George Lakoff: Whose Freedom?

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Lakoff, George. Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

I've read a few of Lakoff's previous books (Moral Politics, Don't Think of an Elephant, and Thinking Points), and Whose Freedom? is perhaps the best of them: a tightly focused book that covers its territory both succinctly and thoroughly. In it, cognitive linguist Lakoff looks at the contested meanings of freedom and illuminates the subject with his customary insight. (Don't worry if you haven't read any Lakoff before; his section on "The Mind and Freedom" on pages 9-15 will quickly get you up to speed with the relevant cognitive theories.)

Chapter 12 ("Bush's Freedom," pp. 229-242) has Lakoff dissecting Bush's notorious second inaugural speech in detail, and is the book's best chapter. I noted Bush's linguistic sleight-of-hand at the time, but only in passing:

Bush's continual repetition of the words "freedom" (33 times) and "liberty" (16 times) in a 2,000-word address is inconsistent with the administration's well-documented abridgement of civil liberties, disdain for the rule of law, and tacit approval of torture.

The effort Lakoff puts into his analysis of the speech makes this chapter alone worth the price of the book, and there are many other sections to sweeten the deal. One example, my Quote of the Day, is from his advice to counter the Right's framing of judicial issues:

You can defuse the conservative frames of "strict construction" and "judicial activism" without mentioning them. Whenever a case reaches a high court, it is because it does not clearly fit within the established categories of the law. Judges have to either extend or narrow those categories, and when they do they change the law, in one way or another. The question is whether they change it in the direction of greater or lesser freedom. Are they expanding--or narrowing--voting rights, civil rights, education of the public, scientific knowledge, and other aspects of the public good? Do they want to take us back before the expansion of our freedoms or forward to a greater expansion of our freedoms? Are they profreedom or antifreedom? (pp. 245-6)

Lakoff's work on economic freedom is also excellent:

Part of the economic liberty myth is that employers "give jobs" to employees. The flip side of that is a deep truth: Working people provide profits to those who pay their wages, and it is the work by workers, even low-skilled workers, that provides profits to employers. (p. 162)

As a wise man once observed, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." (Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894) Conservatives may see such an "equality before the law" as the summum bonum of American freedom, but liberals need to do better than that. This book suggests some of the ways in which we can re-frame the subject of freedom both more accurately and more effectively than how it is currently treated in the media.


Although Lakoff's book is quite comprehensive, I'd like to offer a few observations on the difference between symbolism and substance that illustrate the liberal/conservative divide on the related issue of patriotism:

• Reading the Declaration of Independence every July 4th doesn't protect our inalienable rights;
• Venerating a parchment facsimile of the Constitution doesn't form a more perfect union;
• Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't actually create liberty and justice;
• Singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" doesn't make our nation the land of the free or the home of the brave;
• Flying the flag from your porch (or sticking a pin through your lapel) doesn't mean that you love your country; and
• Attaching a "support the troops" bumper sticker to your SUV doesn't mean that you value either the members of our armed forces or their military service.

Patriotism may be inspired by words and symbols, but it is in political and civic works where it truly lives. In each of examples listed above, it is conservatives who value the symbols of freedom (such as the flag) over actual freedom that they represent (such as the right to burn a flag in protest). While freedom and patriotism are contested concepts, I find it interesting that conservatives worry so much about the trappings of patriotism; I also wonder if conservatives have corresponding observations about liberals.

I would love to see Lakoff address the framing of patriotism in a sequel to this book.


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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 14, 2008 6:06 PM.

liberalism: something that one grows into, not out of was the previous entry in this blog.

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