Sunday, March 18, 2007

SPECIAL EDITION: Words of Power Interviews George Lakoff on Impeachment, 2008, the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and Progressive Think Tanks

Not since the Civil War has America been more divided politically. The Civil War was fought over the question of what freedom in America was to be. . . .Over more than two centuries Americans demanded successive expansions of freedom — progressive freedom. Expansions of voting rights, civil rights, education, public health, scientific knowledge, and protections from fear and want: these all made us freer to follow our dreams. These were the ideals of freedom that I grew up with. They are now all under threat, not by guns or bombs, but an under-the-radar redefinition of freedom and liberty to suit right wing ideology. And it is taking place under our noses, with the complicity of the media . . .The mechanism of redefinition is cognitive. It is in our brains. . . .Whose Idea of Freedom Will Shape America’s Future?, Boston Globe Editorial, 7-4-06

Lakoff is a deeply serious thinker, with a firm handle on what the Republicans are up to. He knows exactly what consultants like the GOP focus-group driven master of the soundbite, Frank Luntz, are up to. We avoid listening to Lakoff at our own peril as far as the political future of our nation is concerned. Buzzflash

Words of Power Interviews George Lakoff on Impeachment, 2008, the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and Progressive Think Tanks

By Richard Power

I have been haunted by a vision over these last few years. It is the image of a juggernaut rolling on toward a point of no return.

For decades, this juggernaut just kept picking up speed. But over the last few years, three forces have converged to slow it down: the movement of History, the power of Mother Nature and the conscience and common sense of many individuals.

History moves forward, the juggernaut moves backward; Mother Nature is a oneness, the juggernaut is fueled on a false ideal of separateness. Both History and Mother Nature are inexorable forces, they function on a planetary level, and they ensure that sooner or later the juggernaut will be smashed to smithereens by the pressure of its struggle against them.

Nevertheless, there is, as I mentioned, a point of no return -- for our lifetimes and perhaps for the very existence of our country. The juggernaut is hauling the USA toward that point of no return.

We have not crossed over it yet (although a convincing argument could be made to the contrary). It is not too late. Nevertheless, it is perilously close, and even if we were to shut down the engines that propel us toward it, our forward motion itself could carry us over.

And this is where the third force, that of human conscience and common sense, comes into play.

In this waking vision, I see human beings throwing themselves against this juggernaut (and not worshipfully as ancient devotees did), but as resisters -- allowing themselves to be crushed under its wheels, just to loosen one bolt or disengage one spoke. Some of the human beings scramble up to the cabin and attempt to make "citizens' arrests" before they are hurled back to the earth, others jump on to affix explosive ideas and images, which make big dents in the juggernaut's steel hull of mind control. Some of the human beings erect high barricades, others dig big ditches. All of these people have one goal, to shut down the engines and slow down the forward momentum of the juggernaut -- before it crosses over the point of no return and we are plunged into an abyss.

The struggle to slow down, stop and dismantle the juggernaut is not really an ideological or political one, it is a spiritual and psychological struggle.

Many writers, thinkers and enterainers have confronted the juggernaut, and dealt it powerful blows. Many whistleblowers and other dissenters from the US military, intelligence and law enforcement communities have paid a steep price (their careers) and spoken out at great personal risk.

Even some a few brave conservatives, true conservatives, have thrown themselves at the juggernaut.

But primarily, this broad-based resistance has gotten its amplification and contextual meaning from some remarkable new institutions that have sprung up over the last decade or so: e.g., Media Matters, Center for American Progress, Air America and MoveOn; and of course, from the Blogosphere and the Internet-based Information Rebellion led by Buzzflash, Crooks and Liars, Truthout, Brad Blog, Talking Points Memo, and many other dynamic sites.

George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute, too, have contributed something profound and unique to this resistance.

Indeed, what Lakoff is constantly directing our attention to is one of the most vital aspects of the struggle to shut down the juggernaut -- i.e., the mind game, or as a friend and colleagues who is a retired US Army PSYOPS officer terms it, the "mind war."

But Lakoff's work, I wager, is a little like that of Sun Tzu's. Many people have bought the Chinese philosopher's Art of War on impulse, or received it as a gift, but too few have read it or applied its lessons in their own lives. Likewise, many people in this resistance know who Lakoff is and that what he is saying is important, but too few have taken the time to read the body of his work and adapt it personally and organizationally.

I recently interviewed Lakoff on some pressing and important issues (this is the first Words of Power interview conducted since the Democrats took control in the House and the Senata). I hope that our brief Q&A serves as an intriguing introduction to those who are not familiar with his work, and a convincing reminder to those who already know it but have not groked it fully.

Words of Power: Impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as we all know, declared that impeachment was “off the table.” But others, RFK, Jr. in particular, argue that if impeachment should be seriously considered for no other reason than as “a civics lesson.” Not impeaching Bush and Cheney (it would have to be both of them) would be be politically better than impeaching them and having them acquitted in the Senate (as they almost certainly would by the current headcount). But what could be worse than allowing those who have committed such flagrant abuse of power go unchallenged in the way that the Constitution provides? Is there some middle path? What is your view on impeachment? A moral imperative? A political trap? Or both?

Lakoff: "The question is: How can we best move the country (and the world) in a progressive direction? Is impeachment the best way to do this? Impeachment has problems:
First, it uses the Bad Apple Frame — it suggests that Bush and Cheney were just bad apples, that if we get rid of them, everything will be okay. But the real problem is not them, per se, but Radical Conservatism itself as mode of thought and of governance.
Second, there is the public reaction — the people who voted for Bush will move to defend him. This would be the opposite of what you want to accomplish.
Third, it takes up an inordinate amount of time and energy from the Congress. The Democrats want to accomplish positive things, and that will take all the time and energy they have.
Fourth, congressional hearings can have the effect we want, if they are held and framed properly — and properly publicized. The hearings should not be about who the bad apples are, but rather what conservative ideology leads to. So far, the hearings have not been that.
Fifth, Bobby Kennedy, Jr. (who I both like and respect enormously) is caught in the rationalist trap (See the Rockridge Progressive Manual, Thinking Points). He thinks that if you present people with the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion. Give them a civics lesson and they will function as wonderful citizens. It’s just not how people work. That was done with Nixon in 1974, and by 1980 we had Reagan.
Sixth, what you need is a narrative in which conservatism itself is the villain and progressivism is the hero — and that means making it clear what the philosophies are, what’s wrong with one and right with the other. That takes more work over a longer time than just prosecuting the bad apples.
Seventh, a lot of progressives will support impeachment simply because Bush and Cheney deserve it — even if the Dems in Congress don’t support it. All that energy should not go to waste. A professional-quality case should be put together on a single central website, including only evidence that would stand up in a court of law and not speculation, circumstantial evidence, hearsay, guesswork, etc. The website should be run by someone with a solid legal background, preferably with excellent credentials. It should be easy to navigate and journalist-friendly. That would take the case before the people, even if the Dems don’t."

Words of Power: 2008? I am not endorsing any candidate, at least at this juncture. And I am certainly not fishing for your views on anyone in particular. But what does strike me is that there is a disconnect between the front runners, Clinton and Obama, and what is really going on in the country. Many of us look at what has happened to the Bill of Rights, to the US military, to our prestige in the world, to our intelligence community, to our infrastructure, to our economic security, to our environment (vis-à-vis climate change), and to our continued (indeed, aggravated) exposure to 9/11-style terrorist attacks, and say we are in a state of national emergency, particularly those among us who feel as I do that Bush-Cheney were installed illegitimately). But Clinton says she wants to have “chat” with America and Obama says he wants to change the tone in politics (something Bush said BTW). These approaches seem very out of touch to me. My question to you is looking ahead to 2008, what are the challenges that the Democrats face in regaining the White House in the aftermath of the Bush-Cheney regime? What are the pitfalls that the candidate whoever he or she is must avoid? What are the opportunities they must seize?

Lakoff: "So far, Obama seems to have learned the Reagan lesson: he is the candidate of values, authenticity, trust, connections, and communication. He just takes it for granted that American values are progressive values. He understands that conservatives see themselves as moral and can state what their arguments are and why (progressive) American values are the better choice. He speaks of the 'empathy deficit.' He understands that progressivism requires responsibility, and responsibility requires pragmatism — that is, functioning within reality. That means he is not a knee-jerk progressive and is willing to make compromises. But since he stresses values, judgment, and trust, he for the most part is not running on specifics of the kind that change with time and context.
Clinton and Obama have very similar voting records overall. But they are very different candidates.
Clinton believes there is a 'center' and is willing to move to the right to get there, even before she has to. She is a policy wonk and is running on policies, believing that people vote for candidates on the basis of their policies. She believes in governing by incrementalism — making lots of small changes that get wide bipartisan approval.
She has a problem with looking both strong and caring (both sides of her are real). She has mastered the first but not the second (hence the 'chat'). Looking strong but not looking like she cares turns off a lot of women. She also looks and sounds inauthentic at times; her voice and body language don’t always fit what she is saying. I hope she can work this out."

Words of Power: "Vast right-wing conspiracy." This utterance of the phrase, “vast right-wing conspiracy,” for which Hillary Clinton was mocked back in the 1990s still sticks with me. After all, it was well-documented by Conason and Lyons in the Hunting of the President and then corroborated by David Brock’s insider confession (Blinded By The Right). But the experience of struggling against the radicalism of Bush-Cheney, Rove, Bolton and the rest of them has been so intense that many people have sort of forgotten about who is behind the curtain. The issue is further muddled by the fact that Murdoch has raised money for Hillary Clinton in NY. I am concerned that many of us have not come to grips with what is out there beyond and behind Bush-Cheney. My question to you is -- What’s next? What’s out there beyond Bush-Cheney? Is there something that they simply high-jacked, a deeper, broader, arch-conservative movement -- a faceless juggernaut -- which will simply keep rolling forward? Is the whole right-wing scene in disarray? Is the coalition of the corporatists and the Christian fundamentalists finished? Or are we underestimating its resilience and its real power?

Lakoff: "Right now, progressives are underestimating the real power of conservatives and conservatism. Bush is pushing on in the face of electoral defeat, and the Democrats are not stopping him. The right-wing think tanks are in place and grinding out their ideas, and the right-wing message machine is in place setting long-term traps for Democrats, which Democrats seem eager to fall into. The conservative coalition is ultimately based on the fact that there is a true convergence of values, based on strict father morality applied to issues across the board. Moreover, the culture of conservative populism has not been dented.
The Democrats have real opportunities right now, and are doing many things right, but the conservative infrastructure is in place and strong, while the corresponding progressive infrastructure is nowhere near as strong and is not being constructed as well as it should be.
Perhaps the greatest hold that conservatives have on America is their ability to frame issues their way in public debate. This is not merely a matter of better wordsmithing. It is because
they have already gotten many of their ideas accepted as commonsense and conventional wisdom, both by much of the public and much of the media. They have been working at this effectively for three to four decades, pouring four billion dollars into think tanks alone, not counting control of media.
Conservative think tanks start with conservative values, ideas, forms of argument, and language to fit those values and ideas. The policies follow later.
Progressive think tanks get it backwards. They start with issues, divide up into “issue silos” issue-by-issue, and start with policies and programs. They never quite come up with a unified vision that goes across the issues, that is based on a common morality that defines what it means to be a progressive, and that creates the general language of progressive thought that will serve the full range of issues. This leaves voters wondering what it is that progressives believe.
An overall progressive vision is a matter of 'deep framing' — values and ideas that go across all issues."

Words of Power: Nothing is more important in our current circumstances, than the alternative media, the blogosphere and the progressive think tanks and other institutions that have sprung in these dark years of resistance. Tell us about Rockridge Institute? What are you doing? Where does it fit in? And how can we help it and further its work?

Lakoff: "Rockridge is the only think tank wholly concerned with how issues are framed in public discourse, especially in the media. And we are the only think tank concerned with deep framing — with the values, principles, and forms of argument and narrative that underlie the use of language.
Since our first serious grant, four and a half years ago, we have come a long way. Don’t Think of An Elephant! summarized what we had learned in the first two years. It made framing a household word and alerted ordinary citizens, the media, social activists, and political leaders to the way framing works in language.
Since Elephant, Rockridge has had an enormous effect. Progressive political leaders have been shooting themselves in the foot a lot less and saying what they believe more effectively. A great many progressives have learned several important things: Don’t use the other side’s language and the frames that come with their language. Reframe the issues from your perspective. Don’t negate the other side’s frames — it just reinforces them. Speak about values and saying strongly and effectively what you believe. The ’06 elections reflected the fact that hundreds of thousands of politically active progressives bought Elephant, understood at least those things, and used that knowledge effectively.
Since Elephant, we have made further progress — especially in the deep framing area and have produced a progressive manual — Thinking Points, which is short, cheap, easy-to-read and surveys the full range of framing issues, both at the deep and surface levels. At this point we have finished our first phase of research: we have pretty much figured out the basics of framing and have written up and published our results in a progressive manual. We began an extended public discussion of it, chapter-by-chapter this week on the Rockridge Nation website.
Now comes the hard part:
• Applying our framing lessons both to short-term and long-term issue areas.
• Helping citizens, activists, and political leaders to use Thinking Points. Our interactive website, Rockridge Nation was established for this purpose.
• Running a Framing in the Media project to alert journalists, as well as the public, to the use of right-wing framing in the media, and to help train journalists in how to avoid right-wing frames that they may believe are neutral.
• Writing about the next generation of progressive issues and the framing problems they present.
What we need most right now is funding. Most of the progressive think tank money is going to policy think tanks.
And the big money is mostly going to organizations that already have big money.
Very little is going to framing research — working out the values, principles, ideas, arguments and narratives that will be essential to progressive victories in the future.
The right wing has supported values-based and idea-based research very well. Progressives still need to learn that ideas matter — and that the ideas that lie behind the policies are the hard part.
If every progressive would give $100 (or what they could reasonably afford) to organizations like ours, we could be many times more effective. Contributions can be made through our website: Contributions are tax-deductible."

As Buzzflash's book reviewer observes, Lakoff's Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea is "a brilliant reflection on the use of patriotic language by the Republicans."
"In particular, [Lakoff] explores the differing connotations of the concept of 'freedom' to the hierarchical, paternalistic Republican base on the one hand, and the maternalistic nurturing Democratic base on the other. One deeply resonant word so basic to the American essence has diverse meaning, depending upon who is hearing it. . . .'Whose Freedom?' is a challenging and rewarding book that explores the depths of the 'framing' issues facing us if we want to restore a Constitutional Democracy that is tolerant, inclusive and caring."

For more on Lakoff's published work, especially Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea and Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision -- A Progressive Handbook, I refer you to Buzzflash (click the links in the titles above) and I suggest, to support the resistance, you purchase the books from Buzz as well.

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Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and Words of Power. His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc. You can reach him via e-mail: For more information, go to

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