight that right-wing mind machine the author dissects in  detail in his newest book.
It is much scarier to think of Bush and others on the right as meaning what they say—as having a concept of "freedom" so alien to progressives that many progressives cannot even understand it, much less defend against it.
The renowned progressive linguist begins his analysis of the differences between conservative and progressive definitions of freedom with the assertion that until the rise of the modern right wing, there was indeed a near-universal acceptance of what freedom means to American citizens. He points to a history of slow but consistent expansion and inclusion of more categories of people legally empowered by the term, from the outlawing of slavery, to granting voting rights to African Americans and women, to FDR’s insistence that economic security is more than just a desirable condition for the exercise of rights. To be sure, progress has often been unsteady in practice and uneven in application, but the progressive trend is unmistakable from even the most cursory look at our past.
Though the history of our country is progressive overall, there have always been partial conservatives—financial, social, and religious. There have also always been pragmatists—partially progressive and partially conservative in various ways, but wanting things to work: our economy, our educational system, our public health system, our system of national parks. The radical conservatives are reducing the number of pragmatists.
How is this pool of pragmatists being shrunk? By consciously redefining what Americans mean when they use the term, "freedom," Lakoff maintains. He begins with looking at what he calls "simple freedom," the place where both conservatives and progressives ostensibly agree:
There is a simple understanding of freedom. Freedom is being able to do what you want to do, that is, being able to choose a goal, have access to that goal, pursue that goal without anyone purposely preventing you.... From this perspective, states are to be judged on the basis of how well they guarantee freedoms for all their citizens and provide as much freedom as possible, while restricting freedom as little as possible.
The definitional confusion—capitalized on by the right wing through repetition—begins with trying to give meaning to secondary characteristics of freedom. All of the crucial parts of simple freedom are left unspecified," Lakoff points out, and then asks, "What is to count as free will, ability, and interference?" It is largely on the battleground of free will that what he calls "contested" freedom begins. If I’m denied access to a quality education through an accident of birth, am I really able to exercise "free will?" If not only desirable connections, but information itself is unavailable, how "free" am I to take action on my own behalf and exercise my rights?
At this point, one runs up, of course, against the legendary "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" school of thinking, which has increasingly insisted that Americans who can’t make it in this grand land have only themselves to blame (a perception that would be alien and surprising to the Greatest Generation, which came home from World War II and made use of the GI Bill to go to college, buy homes and use VA medical facilities to solidify the middle class). The recent conservative redefinition of freedom (often code-worded as "liberty") has succeeded in shifting the debate from public obligation to ensuring access in a competitive system, to private selection of who precisely is captured in notion of the "worthy poor" – who should shoulder the responsibility for failure in a "free" society. Lakoff points out that the nature of competition itself requires a large class of "losers" (the uninsured, the unemployed) to define the winners against.
On the face of it, Lakoff says, there is little logic to the "gotcha" vise created by the conjunction of free-market capitalists and Christian fundamentalists:
There is no objective reason why one’s views on abortion should have anything at all to do with one’s views on taxation, or on environmental regulations, or on owning guns, or on tort reform, or on torture. And yet radical conservatives tend to have the same views on all of these. And progressives tend to have the views opposite to those of radical conservatives on all these.
Lakoff blames an underlying authoritarian streak teased to the surface of American life with the rise of the Christian right; "morals" have entered the debate, and an increasingly narrow characterization of morality—fundamentalist Christian strict-father morality, specifically—has subtly undermined the more historically expansive and accepted notion of secular freedom.
So what’s the answer to reasserting control of the accepted definition of freedom? According to Lakoff, progressives need to school themselves in the often-resisted fact that pure rationality, explaining our policies and issues logically, simply isn’t enough.
Many progressives still abide by aspects of the rationalist myth, which results in destructive political consequences for progressives. For example, rationalism claims that, since everybody is rational, you just need to tell people the facts and they will reason to the same right conclusion. That’s just false, as we have learned from election after election. The facts alone will not set you free. If the frames that define common sense contradict the facts, the facts will be ignored.
Further, the author delivers the bad news that in his view, this rehabilitation of freedom as Americans have traditionally known it is not going to happen overnight and is not going to be satisfactorily addressed by our supposed progressive leaders.
Establishing the fundamental frames in public discourse takes patience and perseverance. It is a necessary investment in the future. This is probably not going to be done by major political leaders, who tend to want slogans that will work effectively right away. These frames need to be established instead by progressives across the country—whoever is speaking out on issues, especially those in the media. It is a necessary part of taking back freedom.
Connecting the emotional and visceral with the rational is of utmost importance in this battle, Lakoff maintains, and one that many progressives often resist, classifying framing and metaphor as a scurrilous bastard cousin of loathed marketing, manipulation, spin and sloganeering. They often assume that such emotional/rational linkage means sugar-coating words to be acceptable to the contested middle, but Lakoff is adamant that trying to appeal to the center is, in fact, one of the major problems with progressive strategy:
Conservatives know better. They don’t try to get more votes by moving to the left. Why? They understand that people in the center are biconceptuals, with strict morality governing certain aspects of their lives and nurturant morality governing other aspects. Which governs politics—strict or nurturant morality—can shift. It depends on which version of morality is activated for politics in this election. To activate your version of morality, you use the language of your moral system. That is, you talk to the center using the same language as you use with your base.
There is much, much more to this book than I’ve let on to here—examination of such words and notions as "responsibility," of the Bush administration’s use of "liberty" code words to its fundamentalist base, of the neurological road maps laid down by repetition, of the disputed territory of "freedom from" and "freedom to"—and I highly recommend progressives get hold of a copy pronto so we can begin discussing the many, many aspects of the book in targeted, subject-specific diaries. There is a great deal of fodder here, some of it familiar from Lakoff’s previous work, some of it delving deeper on subjects he’s addressed in passing and some of it new. As we move ahead in what I think of as a reclamation of terms and American ideas, there is work that can be done here, right here at Daily Kos, as we ponder our own deepest metaphors and beliefs and begin to apply the linguistic and conceptual lessons to our movement.





Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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