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ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος

By Michael J. Smith on Friday October 27, 2006 01:15 PM

Does anybody else feel that we've heard a little too much from George Lakoff? He's blethering away again in the Times today:
THE Bush administration has finally been caught in its own language trap. "That is not a stay-the-course policy," Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, declared on Monday.

The first rule of using negatives is that negating a frame activates the frame. If you tell someone not to think of an elephant, he'll think of an elephant. When Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook" during Watergate, the nation thought of him as a crook.

...The Democrats are giving up a golden opportunity to accurately frame their values and deepest principles (even on national security), to forge a public identity that fits those values - and perhaps to win more close races by being positive and having a vision worth voting for.

Right now, though, no language articulating a Democratic vision seems in the offing. If the Democrats don't find a more assertive strategy, their gains will be short-lived. They, too, will learn the pitfalls of staying the course.

I actually studied linguistics myself, once upon a time, and Lakoff is unusual among linguists, at least those I know, in that he seems to believe language is not just autonomous from reality, but somehow constitutive of reality. It doesn't seem to have occurred to Lakoff that if the Democrats haven't "articulated" an alternative "vision," maybe it's because they don't have one. And this is not to say that they don't have any vision; it's to say that they have, for all practical purposes, the same vision as their nominal antagonists.

The vogue for Lakoff in pwog circles is a mildly interesting phenomenon in its own right. Pwogs tend to be obsessively interested in words and insufficently interested in things and actions; everybody has seen at first hand the tiresome, obsessive policing of diction that characterizes the liberal-schmiberal milieu, to the near-exclusion of all else. So Lakoff's message that it's all about language finds an audience, in pwog-itania, predisposed to receive it.

But I think the Lakoff phenomenon has another dimension too. Liberal Democrats know, on some level, that they are bankrupt. They have no real influence within their own party, and their own party is the permanent second banana anyway; they're not just screwed, they're doubly screwed, screwed coming and going. Comes now Lakoff, however, with a promise that somehow, through the power of words alone, all can be made right.

This must have the same kind of appeal for liberal Democrats that cargo cults had in New Guinea -- the promise of supernatural victory over powerful and poorly-nderstood forces. Or perhaps it's more like the appeal of pyramid schemes for financially strapped, naive white-bread Amurricans -- a kind of no-money-down, no-pain, magical get-rich-quick scheme.

It'll work for you, says the witch doctor, if only you believe.

Comments (2)

J. Alva Scruggs:

All this framing stuff turns to outrage and vituperation once people who have been tagged with the "margin of victory (and more often defeat)" label refuse to be impressed.

js paine:

" Pwogs tend to be obsessively interested in words and insufficently interested in things and actions.."

they think in words
and they "are" cause they think
as john l sings
"free your mind instead"
not a bad short cut
if personal salvation is job one

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