Oct 16, 2013 – Over a decade ago, I’d sometimes send letters to newspapers – to see if they’d publish my weird, naive opinions. Surprisingly, they often did. Occasionally, one of my letters would be printed by two newspapers on the same day – as when the Times and Independent published something I wrote about Tony Blair in 2005 (see below).
Even The Sun published a few of my letters – probably out of shock that a Sun reader could actually manage to string a few sentences together. (Of course, I’m not a Sun reader – I just sent letters out to all the newspapers. The first I heard of The Sun publishing my letter was when I received a £15 “prize” from them for it. Jackpot!).
(I pretty much stopped writing to the media when everybody started doing it – as a result of campaigning websites which encouraged a sort of template approach. It got too crowded and rote).
Here are a few examples of my letters which were published…
This country is much wealthier than in the 1970s, when most students paid nothing for their education. The “funding crisis” in higher education is created not by lack of funds, but by a dubious political ideology.
(The Sun, 28/1/2003)
The way this government talks about work reminds me of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes One free”) Nazi concentration camp entrance sign. Hitler provided full employment. Prison workshops have full employment. Coercion can always create full employment. What happened to leisure? We’ve seen incredible advances in labour-saving technology over the last 30 years, yet working hours have risen during this period. And now government ministers want to promote a “work first” culture. Are they insane?
(Read out on BBC Radio 4 ‘PM’ news, 5/7/2001)
Re: Flu Epidemic – Last year’s Government clamp-down on “sick-note culture” was regrettable. Taking time off sick is increasingly seen as a bad career move, with the result that everyone in the office catches flu. My advice: prevention is better than cure, so call in sick before you get ill. (The Guardian, 12/1/2000)
Gordon Brown says full employment is achievable. Problem is, half of UK jobs produce no “real wealth”, no resources or services useful to human life. These pointless jobs (many in financial services) have no effect except to move money around in databases, benefiting the rich. It used to be called usury. People actually burn up fossil fuels travelling to these pointless jobs. (The Independent, 16/3/2001)
On average, fewer than 10 children are killed each year by strangers in England and Wales, according to government figures. Road accidents, however, kill or seriously injure several thousand children every year. The media obsession with paedophiles distorts perceptions of risks to children. (The Sun, 26/7/2000)
The way politicians talk, you’d think welfare fraud and juvenile delinquency were the two greatest threats to civilisation. Being young and unemployed*, I feel more threatened by politicians.
(News Of the World, 10/12/2000 –- *the bit about being “young and unemployed” wasn’t 100% true)
The government has overlooked an obvious way to tackle road congestion: give employers financial incentives to allow staff to work from home. If only 10% of office staff worked one day a week at home, we’d notice a significant reduction in road traffic (and pollution).
(Printed in the Independent & Daily Express, 18/12/2002)
Tony Blair dismissed the Lancet report on Iraqi deaths. He also dismissed the LSE report on ID-card costs. He now dismisses the Chatham House report linking the London bombings to the Iraq war. Is it rational behaviour to simply dismiss everything that contradicts one’s worldview?
(Printed in the Times & Independent, 20/7/2005)
♦ The following prose is a Beta release for specially chosen readers identified by NSA cookies. Please report any bugs.
Sept 20, 2013 – Following the 20th Century nightmares of concentration camps, mass slaughter of certain groups, etc, I think it was widely understood – for a while at least – that Nazi ideology was abominable not because it directed hatred towards the wrong groups, but because hating any group seems nonsensical and eventually leads to violence. When people are perceived as mere units of group identity, dehumanising horrors can result – as history has repeatedly shown.
This insight seems lost – to the extent that it now seems fashionable, or “radical”, to hate groups that are believed, from a position of moral rectitude, to be deserving of hatred. For example, it even seems a badge of honour in some “radical left” circles to uncompromisingly despise the group classed as “corporate journalists” – since, by definition, it’s a subset of the larger “corporate” class, which is to be righteously reviled because of the mass suffering and destruction to the planet caused by corporations and the corporate system.
(There’s a “radical right” version of this in which the group known as the “liberal elite media” is hated as being a subset of the larger elite “liberal” class).
So, fungible group hatred has become respectable – as long as it’s the right group. And the “debate” between Left and Right now consists largely of which are the correct groups to vilify.
Despising ideas, beliefs, policies, actions, etc, attributed to a group, isn’t the problem. Rather, the problem seems to appear when unacknowledged (and probably unconscious) mental processes result in false inferences about individual people, based on classing them as units of a group-abstraction. Try describing the “reality” of any individual human being in terms of what defines any given group (social, political, religious, ethnic, racial, whatever) – and you may see that those unacknowledged mental processes mentioned above seem to have something in common with medieval demonological usage of Aristotelian logic.
Aug 21, 2013 – When I saw this Daily Mail headline (this morning), I thought: With all we know about the economic malaise and its causes, what would conservative ministers and newspapers focus on? Of course: that youngsters lack “grit”.
It seems such obvious, clichéd BS to “us” – and I recall Noam Chomsky explaining that he doesn’t criticise rightwing newspapers because it’s “too easy” (he focuses instead on “liberal” media).
And yet… The Daily Mail has millions of readers. Millions more see its prominent headlines (while at the supermarket or newsagent). And we know that conceptual frames work mostly unconsciously – “below” our awareness. And that repetition affects us “deeply” at this “level”.
(To put it another way: Professor Chomsky might find it “too easy” communicating his criticisms of rightwing media to fellow Chomskyites, etc – but how easy would he find it communicating those criticisms to Daily Mail readers?)
I don’t have time to write this (I’ve got a river to swim, a mountain to climb and a crap-job interview* to attend), so I’ll limit myself to a brief jotted note:
“Grit” (synonym: “firmness of character”) keys into a “moral strength” metaphor/worldview – part of the “strict” (ie authoritarian) morality which has been linked with conservative thinking. I wrote about this here.
* Not really. I don’t “waste my time” on such things any more. My “character” doesn’t need any “building”, thanks. And if it did, the last place I would go to “build” it is a God Damn job (said in a John Wayne voice).
• YOUNG LACK JOHN WAYNE’S EYE-PATCH
• WANNABE WAGE SLAVES GRIT THEIR TEETH
• WINTER RISE IN ROAD-GRITTING JOBS
Aug 13, 2013 – Chomsky and Žižek, two giants of the intellectual “left”, had a public spat recently. It was covered by national newspapers, and commentators commented on it. Indirectly, it led me to something Žižek wrote about George Lakoff, and so I thought I’d CASH IN* on the Žižek interest with my own blog post…
In the same way that Chomsky dismisses Žižek’s output after (apparently) reading little of it, Žižek is fairly dismissive of Lakoff’s work on framing – based on what seems to be a limited knowledge of it.
One can understand this. If you’re dismissive of somebody’s ideas (Chomsky repeatedly says Žižek’s amount to “posturing”) then it’s unlikely you’ll invest much time on reaching a fuller understanding of them – unless you make a career of “critiquing” them. Apparently this kind of (inevitably somewhat ignorant) dismissiveness affects even the smartest and most erudite thinkers.
“Superficial” Lakoff detour
Žižek writes about Lakoff in the middle of a long article. And it’s a bit of a detour from the piece’s main topics (eg Žižek’s criticisms of political theorist Ernesto Laclau):
The interest of [Lakoff's] project for us resides in the fact that it shares a series of superficial features with Laclau’s edifice: the move from political struggle as a conflict of agents who follow rational calculations about their self-interests, to a more “open” vision of political struggle as a conflict of passions sustained by an irreducibly metaphorical rhetoric. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
I think the key words here are “superficial features”. Lakoff certainly warns against the belief that people vote from “rational calculations about their self-interests”. But does he instead see “political struggle as a conflict of passions”? Not to my reading. Lakoff writes that separation of emotion from rational mental activities is due to a false distinction. Rather, “rationality requires emotion” (The Political Mind, p196-197). Lakoff’s work is more about the role of unconscious frames, narratives, conceptual metaphor, prototypes, etc, in creating moral worldviews and political ideologies. (Drew Westen, a fellow neuroscientist, places more of an emphasis on emotion in politics than Lakoff does).
Next up from Žižek:
Lakoff’s concrete analyses oscillate between amusing apercus on how everyday rhetorical phrases are bundled with unspoken assumptions [...] and rather primitive pseudo-Freudian decipherings – say, apropos 9/11, he wrote: “Towers are symbols of phallic power, and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power.” [...] Lakoff reaches here the high point of the absurdity of his pseudo-Freudian symbolistic reading… (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
(An “apercu” is an outline or insight).
Žižek makes a big issue of this Freudian stuff. But I’ve read many of Lakoff’s books, and this is the only example of a Freudian description I can remember. And Lakoff provides it as just one example (“Phallic imagery”) in a list of different types of metaphorical thought. That’s all. So I think Žižek is wrong (and perhaps unfair and disingenuous) to claim Lakoff “oscillates” between “pseudo-Freudian decipherings” and other stuff. Žižek continues:
In view of this naïve Freudism, it should not surprise us that, for Lakoff, the central organizing metaphors go back to warring visions of “idealized family structure”: conservatives see the nation as a family based on the “strict father model,” [...] As it was already noted, both the “strict father” and the “nurturing parents” model are family models, as if it is impossible to detach politics from its familial fantasmatic libidinal roots. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
Okay, so after exposing Lakoff’s “naïve Freudism” (by quoting, out of context, a single, uncharacteristic Freudian example from Lakoff), Žižek would have us believe that Lakoff’s Moral Politics thesis is down to his “pseudo-Freudian symbolistic reading”, etc. Well, the best I can do here is to recommend that you read Lakoff’s Moral Politics for yourself (as it seems that Žižek hasn’t read it). Or, alternatively, you can read my summary of it here.
Fast and Loose
Žižek next quotes Senator Richard Durbin (a supporter of Lakoff), via a New York Times article, which states:
Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff’s work, that the Republicans have triumphed ”by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,” the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language. (The Framing Wars, New York Times, 17/7/2005)
Žižek then comments that “Insofar as he endorses such a reading of his thesis, Lakoff doesn’t take seriously enough HIS OWN emphasis on the force of metaphoric frame, reducing it to secondary packaging”.
But it’s clear from the next paragraph of the NYT piece that Lakoff doesn’t endorse such readings. (Žižek unfortunately doesn’t include the NYT source reference in his footnotes – his readers would have to find it themselves). Here’s that next paragraph which Žižek presumably overlooked:
The question here is whether Lakoff purposely twists his own academic theories to better suit his partisan audience or whether his followers are simply hearing what they want to hear and ignoring the rest. When I first met Lakoff in Los Angeles, he made it clear, without any prompting from me, that he was exasperated by the dumbing down of his intricate ideas. He had just been the main attraction at a dinner with Hollywood liberals, and he despaired that all they had wanted from him were quick fixes to long-term problems. ”They all just want to know the magic words,” he told me. ”I say: ‘You don’t understand, there aren’t any magic words. It’s about ideas.’ But all everyone wants to know is: ‘What three words can we use? How do we win the next election?’ They don’t get it.” (The Framing Wars, New York Times, 17/7/2005)
“Shallow sentimental rhetorics”
There’s one aspect of Žižek’s take on Lakoff which I half-agree with, sort of. When Lakoff does succumb to pressure to supply short progressive slogans (which isn’t often), the result sometimes seems, subjectively, fairly “weak” and “sentimental”. (However, in certain cases, Lakoff’s framing suggestions have been shown, by polling results, etc, to be successful). Žižek’s explanation for this “weakness” is interesting:
… the liberal formula consists of general feel-good phrases nobody is against [...] – what only happens is that violent-passionate engaging rhetorics is replaced by shallow sentimental rhetorics. What is so strange here is that Lakoff, a refined linguist, specialist in semantics, can miss this obvious weakness of his positive formula [...] it lacks the antagonistic charge of designating a clear enemy, which is the sine qua non of every effective mobilizing political formula. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
A wider, deeper reading of Lakoff’s work would show Žižek that political sloganeering is but a small part of it, reluctantly offered. As for “designating a clear enemy”, Lakoff is clear: the enemy is the giant, massively-funded rightwing messaging machine, acting through the mass media, to saturate our brains with hard-right/conservative frames, narratives, metaphors – repeatedly for years, repeatedly for decades – on almost every issue. The enemy is ignorance of how much this takes place outside of our awareness due to the largely unconscious aspect of conceptual frames.
Don’t Think of an Inadequate, Dismissive, Partial Reading
I often see views attributed to Lakoff which seem very far removed from my own readings of his work. In most cases, I assume it’s due to a quick and/or partial reading of ‘Don’t think of an Elephant‘ (or a few of Lakoff’s online pieces) which, to the restless/careless reader, confirms their preconceived notions about what framing is “all about” (ie “spin”, “quick fixes”, “superficial wordplay”, “playing the conservatives at their own game”, etc). And, naturally, having determined how “shallow” it all is, they don’t read or reflect further.
Lakoff’s conclusion is that, instead of abhorring the passionate metaphoric language on behalf of the couple of rational argumentation and abstract moralizing, the Left should accept the battle at this terrain and learn to offer more seductive frames. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)
* I’m joking. Not only do I not get paid, I pay WordPress so that you don’t have to see their ads.