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Monday, 07 April 2008 11:59

Linguist George Lakoff Interprets Obama's "More Perfect Union" Speech -- A Call for A New Politics

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
... what Obama was addressing was not just race or just the nature of politics. The great speeches address who we are as people, what it means to be a human being.
-- George Lakoff

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Every Monday, BuzzFlash runs an interactive column written by the Rockridge Institute on how to better "frame" progressive issues. It is one of the most important postings to participate in each week. (You can get a good introduction into the work of the Rockridge Institute by reading, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision -- A Progressive Handbook.

Why? Because we know most Americans support progressive issues, but if we can't speak to them in terms that clearly and persuasively convey those values, we lose their votes and support to the demagogues on the right.

George Lakoff is a founder, fellow, and inspiration for the Rockridge Institute and a key articulator of the concept of "framing." As we've noted before, it's not just about words. It's about words that convey underlying values and principles. In short, it's about being sincere while understanding the implications of how one says what one says.

BuzzFlash is pleased to interview Lakoff again and to explore with him the "framing" implication of Barack Obama's historic speech on race and "A More Perfect Union."

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BuzzFlash: We'd like to talk with you about your commentary that appeared on Open Left: "Much More Than Race: What Makes A Great Speech Great." It was an analysis of the March 18 Barack Obama landmark speech, "A More Perfect Union." George, we urge people to read your commentary, because we can't possibly encapsulate it in a short interview. It's a brilliant analysis.

You emphasize three concepts that were very important in terms of framing and in terms of what has been Barack Obama's narrative -- empathy, union, and common responsibility. These concepts were threaded throughout his speech, which as your title points out, was about more than race. Can you explain a little bit more about that?

George Lakoff: First let me talk a little bit about what Obama is trying to do in the campaign and how that differs from what Clinton is trying to do in the campaign. Obama understands what Ronald Reagan learned, which is that people vote not on the basis of issues and policy details, but on the basis of something deeper, namely, what are your values? Are you authentic? Do you say what you believe? Can we trust you? Do you communicate with us? And do we identify with you?

It's not just a matter of personality or of superficial issues. You don't know what particular issues are going to come up in the future, so you have to depend on someone's values, and whether they are telling you the truth, and whether you can trust them in office. Obama's been running a campaign on that basis.

The second thing you have to recognize is his understanding of progressive values and American values, which he sees as the same thing. I've written in Moral Politics and elsewhere what progressive values are about. Empathy -- that is, caring about people and acting responsibly on that care, not just for yourself, but for others -- this is something that he understands very well. He was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago for ten years. As an expert on the Constitution and on our family values, he understands very well that the country is fundamentally about caring for one another. The day after his speech, he was interviewed on CNN, and Anderson Cooper asked him what patriotism was. He said patriotism begins with caring for one another.

In his speech he talks about what kind of progress we want to make -- we want to become more free, more equal, and then more caring and more prosperous. So he understands empathy, not just as a progressive ideal, but as a fundamental American ideal.

And union has to do with the idea that we're in this together. Things can't get done unless the country agrees on this. That goes along with a further thing that Obama has mentioned in his speeches, and that I've written about -- what I call biconceptualism. It's the idea that we all have these conservative and progressive modes of thought about different issues. If you're a progressive, you can find lots of people who call themselves conservatives, but who agree with you on lots of things. There are people who call themselves conservatives, but who love the land as much as any environmentalist, who are honest business people who want to live in progressive communities with people who care for each other and so on. Progressives share a number of common values with people who call themselves conservatives. Obama, who's campaigned throughout Illinois and won a lot of votes in Southern Illinois, which is basically the South, has understood that very well. What he calls bipartisanship is not adopting conservative views, but finding where people who consider themselves conservatives share with him and other progressives these fundamental American values. When he talks about union, that's the kind of thing he means.

What he calls bipartisanship is not moving to the right, but finding where people who consider themselves conservatives share these fundamental American values. When he talks about union, that's the kind of thing he means.

That, of course, requires common responsibility. Individual responsibility is one of the hallmarks of conservative thought. In conservative religion, you yourself are responsible for whether you get into heaven. Or with fiscal conservatives, you are the market. You are responsible for whether you are prosperous or not in the market. It's your individual discipline and market discipline. As John McCain has just said, if you were foolish enough to sign one of those balloon mortgages, you deserve to lose your house. It's individual responsibility.

Obama doesn't go along with that. He says we have a common responsibility.

Those themes are there, and they are there because of his understanding of what this country is about. He has repeatedly said these themes in other speeches and in various debates. But people have mainly picked up on the superficial issues. I call them superficial because they don't get at the deeper values. The superficial issues are: what should the health care plan look like; should it be mandated or not mandated; when should we get out of Iraq -- is it in sixteen months or longer? How many units should come out a month? Those are the superficial issues. But these are the deep ones.

BuzzFlash: I do want to say that it's important for our readers to remember that you don't want people to think that language, narrative and metaphor can move history or move people without substance. When we talked previously, we talked about how the right-wing had developed their narratives over the years. And you point out the foundation they built to sustain their narrative -- think tanks, financial investment in candidates, scholarship that they paid for. This was not just something that was to be a surface narrative, but it was grounded on a foundation.

Sometimes people unfairly say, well, Lakoff just says it's the narrative that matters -- whether one is nurturing on the Democratic side, or paternalistic on the Republican side. But you are very careful to point out that it goes much deeper than that. You can't have the language without the foundation.

With that in mind, I wanted to ask you about a specific situation. I was reading that Hillary Clinton's speeches are written at two or three grade levels below Obama's in terms of the language. She's also speaking to specific issues, rather than about overriding metaphor or vision. Generally her campaign is not one grounded in vision. It's grounded in promises of individual programs and the ability she claims to deliver those programs.

She speaks of specific programs and at grade levels two or three below that of Barack Obama's speeches. Hillary Clinton is specific and concrete and simple, compared to Barack Obama's speech about unity and a more perfect union. Just react to that.

George Lakoff: First of all, Barack Obama doesn't say things the same way in his economic speeches. But there is an issue here that's important. The question is: What is the particular program symbolic of? Is it an isolated program, or is it taken as symbolic of somebody sharing and acting out sharing? I think that's what Hillary is trying to achieve in those remarks. It's not just that we're going to set up this program or that program. I think when she's effective -- that is, when people understand her -- they're understanding her as saying I care about you, and therefore this is what we're going to do and how we're going to try to act.

BuzzFlash: That is what Bill Clinton achieved, when he said, "I feel your pain."

George Lakoff: Exactly. But Bill Clinton did it with his body and his voice. You see Bill Clinton, and you say: Oh, this guy cares about me. Hillary isn't the same way. You see her, and you don't necessarily have that view. She's trying to achieve the same thing without the voice and the body language, and she's having a harder time doing it. But when she's effective, that's what she's effective at.

The thing about talking a couple of degree levels down is to say, I'm one of you. But that doesn't necessarily fly. I was raised with working people, and they're not dumb. They may talk at a certain grade level, but they sure ain't dumb. People are people, and they're smart in the way they're smart. They can react to what Obama speaks very, very well. Obama is doing very well across the country in all kinds of places. I think talking down to people is not a good strategy. It may work in some cases. But the real question, when you're talking to working people, is relating to how they view themselves.

BuzzFlash: In a way, Clinton in Pennsylvania has focused on a populist approach. It's been, I'm going to fix this for the working person. I'm going to start this specific program. You want meat and potatoes? I'm going to give you meat and potatoes.

Obama has rolled up his sleeves a little bit, but he's still keeping to a very focused narrative. I heard a pundit on a radio program saying Democrats often have to pick between a warrior and a priest. The pundit cast Hillary Clinton as the warrior and Barack Obama as the priest.

Hillary is about the meat and potatoes. They have two very different approaches. Barack Obama has consistently stayed with his narrative. But some people say Barack Obama is too Adlai Stevenson-like.

George Lakoff: It's funny you should say that, since Adlai Stephenson was very concerned with the traditional Democratic issues, the meat and potatoes, although like Obama he was a very elegant speaker.

Stevenson wasn't cool, and I think Barack Obama is cool. Barack connects, where Stevenson was aloof. Beyond that, what's interesting about Obama is that he essentially gets his points across with stories. He'll tell stories about a particular family, or a particular worker who has lost their job because of his closing of a plant that was sent abroad because of NAFTA. Or he tells a story about somebody who has lost their home, and then says what ought to be done about that.

What's important about that is that when you tell a story, it has a greater impact. The story brings up narratives. It puts the person in the audience into the story. It brings up emotions that you feel as parts of the story. It allows you to say what ought to be done. What happens is that Hillary comes across as the policy wonk who's going to give you the policy. Obama comes across as the guy who understands the problem and says in general what ought to be done about it.

BuzzFlash: When you watch a good speech, it's like a drama. It has a certain arc to it. As an analyst you're thinking, how is it going? How is it fitting within the arc of the speech, within the structure of a great speech? Barack Obama closed with a very effective anecdote about a young white woman, Ashley, and an older black man. It was one of those moments when you would say he closed the deal.

George Lakoff: Yes.

BuzzFlash: For a speech this powerful, if you don't end it just right, you could lose the whole thing. But he closed the deal. Why was that anecdote so powerful?

George Lakoff: It's powerful because it's all about empathy and people caring for each other. He starts with the assumption that this campaign is about race and about division, when he's about unity. First, he stresses that this girl was so empathetic towards her mother, who had cancer and had lost her job and health care, that the girl will only eat bread and mustard for a year to save her mother money on food. So you have enormous empathy for this girl. Then she chooses to go out and help others in need by organizing. And not just in her own community, but in an African-American neighborhood. So you have another reaction to her empathy toward others. She tells her story, and other people tell theirs. Then you have the African-American gentleman who says I'm here because of Ashley.

BuzzFlash: It's interesting that there was this brouhaha around the Nevada caucus when Barack Obama mentioned that Reagan had been able to redirect the country. Destructively, in my view -- but what Obama was saying was that you've got to hand it to the people around Reagan and to him. They delivered a vision, a metaphor -- "It's morning in America."

George Lakoff: They did much more than that, as I explain in Thinking Points. Obama knows the history about Reagan very, very well. The DLC folks and Hillary's folks also know the Reagan story but interpret it differently. They interpret it that Reagan was personality rather than issue, when he should have been using issue. Obama understands that Reagan convinced people to trust him, and he united the country that way. They actually shouldn't have trusted him, which is a different story. But the people running his campaign understood that people didn't particularly like his policies, but they knew where he was coming from. Now that is a very important difference. Obama is saying, hey, it's not merely that you can trust me. I'm being open about all this stuff. Throw everything you want at me, and I'll tell you the same answers because they're true.

BuzzFlash: Getting back to that one point, Reagan was an absolute master of using the personal anecdote that drew people in emotionally. I remember his speeches. He would say: I just received this letter from an eleven-year-old, Kimmy So-and-so in Dixon, Illinois, and I wanted to read it to you. People relate to those stories.

George Lakoff: The stories are not arbitrary. The people writing his speeches understood how those things worked. They worked by bringing up major themes that are both major American themes but also that evoked, in Reagan's case, conservative themes. Obama is also a master of those narratives. Obama's evoke progressive themes.

BuzzFlash: At the beginning of your commentary on Open Left, you talk about the context of the speech -- the pressures he was facing, where the campaign was at that time, and so forth. We know that Obama is a writer, unusual for a politician. Hillary Clinton had her last two books, including her memoirs, ghost-written. She keeps saying he's nothing but words, but he actually writes many of his own words, and has written two books without a ghostwriter. He's very much seen in his words, probably written in conjunction with his speech writer, but I would guess he drafted them.

George Lakoff: I know his speech writer, who is a very talented guy. But this speech was not done by his speech writer.

BuzzFlash: What does this say about his leadership? Given the pressure of the moment, which was enormous -- what does this say about his leadership, that he came through that and delivered this speech in an unflappable Presidential style? He delivered it with confidence and clearly did not go the route people expected, which was to throw his minister under the bus. He had a very nuanced approach.

George Lakoff: It says something quite remarkable. It says first he can deal with very difficult situations and be unflappable. Second, he can go to the most fundamental issues behind the difficulties to understand that the difficulties are not just superficial things, and they're not just things to get out of the way for now. When there's a difficulty that the country is concerned about -- that is something fundamental -- you have to address not just the immediate difficulty head on, but you have to ask why this is there, and why it is there at a deeper level. Then you address the deeper questions.

BuzzFlash: It's agreed that this was a historic speech. Hillary Clinton says words are not important. You would agree, I think, that words may be moving, but they don't necessarily change things unless they're followed by deeds in one way or another.

George Lakoff: That's right.

BuzzFlash: Let me just digress a second. In the radical, individual responsibility wing of the Republican Party, best represented by Grover Norquist, they say let's reduce the government so much that we can then drown it in the bathtub. In other words, we are not a community, we do not have common responsibility, we are solely responsible for ourselves as individuals. America is a country of gated individual communities, and we're only responsible for our individual gated community.

Obama, in this address, said exactly the opposite. Ostensibly it was about race, but as you point out, it really was about the opposite of the Grover Norquist approach. It was about the union, and common responsibility as a nation, that we're one community.

But here's my question. If we look back over time, and we look at the high points of varous presidencies, why are speeches like the Gettysburg Address so important? Why are speeches of that nature, and Kennedy's First Inaugural Address, and the speech that Obama gave, so important in terms of the way we view ourselves as a nation?

George Lakoff: They're very deep and important for many reasons. The Gettysburg Address was, of course, about the Civil War, which had everything to do with slavery. It dealt with whether people should be able to enslave other people. Or are people equal? That is a fundamental question about what it means to be a human being. It's not just about an issue. It's about what human beings are.

When you talk about communities and countries, you're also talking, at the same level, about what human beings are. Conservatives say human beings are people who are primarily concerned with self-interest, and that's what they should be concerned with -- self-interest and individual responsibility. They shouldn't be paying for anybody else's health care or education or anything else like that. As a result, government is something that should be absolutely minimal. It's not there for your overall protection and empowerment -- it's not there to offer protection against disease or natural disasters or bad products or companies who sell you fallacious mortgages and so on. It's not about that, they say, because it's all about individual responsibility. And their communities of people are not about common responsibility.

But people don't live by themselves. They live in communities. So the understanding of community is about the understanding of the individual.

We now know, from the latest research about neurons, that we are hard-wired for empathy. We're hard-wired for cooperation. That is something about what we are as people -- what it means to be a human being. And what Obama was addressing was not just race or just the nature of politics. The great speeches address who we are as people, what it means to be a human being.

BuzzFlash: Thank you so much for your time, George. And could you tell our readers about your upcoming book so they can watch out for it?

George Lakoff: It is The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics With An 18th Century Brain. It will be published June 2, 2008 by Viking. I hope you will all enjoy it.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Resources

Much More Than Race: What Makes a Great Speech Great (George Lakoff)

A More Perfect Union (Barack Obama, YouTube)

Transcript of Obama's speech on race - Barack Obama News- msnbc.com

Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision -- A Progressive Handbook (George Lakoff)

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

Read 1339 times Last modified on Wednesday, 09 April 2008 14:11