Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Two Cultures?

Last week I read an opinion piece by George Lakoff The Palin Choice: The Reality of the Political Mind, taking note of what liberals commenting on the Sarah Palin nomination weren't getting about it. On the symbolic level, But not only did I find it hard to believe that anyone with even a modicum of intelligence would vote for Bush, I also found it hard to believe that though a longtime conservative, Sandra Day O'Connor, for instance, would be willing to trash the US Constitution in order to place him in the White House. Because of my (continued) incomprehension, I know that there's a lot I'm not "getting" about the thinking of voters who lack progressive morals and values. Here's the heart of Lakoff's argument:

But the Palin nomination changes the game. The initial response has been to try to keep the focus on external realities, the "issues," and differences on the issues. But the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call "issues," but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind-the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes. The Republicans can't win on realities. Her job is to speak the language of conservatism, activate the conservative view of the world, and use the advantages that conservatives have in dominating political discourse.

Our national political dialogue is fundamentally metaphorical, with family values at the center of our discourse. There is a reason why Obama and Biden spoke so much about the family, the nurturant family, with caring fathers and the family values that Obama put front and center in his Father's day speech: empathy, responsibility and aspiration. Obama's reference in the nomination speech to "The American Family" was hardly accidental, nor were the references to the Obama and Biden families as living and fulfilling the American Dream. Real nurturance requires strength and toughness, which Obama displayed in body language and voice in his responses to McCain. The strength of the Obama campaign has been the seamless marriage of reality and symbolic thought.

The Republican strength has been mostly symbolic. The McCain campaign is well aware of how Reagan and W won-running on character: values, communication, (apparent) authenticity, trust, and identity - not issues and policies. That is how campaigns work, and symbolism is central.

Conservative family values are strict and apply via metaphorical thought to the nation: good vs. evil, authority, the use of force, toughness and discipline, individual (versus social) responsibility, and the tough love. Hence, social programs are immoral because they violate discipline and individual responsibility. Guns and the military show force and discipline. Man is above nature; hence no serious environmentalism. The market is the ultimate financial authority, requiring market discipline. In foreign policy, strength is use of the force. In fundamentalist religion, the Bible is the ultimate authority; hence no gay marriage. Such values are at the heart of radical conservatism. This is how John McCain was raised and how he plans to govern. And it is what he shares with Sarah Palin.

The ramifications of this are extensive--certainly far beyond campaign politics. People usually think of the "Cutlure Wars" as contained to certain topics like sexuality, gender roles, and "diversity" issues (and many people think they were an artifact of the nineties and no longer in effect). But as many scientists and openly political academics can confirm, the Culture Wars impact constantly on pedagogical and on disciplinary knowledge bases. If you thought only the arts were subject to censorship, think again. Many, many researchers who depend on federal grant money have been challenged in what they study and how they frame their studies; those who work directly for government agencies sometimes have their data suppressed or misinterpreted. This is painful stuff to think about, but it's become a fact of life in the US. We can only guess at the long-term damage. But this is the reality of the "Culture War."

Today I read a piece by Ray McGovern, Trickle-Down Preemption: Baghdad on the Mississippi, attending to the St. Paul Pioneer Press's use of the word "preemptive" in describing police repression against groups who have committed no crime, simply on the suspicion that they intend to exercise their right to free speech or report on others' exercise of such rights.

What struck a bell was that this domestic application of the dubious doctrine of "preemption" was totally predictable-indeed, predicted by those courageous enough to speak out before the U.S. "preemptive" attack on Iraq. Ironically, it was FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, living in the St. Paul area, who warned of precisely that in her hard-hitting letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller three weeks before the attack on Iraq. [Text of Feb. 26, 2003 Letter, published March 6, 2003 in NY Times]

Confronting Mueller on a number of key issues (like "What is the FBI's evidence with respect to the claimed connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq?"), Rowley warned of the trickle-down effect of "the administration's new policy of ‘preemptive strikes'":

"I believe it would be prudent to be on guard against the possibility that the looser ‘preemptive strike' rationale being applied to situations abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude on the part of law enforcement officers in this country."

Rowley called Mueller's attention to the abuses of civil rights that had already occurred since 9/11, and pointedly warned "particular vigilance may be required to head off undue pressure (including subtle encouragement) to detain or ‘round up' suspects."

It has been obvious for several years now that in the US the right of due process is going the way of the dodo bird, so in one sense I can imagine people responding, so what? And of course the police (federal as well as local) have long used agent provocateurs (though in the past they probably weren't Blackwater contractors) to give the public the impression that protestors are violent or out of control. But in light of my being reminded by Lakoff's piece of what I don't get about the way so many of those people who voted for George Bush perceive reality, I found his focusing in on Palin's attitude toward protests particularly relevant:

After speaking at a conference at Concordia University in St. Paul on Wednesday, I was more eager to watch the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, deliver her acceptance speech than to risk the tear gas and pepper spray.

The way she dissed community organizers was hard to take. But that would pale in significance, so to speak, compared to the way the governor of Alaska proceeded to ridicule the notion of reading people their rights. I had thought that despite the distance between Alaska and Washington, the reach of the U.S. Constitution and statutes extended that far.

Friends tell me I should not have been surprised. But, really! After the widespread kidnapping, torture, indefinite imprisonment, and our cowardly Congress' empowerment of the president to imprison sine die anyone he might designate an "enemy combatant" -- after all that...well, it seems to me that reading a person his/her rights takes on more, not less, importance.

Not to mention the massive repression then under way right outside the convention hall.

It was, it is, a scary juxtaposition. The following day Col. Ann Wright, other members of Code Pink, and I went to the jail to offer support to the young people who had been brutalized and then released. They had not been read their rights. Many were camped out on the sidewalk, refusing to leave until their friends still inside were also released.

Out of the jail came Jason, a well-built young man of about twenty years, who needed help in walking. We talked to Jason a while, and he showed us the seven, yes seven, taser wounds on his body. One, on his left buttock, had released considerable blood, creating a large stain on the seat of his pants.

I'm thinking that progressives' concern for due process and other constitutionally protected rights falls on deaf ears because that "symbolic" level that Lakoff talks of is operating here, too, to obscure what the rest of us see as the realities. The "symbolic" level, of course, was the strength, also, of Franco and Mussolini, who spoke the language of Family Values even as they wielded brutal, repressive force against dissenters.

Scary stuff, no?


Eleanor said...

I followed your link to the Ray McGovern story and then posted about it on my blog. The local people I have talked to were freaked out or made angry by the Convention security and policing. One guy who works at a restaurant in downtown St. Paul told me, "I have never seen so many police in my life. It was like being in a David Lynch movie."

As far as as I can tell, the Twin Cities did not make a lot of money. Hotels, transportation companies, caterers and security firms did well, but the delegates were not out wondering around, spending money in stores and restaurants. They were busy, and the streets were full of cops. Local people avoided the two downtowns.

It was a bust, and now local leaders are spinning like crazy, trying to tell us the Cities will benefit from all the positive publicity. Sure. Like the McGovern story.

Josh said...

Wish I remembered where I'd read it, but I recall that the RNC advanced the county something like ten million dollars to cover the cost of lawsuits against the cops. They didn't expect it to make money . . . getting to beat people and give 'em police records is enough for them.