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Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Ideaby George Lakoff
"There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics....And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds." Steven Pinker, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
(Read George Lakoff's reponse to Steven Pinker's review, reprinted here with the kind permission of the New Republic Online)
Synopses & Reviews
Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has relentlessly invoked the word freedom. The United States can strike preemptively because freedom is on the march. Social security should be privatized in order to protect individual freedoms. In the 2005 presidential inaugural speech, the words freedom, free, and liberty were used forty-nine times. Freedom is one of the most contested words in American political discourse, the keystone to the domestic and foreign policy battles that are racking this polarized nation. For many Democrats, it seems that President Bush's use of the word is meaningless and contradictory — deployed opportunistically to justify American military action abroad and the curtailing of civil liberties at home. But in Whose Freedom?, George Lakoff, an adviser to the Democratic party, shows that in fact the right has effected a devastatingly coherent and ideological redefinition of freedom. The conservative revolution has remade freedom in its own image and deployed it as a central weapon on the front lines of everything from the war on terror to the battles over religion in the classroom and abortion. In a deep and alarming analysis, Lakoff explains the mechanisms behind this hijacking of our most cherished political idea — and shows how progressives have not only failed to counter the right-wing attack on freedom but have failed to recognize its nature. Whose Freedom? argues forcefully what progressives must do to take back ground in this high-stakes war over the most central idea in American life.
"If I had to guess at the virtues that future historians may attribute to George W. Bush, I think they'll say something like, 'He tried to advance freedom.' Even the president's critics (like, say, me) will admit that Bush has placed the concept of worldwide freedom before the people regularly and emphatically. George Lakoff, unquestionably a presidential critic, would grant Bush that much.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) But for Lakoff, Bush's idea of freedom is deeply problematic — antithetical, in fact, to the 'progressive freedom' that Lakoff argues has defined America and made it great. This progressive definition of freedom — the more or less continuous expansion of rights, opportunity and citizen enfranchisement — stood unchallenged for many years. But now, that freedom is 'up for grabs,' and Lakoff is worried: 'To lose freedom is a terrible thing; to lose the idea of freedom is even worse.' Lakoff is a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and well known among liberals as a sort of Democratic savant. He first captured attention with 'Moral Politics,' a groundbreaking 1996 analysis of the different value systems that inform liberal and conservative political attitudes. Subsequent attention made him a star in progressive circles. By 2004, he was advising House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on 'framing' language that would counter rather than buy into conservative attempts to frame issues (e.g., the 'death tax'). His 2004 book, 'Don't Think of an Elephant!,' became a whopping best-seller. In the meantime, in more elite liberal circles, something of an anti-Lakoff backlash set in; some critics began to suspect that he'd already said what he had to say, and that his new work was getting to be less than met the eye. Certainly, 'Whose Freedom?' is made to a considerable extent out of recycled material. The progressive and conservative definitions of freedom that Lakoff lays out here are rooted directly in the categories he first discussed at length in 'Moral Politics.' Conservatives, he argues, believe in a 'strict father' morality in which the male parent has unquestioned authority over dependent children, while liberals believe in the 'nurturant parent' model, in which a less hierarchical parental authority allows for more empathy, more caring, fewer orders. With regard to freedom, these two thought-habits lead their adherents toward very different conclusions. To progressives, freedom means the expansion of rights and opportunities; it includes not just freedom to do positive things but freedom from certain negative aspects of life (want and fear, as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in 1941). Conservative freedom, in contrast, is dispensed by the father figure, and it cannot survive without morality and order — that is, immorality and disorder threaten society so profoundly that freedom cannot be maintained in the face of them. From the conservative point of view, writes Lakoff, abortion and gay marriage 'represent threats to the very idea of a strict father family — and threats to their idea of freedom.' In a series of chapters on economics, religion, foreign policy and personal freedom, Lakoff compares the implications of the liberal and conservative definitions of freedom. The book's best chapter is devoted solely to a close parsing of Bush's second inaugural address. Calling the speech 'a work of rhetorical art,' Lakoff notes that more than half of the president's uses of the words 'freedom,' 'free' and 'liberty' could appeal to liberals as well as conservatives. But he then goes on to show the hidden ways in which the speech advocated the conservative conception of freedom: how a line such as 'history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty' defines freedom as impossible without God and democracy as unworkable without religion. This shrewd dissection comes before Lakoff's concluding, prescriptive chapter, which is a little disappointing. His suggestions about how liberals can reclaim freedom are more personal than political or policy-oriented: He wants individual progressives to achieve a 'higher rationality' in which they let go of the idea that they can fight conservative rhetoric with facts (because no one cares about such trifles). He urges progressives to 'see the ideology behind the language' of the right, understand how it asserts a strict father morality and try to counter it with more nurturant language. That's very good advice for the parish hall but rather less so for cable television. Lakoff is right to identify freedom as a concept that liberals need to think about more. It's to liberals' shame that the words 'freedom' and 'liberty' are more closely associated with today's American right than with today's American left, so I admired the polemical intent of 'Whose Freedom?' If you're a liberal who has never read Lakoff, you might find this book as revelatory as I and many others found 'Moral Politics' years ago. But if you're familiar with his work, 'Whose Freedom?' won't provide many eye-opening moments. And in either case, despite its many moments of insight, it won't quite tell liberals how to take back the idea of freedom. Michael Tomasky is the editor of the American Prospect." Reviewed by Michael Tomasky, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"The strength of Whose Freedom? is that it attributes the left's current foundering not just to a failure of strategy but to a failure of self-knowledge...this makes a lot of sense, and it's easy to start imagining ways that pressing issues could be recast according to Lakoff's formula." Laura Miller, Salon.com
"One of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement." Howard Dean
"Because freedom has always been a progressive concept, it is time for progressives to reclaim the word and its meaning in today's context. Mr. Lakoff shows us how." Former Senator Tom Daschle
Book News Annotation:
After Lakoff (founding senior fellow, Rockridge Institute--"a center for research devoted to promoting progressive ideas") published his Don't Think of an Elephant!, his ideas on the relationship between politics and the power of language to frame debates became quite popular in some liberal circles, particularly on the Internet. Here he applies the same approach to the use of the term freedom in American politics. He argues that "radical conservatives" are not being hypocritical when they use the word freedom, as many progressives believe, but instead are articulating an idea that frames their entire worldview and helps to motivate their base. Progressives, says Lakoff, need to recognize this and construct their own frame regarding the concept of freedom. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has relentlessly invoked the word "freedom." Al-Qaeda attacked us because "they hate our freedom." The U.S. can strike preemptively because "freedom is on the march." Social security should be privatized in order to protect individual freedoms. The 2005 presidential inaugural speech was a kind of crescendo: the words "freedom," "free," and "liberty," were used forty-nine times in President Bush's twenty-minute speech.
In Whose Freedom?, Lakoff surveys the political landscape and offers an essential map of the Republican battle plan that has captured the hearts and minds of Americans--and shows how progressives can fight to reinvigorate this most beloved of American political ideas.
About the Author
George Lakoff, recently featured in The New York Times Magazine, is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a center for research devoted to promoting progressive ideas. He is the author of the influential Don’t Think of an Elephant! and Moral Politics, as well as seminal books on linguistics, including Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things and Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson). He lives in Berkeley, California.
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