Friday, October 20, 2006

Weekend Fun

[posted by Callimachus]

One of my favorites takes on one of my least-favorites:

Steven Pinker, the Carl Sagan of linguistics, on George Lakoff, who is no Chomsky.

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. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author's own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds.


This brings us to Bush's invocation of freedom. I suspect it is futile to find a common ideology underlying the president's coalition of Christian fundamentalists, cultural conservatives, foreign interventionists, and economic libertarians, just as it would be to find the common denominator of the two Georges -- McGovern and Wallace -- in the Democratic Party of the 1960s and early 1970s. And there is no small irony in casting Dubya as a rigorous philosopher and a wizard with language. Still, there are discernible themes in his rhetoric of freedom.

Bush has capitalized on the concept of freedom in two ways. He has preserved the perception that Republicans are more economically libertarian than Democrats, and he has waged war against a foreign movement with an unmistakable totalitarian ideology. This still leaves his opponents with plenty of ammunition, such as his hypocritical protectionism and expansion of government, and his delusion that liberal democracy can be easily imposed on Arab societies. But his invocation of "freedom" has a semblance of coherence, and, like it or not, it resonates with many voters.


"You give me a progressive issue," Lakoff boasts, "and I'll tell you how it comes down to a matter of freedom" -- oblivious to the fact that he has just gutted the concept of freedom of all content. Actually, the damage is worse than that, because many of Lakoff's "freedoms" are demands that society conform to his personal vision of the good (right down to the ingredients of food), and thus are barely distinguishable from totalitarianism. How would he implement "pay in proportion to contributions to society through work"? Will a commissar decide that an opera singer deserves higher pay than a country singer, or that a seller of pork rinds should earn less than a seller of tiramisu? And his freedom not to be harmed by "hurtful language" is merely another name for the unlimited censorship of political speech. No doubt slaveholders found the speech of abolitionists to be "hurtful."

Good lord, what a zing. Let's enjoy it before some miffy set decides it will be inappropriate to compare anything to slaveholders -- even in situations where the comparison is valid -- as they have with Nazis.