Saturday, January 17, 2004

CHAIT-BAITING I've been enjoying the explosion (or, to use the current favourite term of art in Democratic electoral politics, 'surge') of blogs over at TNR's website, and among them, Jonathan Chait's anti-Dean blog. Only problem with it is, Chait goes so over the top sometimes, and in such cases he actually makes me sympathetic to Dean and his defenders. However, few excesses have, to my mind, equalled this post on Dean's 'nutty guru', Berkeley linguistics prof. George Lakoff.
[Before I go on, I just want to make clear that, though I'm about to bad-mouth this particular post, I enjoy Chait's writing in TNR a good deal, and often find myself in agreement with the points he makes on behalf of a sensible, savvy, hard headed liberal-centrism in the Democratic Party. But no-one's perfect, as we all know)
Lakoff -- who, as Chait rightly and fairly points out, is decidedly left-leaning, and not hesistant to put his scholarship in the service of his political ideals -- is the author of a book called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. In the book Lakoff offers analyses of the different moral systems that conservatives and liberals are, often unconsciously, dedicated to, and which dictate and define the ways that conservatives and liberals frame, or try to frame, the public debates on issues. Each side frames issues in its own way, using language that reflects a larger conceptual framework, and which aims to convince voters in the center to adopt either the liberal or the conservative framework. Lakoff further argues -- to my mind rather over reductionistically (and I therefore sympathise with Chait's somewhat sneering attitude towards the idea) that liberals' and conservative's conceptual frameworks are related to different models of parenting -- conservatives adopt a 'strong father' model, liberals a 'nurturing mother one.'
Ok. So, that's a very quick and sloppy summary of Lakoff's theory -- though it's more than Chait provides. Chait relies on a summary of Lakoff's work from Time magazine, and goes on to refer to Lakoff's theory as 'a wildly out of the mainstream political theory'. Now, first of all, it's not really a political theory, but a cognitive one. Secondly, I'm not qualified to say how out of the mainstream it is -- the bit about parenting models does, as I said, seem pretty dubious to me. But Lakoff's book is based on his work on metaphor and conceptual framing, which is pretty well respected, so far as I can tell, within his own field, and without; I don't know his recent work very well, and have some misgivings about it based on what I do know, but his earlier book, Metaphors We Live By (written with Mark Johnson), contains much of interest and, in my opinion, merit: it may not be wholly correct, but its arguments are worth thinking about seriously and pondering. But you wouldn't know this from Chait's account, which depicts Lakoff as, well, 'nutty'.
Chait further suggests that Lakoff's ideas about politics have no merit because Lakoff is, as he says in italics, 'a linguist'. Horror! Applying ideas from one area of social science to another! Developing social theories that apply research on human mental behaviour to explanations of human social behaviour! Now, I actually share Chait's scepticism about this, but I think he overdoes it (as I'm overdoing my reaction to his post), and is too quickly dismissive. One should be careful about applying theories derived from social scientific research -- especially when that research rests on debatable theoretical foundations -- to practical affairs, of course; but that doesn't mean that such theories are worthless, or that social scientists, political theorists, and well-informed political practitioners shouldn't seek to use all the ideas at their disposal to try to figure out what's going on in the world of political practice, and how to deal with it. If Dean and his campaign simply apply Lakoff's theories to their practice without relying on, and learning from, practical political experience and judgment, they will indeed be acting very foolishly. But if they draw on Lakoff's ideas as food for thought, so to speak, while remaining flexible and responsive to realities as they encounter them, and relying more on practical judgment than on a priori theories or plans -- then I don't see why reading and thinking about academic social theory is such a frightening thing in a political campaign.
Besides, why should a linguist be any more incapable (or capable) of good political judgment than -- say -- a journalist?
Chait's casual and flip dismissal of Lakoff's work, apparently without lengthy consideration or fair exposition, his suggestion that Lakoff's being an academic linguist makes him unfit to offer practical political analysis, and his use of terms like 'nutty guru', seems to me an unfortunate reflection of -- or, to be fair (if that's the right word) to Chait, perhaps an attempt to play to, or an acknowledgment of -- the strand of anti-intellectualism that runs through and bedevils American political culture. Its fair enough to point out that such a strand exists, and that the Dems are going to have to contend with it, and that this may be a purely strategic objection to nominating Dean (or Kerry, or whomever -- though, on the other hand, one likes to think that the battle on behalf of intelligence and a respect for the power of mind in human affairs isn't quite so hopeless). But to actually cater to such prejudices, or appeal to them in making arguments, seems like a bad idea to me -- and strange coming from TNR.
It was, after all, TNR that ran a story in its Oct. 30, 2000 issue noting and decrying the macho anti-intellectualism of the right, which was being exhibited and turned to rhetorical use by the GOP in the Bush-Gore race. The article reads, in part: 'But, rather than ameliorate that tendency [towards anti-intellectualism], the political coverage now aggravates it. The pundits do not denigrate intelligence per se; instead, they denigrate the qualities associated with intelligence.' Those qualities presumably include an interest in academic research and novel and suggestive ideas, and a willingness to try to apply these ideas to thinking about practice -- or academic credentials.
The author of this article was Jonathan Chait.

Friday, January 16, 2004

AH, VERMONT! Courtesy of my friend LE, I've just seen a report on the Iowa Caucuses from the CBC (the story starts at about the 41st minute into the webcast). It includes an ad that the GOP has been running against Dean, featuring a nice elderly couple saying the following:

(distinguished but folksy-looking older gentleman, affably) ‘I'd say that Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding (increasingly testy) latte drinking, sushi eating Volvo-driving, NY Times-reading (cute little older lady, presumably the older gentleman's wife, chiming in knowingly), body-piercing hollywood-loving leftwing freakshow back to VT, where it belongs’
Now, first of all -- I didn;t know that Dean was into body piercing. Obviously, this changes my opinion of him. I also didn't know that Vermont was a big sushi-consuming state, or that reading a N.Y. city paper or loving a California industry was best limited to deepest New England. As for leftwing freakshow -- if these folks think Howard's a left-wing freakshow, I've a few friends to introduce them to.
Aside from this reminder of just how contemptible political advertising generally, and especially that generated by Karl Rove and his minions of darkness, is, the report includes this reaction from a starry-eyed Iowa farmer to young Johnny Edwards:
'.. he glows when he smiles. The room just radiates. And that helps, you know, to have that personal likability.'
Though he also had a heart-to-heart with Dick Gephardt about cattle-herding, the farmer plans to vote for Edwards. (Edwards is also described as having been viewed as a 'Southern John Kennedy in the making'. Um, didn't we already have a sort of Southern John Kennedy? Though you've gotta credit the CBC for tiptoing arond the 'second Clinton' cliche. They also show Edwards declaring that he will beat Bush in the South. Yeah. Well, campaigning is all about the triumph of optimism, isn't it?)

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

BRIEF RETURN: As anyone who's checked in looking for incisive commentary -- or for easily mockable and skewerable pomposity -- or just disposable distraction -- over the last month and a half will have noticed, this blog's been in a state of hiatus. There are a number reasons for this. I originally just stopped blogging because I was busy -- and then didn't feel any special desire to return to it after I'd been away for a couple of weeks. And, as time went on, I gave it some thought, and felt disinclined to continue blogging -- partly because I was (and am) worried about how much time blogging was taking away from my attempts to work on my DPhil, and felt the need to cut back (to the extent of also banishing myself from the blogosphere: I went a month or so without reading any blogs at all), partly because I wasn't sure that I really had anything worth saying, and wasn't sure if saying anything on the blog made one jot of positive difference to me or anyone else. I also, for reasons I may or may not expand on at some point, feared that blogging and the blogosphere were not the best influences on my personality and thinking. Also, I felt badly that I was spending more time blogging than keeping in touch with faraway (or even, in some cases, nearby) friends -- or, put another way, that I was spending time blogging instead of keeping up with friends.
In short: I was re-evaluating my priorities, and decided that blogging should be much lower. And perhaps not on the list at all.
I'm still not sure about all this; and I still need to watch myself with that DPhil work. So, while I'm lifting the ban, I'm also going to try to blog very little. Anyone who's still checking in: thanks very much for your interest. If you've enjoyed this blog in the past, you should probably check in once a month or so, and there'll probably be at least some new material. And I of course encourage you to keep reading the blogs listed on the sidebar.
Now, for the one bit of relatively non-navel-gazing business; which is to point anyone who happens along this way to this conversation among 'liberal hawks' going on at Slate. The whole thing is well worth checking out, as it features some of the (to my liberal-democratic mind) most persuasivev voices in favour of the Iraq war reconsidering, or defending, their earlier positions in light of recent revelations about WMD and Bush's deceit, as well as the insurgency. Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, and Tom Friedman stick by their guns: each more or less responds to the lack of WMD (and proper planning on the part of the US), 'So what?' Hitchens reminds us of the facts convenient to him and ignores those that aren't -- being a Trot all those years was good preparation for defending Pres. Bush's own brand of world-wide revolution. I didn't find it very convincing; in fact, I found it obnoxious. Don't get me wrong: I admire Hitchens -- he's one of the best polemicists around. But polemicists aren't notable for their intellectual humility. Nor are columnists. Tom Friedman also makes some good points, but his talk of democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East seems to me to be a pipedream. Friedman speaks out for optimism. Well, I cherish hopes that we may be able to promote a more democratic and humane future for the Arab world, too; but as the quote my parents put up on the fridge at home says, hope isn't a plan of action. A certain amount of hope, of optimism, of shooting for the moon (speaking of which, what is UP with Bush and the space program? As if he weren't putting us far enough into debt?), has a place in policy-making. There should be room for ambition and nobility. But it should always be limited by prudence and humility -- and, yes, pessimism. To pursue optimistic visions is a gamble; and when human lives are at stake, gambling's a pretty dubious activity. Especially reckless gambling, which the Iraq war increasingly looks like. Friedman 'would rather go down swinging as an optimist than resign as a pessimist.' And I'd prefer to err on the side of responsibility and thus frustration rather than ambition and recklessness. Which is why the Bush administration frightens me.
Paul Berman offers a brief version of his analysis of Islamic totalitarianism. It's a good analysis, as far as it goes. But it's beginning to show signs of becoming an idee fixe for Berman; and that worries me a bit. Intellectuals have a number of noble but bad habits (and Paul Berman has been among the most incisive analysts of these habits) , and one of them is a fondness for big words -- big words that can come to do the work that should be done by careful thinking about complicated, constantly shifting, unpredictable realities. I'm worried that Berman's analogy between modern movements and mid-20th century totalitarianism is in danger of becoming as blinding as it has been revealing (and, as a would-be historian of Cold War liberal political thought, I generally welcome any attempt to make anti-totalitarianism -- and thus, my pet subject -- relevant to the present. But Berman's invocation of the idea of totalitarianism is beginning to become a bit too much even for me).
On the other hand, Jacob Weisberg, Ken Pollack, George Packer, and Fred Kaplan all express misgivings about their support for the war; Kaplan pretty much repudiates his earlier stance, and Packer, while not quite doing so, offers some pretty withering criticism not only of the Bush administration's conduct of the war, but also of the rationalisations of some of his fellow liberal hawk intellectuals. I agree -- or, while I was reading it, I agreed -- with all that Packer says, which pretty much expresses my own current thinking about Iraq (not surprising, given how large a role Packer played in forming that thinking), so I urge the reader to go check it out.
And with that, back to the academic life.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?