Saturday, November 06, 2004

Doing the Limbic 

When the imperial synapses cease to fire properly and we want to get lost for a while, we immerse ourselves in the artfully evocative What Alice Found -- where we discovered the following article on Frank Luntz and George Lakoff, "two of the most successful practitioners of political reality construction." Is the problem that simple? Have Democrats taught themselves to appeal to the wrong part of the brain -- engaging the neopallium when it's really the paleopallium that Gets Out the Vote? If the continued survival of liberalism depended on it, could we learn to be primitive?
In this struggle to control political reality through language, you don’t dispute specific words or rebut the facts; you don’t even attack your opponents’ frames. What you do is assert your side’s frame, making it so big, so omnipresent, so unavoidable that it’s as natural as talking about the roundness of the Earth. Disputing such a fact seems counterintuitive. Even heretical.

A prime example in this election season is the phrase “war on terror,” which evokes a tangible, winnable conflict. Done right, the framings should be invisible, not the product of human hands. They should give the impression that the world actually is that simple and hasn’t merely been simplified. For conservatives, this is easy because they have invested decades into creating their frames. Liberals, meanwhile, have so much catching up to do that they have to be taught how to frame explicitly. Enter George Lakoff, who over the last year has boiled conservative language down to its bare bones in books, numerous interviews, and presentations. (In 2003, the Rockridge Institute finally received funding to start building a response to conservative frames.) Until now, the left hasn’t had anything like Lakoff or Rockridge, partly because of liberal pride. To some people, Lakoff’s ideas smack of propaganda and spin, which they find morally objectionable. Still others suffer from a sort of intellectual arrogance.

“The people on our side have been brought up to think from an Enlightenment perspective, to think that the facts will set you free, that you can just negate the other guy’s frame,” Lakoff says. “But that’s not how it works” . . . .

This is why the phrase “war on terror” has been so devastatingly effective. It’s so engrained that it gathers conservatives and so effective at explaining the world that people who aren’t conservatives find it appealing. The phrase can be strangely soothing. Clarity oozes from it. It subtly encodes a frame in which an intangible, terror, can be targeted and conquered, partly by recycling a Cold War frame in which we waged war on another intangible, Communism. And we won! The phrase offers the promise that we can win this one, too, because it invokes a history of military victories and strength. America, after all, wins its wars.

Of course, America doesn’t win all of its wars. The conservative frame depends on the martial fantasy of inevitable victory, and that is why John Kerry’s criticism of the Vietnam War angers Republicans. It also depends on the rush that absolute moral victory provides, which explains why the administration was able to both attack Kerry and shore up the common sense behind the “war on terror” frame when it criticized the senator for stating that the nation’s goal should be to make terrorism a nuisance . . . .

A key to victory in the frame war is the way the ideas about frames are themselves accepted and disseminated. What makes liberals open to Lakoff’s ideas is that they believe in openness. But the same profile, drawn in terms of the family metaphor, exposes a few other liabilities about liberals. For one thing, liberals are invested in an intellectual egalitarianism that can be crippling. (Conservatives may be more content with a division of labor in which some people do the thinking and others do the shouting.) “A lot of liberals don’t want to admit that they don’t have all the ideas,” Lakoff says. “It’s a major problem. A lot of liberals think, ‘Well, I don’t have the words, but I have all the ideas.’ The fact is, they don’t.”

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