Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Honey, Where's the FLY SWATTER?

There's A Chomsky Clone in the Wings

University of Californiaat Berkeley publishes an online version of its magazine “UCBerkeley News,”in which it recently featured an interview article with one of the faculty, George Lakoff. I presume he holds at least one Ph.D, as the writer felt itwas important to identify him as the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the College of Letters & Science. His special areas of interestare linguistics and cognitive science. He has recently been involved in startingand participating in the Rockridge Institute, a self-styled “progressive” think-tank which is intended to help advance liberal framing of issues andagendas as a counterpoise to recent conservative successes. (The article may be viewed at this URL:

This post is now a consolidation of elements from several lettersI composed, including one sent to the Rockridge Institute, and my first publisheddraft of this. I hope that isn't intellectually dishonest. I figure if Congress routinely allows its members the right to extend and revise their remarksfor the Congressional Record, the rest of us should get a little break, too,eh?

I admit I am immediately on guard for doctrinaire idiocy when confronted with ANY alleged thought emerging from Berkeley, but I want to grit my teeth and consider what he’s saying. You should read his words, and visit the Rockridge Institute website yourselves.

If George Lakoff and I were to find ourselves seated side by side at a lunch counter or on a park bench, I expect he would be a reasonably gracious person, and we would likely have a spirited conversation. We would probably walk away each with a sense that the other fellow was someone with stimulating and challenging ideas, with whom further conversations could be expected to lead to widened perspectives and insights.

It is difficult to imagine that he goes about his daily business filled with bitter raging against a huge segment of the population of his own country, but reading some of his ideas makes that conclusion hard to avoid.

Here I include from the article the text that is presented as a direct transcription of his words: "I got tired of cursing the newspaper every morning. I got tired of seeing what was going wrong and not being able to do anything about it.
The background for Rockridge [Institute] is that conservatives, especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there."

Let me paraphrases this just in case it’s too subtle for us dimwits to grasp on a single hearing: The Democratic Party has been losing ground around the country in his view, because the REPUBLICANS have fooled us into believing them by dominating the language framing political discussion.

Okay. This is like the assertion that pharmaceutical companies fooled us into believing in headaches by dominating the language framing the aspirin discussion.

The dilemma one fetches up against instantly, like a boulder astride the pheromone trail followed by a toiling ant, is that his premise is utterly biased: i.e., that progressives and liberals have exclusive rights to TRUTH, and the evil sneaky REPUBLICANS are just cleverly using language to blind the unsuspecting and innocent public into accepting their LIES.

Examine this sentence, please, taken from the article: “The [Rockridge] institute offers its expertise and research ona nonpartisan basis to help progressives understand how best to get their messages across.”

Please note that while it asserts that the institute will be NON-partisan in its work, it will NON-partisanly assist PROGRESSIVES, not conservatives. I have to assume the writer is intelligent enough to discern the contradiction there, but blandly chooses to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Face it, this is pure propaganda. There are several other assertions he makes in the interview that, if they are accurate transcriptions of his words, suggest he is either delusional or grotesquely dishonest.

Answering the interviewers question of how conservatives have managed to accomplish this hijacking of the English language (“Why do conservatives appear to be so much better at framing?”) Professor Lakoff answers “Because they've put billions of dollars into it.”

He presents not a single reference to any financial data to support this assertion, or the writer of the article omitted any such source.

Then, just a bit further down, the article states, “And now, as the New York Times Magazine quoted Paul Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500 conservative radio talkshow hosts.”

The idea that ANY number of allegedly conservative talkshow hosts are kept broadcasting through some conspiratorial control of the broadcast industry is ludicrous. The statement reveals at the least a pathetic ignorance of the most basic realities of commercial broadcasting.

Talkshow hosts, conservative or otherwise, are expected to draw in certifiable numbers of listeners; if people aren’t listening, the shows can not pay their way with advertising revenues. There is no monolithic block of 1500 conservative radio stations that have conspired to broadcast the propaganda of conservative hosts to fulfill some secret agenda. There is a much vaster network of thousands of mostly independent stations, which include among their for-profit programming, a number of controversial announcers.

They range from Howard Stern with his provocative live interviews of nude dancers, to other "shock jocks"making crude jokes about every bodily function apart from actual tooth brushing, to clergy discussing the Gospels, to re-broadcasts of 1930's classic comedies,to call-in talk shows that represent every conceivable political persuasion. Each of the shows broadcast by these commercial stations is expected to generate sufficient advertising revenues to pay its own costs and a little profit to the station. Shows that cannot demonstrate that people are voluntarily listening in sufficient numbers, are replaced with others that CAN do.

There are not enough billions of dollars in conservative coffers to persuade these small businesses to broadcast conservative talk show hosts in defiance ofthe brutal realities of the market. To suggest otherwise reveals a sadly childish grasp of the way the world works.

Later Professor Lakoff descends into mean-spirited caricature.

He glibly defines conservatives as brutal adherents of the “strict parent” approach to life, attributing to them the method of parenting “through painful discipline— physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline, ”While by contrast, liberals and progressives are purported to use the so-called “nurturant parent” approach, which “has as its highest value helping individuals who need help.”

This grotesquely self-serving and circular characterization of conservatives as BAD, and progressives as “GOOD” makes mock of any pretense at academic objectivity the good professor might claim.

The really sad thing is that this simply confirms everything I’ve come to expect ofthe half-assed pseudo-academic crap that flows untreated from the intellectual cesspool of Berkeley, where I spent a great deal of my time while living in the Bay area. (Hey! Musically, it was a great place! As a fiddler, I played with a number of Berkeley musicians, participated in a writers' group, dated several Berkeley ladies, spent time with people in the Renaissance Faire and the SCA, et cetera. I probably spent more time in Berkeley than even in Fremont, where my apartment languished. So this is NOT just speculation, but observation from extended visits.)

Anyone entering or leaving Berkeley by city streets passes large aluminum traffic signs at the frontier posted by their city council, assuring travelers that Berkeley is a Nuclear-Free Zone. More or less identical signs are posted around the University town of Davis, California, which is the source for several other members of the Rockridge Institute.

I know, I know. The Faculty of UC Berkeley are not the city council. But the municipality is utterly dominated by the University. Its population largely comprises faculty, staff, and students,current and past. Those who are not directly employed by or enrolled in the University depend on it for their businesses— restuarants, music shops, bookstores, coffeehouses, medical clinics, clothing stores, etc.
However close their association to the University, most residents share a radical-leftist dogma born circa 1965, which seems to have frozen the place into a caricature of the self-obsessed rebellious adolescence of that moment. So it's instructive to consider those views as applied to practical realities.

The cost of these signs may be reasonably estimated to be as much as several hundred dollars apiece, installed. This is the product of "progressive" government in action. This is your taxes at work.

Of course, the real point of the signs and any supportive municipal ordinances is to prohibit the transport on the public ways of nuclear fuel or weapons. Do they also refuse to allow electrons generated by nuclear power stations to flow through their city grid?

I wonder if those pathetickers include nuclear medicine--- i.e., the use of diagnostic and therapeutic radioisotopes that are products of the nuclear industry--- in their ban. Or X-ray machines. They produce ionizing radiation. What about the radio-isotopes used in criminal DNA testing, which is frequently used to exonerate persons wrongly accused or convicted of crimes?

I wonder if the homeless, un-employed, un-insured, under-educated, impoverished downtrodden or otherwise oppressed citizens of Berkeley might have thought of a better way to spend the money those stupid bastards pissed away on those useless signs.

Thanks for indulging that seeming digression... It illuminates the arrogant mindset that prizes proclamation and posturing over actual service.

Professor Lakoff thinks the reason the country is abandoning the Democrats is that Republicans use language more effectively than Democrats. As a citizen of this country, Professor Lakoff has the right to his opinions. But for him to use his academic credentials and post to spread such poisonous depictions of people who hold differing beliefs, is deeply disturbing. He uses precisely those skills in which he has been most conspicuously awarded academic authority, to twist and pervert the logic and language of intellectual exchange he expects us to honor.

It is interesting to see the lengths to which Professor Lakoff stretches his own imagination to excuse the impotenceof Liberalism. The gulf between the Democratic Party’s claims of fairness and noble compassion, and the actual depravity and expedience of the Party’s celebrated leaders are too conspicuous to escape notice by even such benighted folk as we commoners. The simple reason people like me have decamped from the democratic party over the last few decades, is disgust and dis-illusion. NOT, thank you very much, because of clever words by shadowy Republican manipulators.

Professor Lakoff would have us believe someone convinced roosters to crow at dawn by dominating the language framing the sunrise discussion.

At least Professor Lakoff does us a small service: he confirms that one needs no advanced degrees in linguistics nor cognitive science to recognize propaganda. Perhaps as he and the other learned faculty of the institute undertake to educate the rest of us, they might consider how insulting it is for them to assume that we cannot spot bullshit without their guidance.

Update, 01 October: in mid-September the editor of the Berkeleyan, a University-sponsored publication for faculty and staff, sent me a very gracious e-mail note alerting me that they would be publishing a number of excerpted comments from the slew of letters they'd received responding to Doctor Lakoff's interview. He gave me an opportunity to decline, if I wished, to be quoted.

When they published the next issue, they included a number of critical comments from conservative readers. Happily, the excerpted comments were thoughtful and civilized, not mean-spirited or crude.

Interestingly, the editors also set aside a rebuttal space for Doctor Lakoff to respond to selected comments. Maybe he didn't have a lot of lead time (I know my letter had been sent at least three weeks earlier, but that doesn't mean he had that long to consider it.) but his rebuttals seemed to be even weaker than the original lame hypotheses.

Poor guy! He must have been tuckered out from responding to neocons-on-steroids trained by the multi-billion dollar conservative think tanks.


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