Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Beyond Universal Wimpery
Powell's Books - Review-a-Day - Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (A Progressive Guide to Action) by George Lakoff, reviewed by The Atlantic Monthly

America, now more than ever, needs a vibrant, viable, progressive alternative. The challenge to liberals, then, isn't to reify their differences with a mythical red America and its strict daddies but, rather, to find common ground. Perhaps they ought to start by taking their own sermons about diversity a good deal more seriously. Diversity should be much, much more than a code word for racial affirmative action. It also entails, as Potter and Heath argue, "[making] peace with mass society" and learning to live with what the philosopher John Rawls called "the fact of pluralism." Modern America is large and, yes, diverse enough that it's absolute folly to think some sort of progressive or nurturant world view can -- or should -- become majoritarian. Who would want that sort of conformity in any case? "We need to learn to live with disagreement -- not just superficial disagreement, but deep disagreement, about the things that matter most to us," Heath and Potter conclude.

The trick of effective politics -- as opposed to thinly disguised self-affirming psychotherapy and aesthetically gratifying rebel poses -- is precisely to unite people with different views, values, and families around programs, candidates, and campaigns on which they can reach some consensus, however minimal. Before liberals and progressives dash out with their new vocabulary to try to convince others of the righteousness of their values, they might consider spending some time listening to others instead.

When I read read about this Lakoff stuff I wonder why I'm a liberal. I find the idea of "nurturance" sickening. I have no interest in preserving the environment except to the extent that it suits human interests. As regards foreign policy I am a hawk: though I regarded our adventure in Iraq as thoroughly unmotivated, I thought it might have been a good idea to intervene in Liberia--and think it would be a very good idea to show some muscle in dealing with Sudan.

But then I remember: oh, yes, I'm a woman. On the conservative scheme, I don't get to do self-interest, greed and competitiveness or the Strict Parent either. As a conservative I'd have to do care, nurturance and psychobabble anyway because I'm a woman--so I might as well be liberal. Maybe someday liberals will catch on to the idea that the aim isn't to valorize stereotypical femininity and promote it for men as well as women but, among other things, to give women a chance to be self-interested, greedy and competitive, and to do guy stuff.

Until then it might be worthwhile to recognize that the important issues on the table are not matters of taste, religious conviction or personal style but Social Security, foreign policy, minimum wage, and a variety of other issues that have nothing to do with Lakoff's five minute ideas.


MikeS said...

I have been waiting for somebody to say this about Lakoff. So many liberals seem to have forgotten Kant and accepted that the end can justify the means. I hope that more commenters take up this point.

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