Monthly Archives: November 2004

Boyte on Lakoff

I haven’t read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, although it’s been urged on me more than once. His book and Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? seem to be the two most influential works on the left right now. Amazon says that people often buy them together. I shouldn’t criticize something I haven’t read, but Harry Boyte’s critique rings exactly true. (This is from the latest Civic Engagement News. I don’t think it’s on the web yet, but it will go here, with the past issues.)

Liberal “527” groups on the Democratic side took their cue from George

Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who has become a Democratic guru for what

is called “frame theory,” or the idea that politics needs to convey

simple metaphors. To counter what he calls the Republican view of

“government as punitive father,” Lakoff argues that the core progressive

message is “government as nurturant parent” that expresses its care for

the citizenry through social service safety nets and regulation. In

Lakoff’s view “protection is a form of caring. The world is filled with

evils that can harm a child* and protection of innocent and helpless

children is a major part of a nurturant parent’s job.”

Government-as-nurturant-parent protects against “crime and drugs,

cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable

clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases,

unscrupulous businessmen, and so on.” …

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why the Democrats are slipping into minority status

It’s possible that

we’re a fifty/fifty nation, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans,

and the last two elections have been so close that they only prove we’re tied.

But I don’t believe it. A powerful current is moving us rightward. It has helped

Republicans to gain control of both houses of Congress, to appoint most federal

judges, and to control seven more governors’ mansions than the Democrats do.

(State legislatures are still about evenly split, with 19 completely under the

control of each party, and the rest divided.) In the national

exit poll, 34% of voters called themselves conservatives compared to 21%

who identified as liberals. The ideology score is nothing new, but the balance

of power is startlingly different from 20 years ago. It is possible that the

rightward trend will stop of its own accord at the current point, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Progressive parties demand more of voters than conservative ones. To start

with, they demand more taxes. Under favorable circumstances, progressives can reserve

their tax increases for a wealthy minority, but people won’t vote to tax

anyone unless they believe that the revenue is likely to be well spent.

Progressive parties also need low-income people

to turn out, something that is relatively hard for them to do because the “costs”

of voting (becoming informed and taking time off to go to the polls) are relatively

onerous for poor citizens. Besides, poor people have little reason to trust politicians enough

to vote for them. Finally, the modern Democratic party is (rightly) committed

to a set of unpopular moral values, so it must convince people to overlook those

commitments in return for other benefits.

Historically, American progressive parties (usually Democratic, but occasionally

Republican) have won elections when they have identified the really important

issues that concern majorities of voters, and have directly addressed those

issues. People will vote to raise taxes–their own or other citizens’–if they

think the money is needed for critical purposes. For example, the nation faced

a deep depression in 1932. One of its causes appared to be malfeasance in the financial

markets. And even before the depression began, people risked becoming indigent

if they lost their jobs. Roosevelt responded with employment programs to stimulate

the economy, market reforms, and Social Security. We can argue about whether

he solved the problems that the country faced in 1932, but there was

no question that he pursued policies that directly addressed the country’s needs.

In the 1960s, there was less consensus about the need to wage a “war on poverty,”

given that most families had become relatively affluent. But there was wide

agreement that the country had to move past racial segregation. Liberal Democrats

and liberal Republicans who tackled discrimination won elections.

Today, the

traditional problems have not disappeared. De facto racial segregation is worse

than it was 25 years ago; losing your job can still be very bad news. But for

most Americans, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to invent new solutions

to these old concerns, which are manageable. People support the traditional progressive

programs, but they need not vote Democratic to preserve them; Republicans

also swear oaths in defense of Social Security and Medicare. In any case, Americans

are now more concerned about a new set of problems, including the lack of decent

jobs for those with high school diplomas; persistent violent crime that we barely

control by jailing millions of our fellow citizens; reliance on foreign oil;

and the coarseness of popular culture, especially as it affects kids. While

the long-term fiscal condition of the federal government probably doesn’t worry

people as much as these other issues, the deficit does matter because it makes

it hard to propose expensive policies.

No doubt, some people are also worried about issues that Democrats cannot and should not define

as “problems,” such as immigration and increased diversity, gay weddings in

San Francisco, or the legal right to abortion. But Democrats would have a fighting

chance if they addressed a different set of important concerns. Otherwise, people will vote conservative.

I basically

gave up on this year’s Democrats when they failed to address any serious

problems at their convention. They seemed to think that Americans would vote for a Democrat

because Bush had made mistakes and Kerry was personally macho. I think a Kerry

administration would have been at best a holding-action; at worst, a last stand.

A considerable part of me is relieved that Democrats (and McCain-ite Republicans)

now have four years to come up with a plausible program.

humanistic versus technical philosophy

My two good friends from as early as kindergarten, the brothers Marcus and Jason Stanley, are guest-blogging with Brian Leiter. Lately, they have considered the very question that I have been writing about lately as I try to finish my current book-in-progress: the distinction (if there is one) between humanistic and technical philosopy.

My expertise, to the extent that I have any, is strictly limited to moral and political questions. In those fields of philosophy, there are not two distinct camps, the humanists versus the technical analysts. But there are two poles in a continuum. The same continuum defined moral philosophy in the Renaissance, when humanists (writers and teachers who practiced the studia humanitatis) challenged the highly technical Scholastics, who saw philosophy as a science. I believe that we should move closer to the humanistic pole today, reviving certain aspects of Renaissance humanism. [Warning: The rest of this post is long, because I’ve pasted a section from my book into it.]

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notes on the mideast after Arafat

I have a colleague who’s an excellent guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, almost uniquely qualified to explain it. I can’t reconstruct his crystal-clear summary of recent events, but I think I can accurately recollect a few key points:

1. Before Arafat died, there was some potential for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and selected parts of the West Bank. Sharon had decided to go that route, and he, perhaps alone of all Israeli politicians, had the stature to confront the settler movement and achieve some degree of withdrawal. After all, he was the architect of the settlements, so he could argue that some of them must be removed. Further, there was a consensus in Israel that Arafat was not a possible negotiating partner. Paradoxically, this made the left despair about fundamental negotiations and support modest Israeli withdrawals. In general, the Israeli people want negotiations, but not with Arafat. That desire created political momentum for an alternative strategy of unilateral separation. (Whether a withdrawal could possibly have led to a fair and sustainable outcome is another question.)

2) With Arafat dead, the Israeli right is now calling for negotiations with his successor, and playing on popular hopes that somehow the two sides will be able to reach an overall agreement. This stance will help them block Sharon’s strategy of unilateral withdrawal.

3) But Arafat was never as much of an obstacle as most Israelis have believed. His successor will inherit the same basic situation. Moreover, the Israeli right is calling for the Palestinian authority to wage a civil war to defeat Hamas, as a precondition for sitting down with Israeli negotiators who are not pre-committed to any particular position. This is an utterly unrealistic expectation.

4) So there is little ground for hope, and the death of Arafat has probably made things worse (although hardly anyone mourns him as a human being). The best path is probably still for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, in which case it is conceivable that the Palestinian authority and Hamas will work out a modus vivendi to govern the area, will converge ideologically, and will be able to negotiate together with Israel. The likelihood of that outcome strikes me as very low. But every other scenario I can imagine seems worse.

how deep is cultural diversity?

“Historicism” is the view that our values are phenomena of our cultural backgrounds and contexts; and contexts differ from time to time and place to place. Although even the ancient Greeks recognized some degree of moral diversity, true historicism was a discovery of the nineteenth century.

However, modern natural and social science have suggested that some important aspects of psychology are common to all members of homo sapiens, the results of our evolved physical natures. For example, it appears that all people place a higher value on a certain gain than on a probable gain of much greater worth; but they have the opposite view of losses. For related reasons, people will go to great lengths to save $5 on a $10 purchase (?fifty percent off!?), but will not inconvenience themselves to save exactly the same $5 on a $125 purchase. A loss of money reduces happiness more than an equivalent gain increases it.

I mention these findings because we are told that they emerge consistently in studies from around the world; they may reflect mental heuristics that evolved when people were hunter-gatherers. Robert Wright tells us that ?people?s minds were designed to maximize fitness in the world in which those minds evolved,? our ancestral state, which apparently resembles modern life among the !Kung San people of the Kalahari Desert or the Inuit of the Arctic.

However, even if such claims are true, they do not negate the existence of deep diversity in other aspects of psychology and moral judgment. If our physical natures directly determined our answers to all moral questions, then we would not debate ethics or literally wage wars over differences of principle. Besides, many of the features of human psychology that are universal are not moral. Perhaps we evolved to be aggressive toward competitors and altruistic toward relatives. Yet we also have the capacity to limit our aggression and to generalize our altruism beyond family and tribe. People disagree about when aggression is appropriate and in what circumstances one must be altruistic. These differences are especially evident when one compares individuals from long ago or far away. Thus the natural basis of aggression and altruism does not in any way reduce the importance of moral diversity and disagreement.

Finally, the very science that generates findings about human nature is embedded in a particular time and society. This does not mean that truth is inaccessible to science or that its findings are arbitrary. It does mean that we should ask whether the questions and methods of recent science are at least somewhat limited by our local interests and capacities. In sum, Isaiah Berlin was right: ?human beings differ, their values differ, their understanding of the world differs; and some kind of historical or anthropological explanation of why such differences arise is possible, though that explanation may itself to some degree reflect the particular concepts and categories of the particular culture to which these students of this subject belong.?