Don’t Think of an Elephant

If you cringed hearing a relative over turkey blurt out a typical red-state missive – you need to read this book.

Don’t Think of an Elephant is one of those books that changes your mind – not your opinions necessarily but your mindset. After the election many of us on the Kerry side were wondering what the hell the other half of the voters knew that we didn’t. Is there such a thing as tax relief? WHat about partial-birth abortion? Are we the crazy ones?

This review is going to be messy. Either way – please please please pick this book up in the bookstore and take a gander. Here’s the first chapter online. I can’t write a cogent review because there is just so much to think about and comment on.

George Lakoff who specializes in cognitive linguistics lays it all out in stunning detail. Earlier in the week I’d posted the crux of Lakoff’s argument:

People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values.

Lakoff takes two oppposing models of parenting and sees how they echo across generations of politics. He has ‘strict-father’ and ‘nurturant-parent’ poles. ‘Strict-father’ believes that God rewareds the good people with power – therefore the powerful people are good. Any threat to the command-and-control nature of this model is immediately smacked down. God wants America in power. We are the chosen people – because we have the most money/power. Social programs gives resources to those that don’t deserve them – money to those that haven’t worked for it – and this leads to a breakdown in discipline:

The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. Without such punishment, the world will go to hell. There will be no morality.

Very Old Testament isn’t it?

Whereas Lakoff proceeds that the progressive point of view if:

The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. It means two things: empathy and responsibility. Since you cannot take care of someone else if you are not taking care of yourself, you have to take care of yourself enough to be able to take care of the child. All this is not easy. Anyone who has ever raised a child knows that this is hard. You have to be strong. You have to work hard at it. You have to be very competent. You have to know a lot. In addition, all sorts of other values immediately follow from empathy and responsibility. Think about it.

He continues that we all have both models – and all shades in between – inside us. Some mothers are ‘strict-father’ at work but come home to a nurturing household, some fathers are nurturing to their fellow employees but strict with their children. It is when these models are applied to politics (and economics) that things go awry).

Lakoff also touches on the use of Orweillian language to veil legislation: like in the destructive No Child Left Behind, Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives. Though he makes fascinating point:

Orweillian language points to weakness… a guide to where they are vulnerable.

Another great point that I remember reading somewhere on Alternet a year ago is how the right-wing groups and foundations have poured their money into think tanks and professorships – they’ve built an entire infrastructure in reaction to Goldwater’s loss many years ago. They have created an entire mediasphere that easily plugs into the mainstream and cable news networks to present talking heads perfectly synchrnonized and on-message. The left is too busy actually feeding the poor and the homeless to build this kind of foundation. ‘The right is privatizing the left.’ As social programs get slashed the left figures they can’t just sit there and watch people suffer so they pick up the slack as the right ‘starves the beast: The right creates deficits to shrink social programs – after all, shouldn’t they be the first thing to go when we are in a deficit?

At the end of the right’s world view is a caste system where the underclass of poor – undeserving simply because they are not good people – are there to serve the rich and deserving. I have had my moments of being angry at seeing social programs wasted on people who seem hellbent on destroying their lives and adding to the ‘surplus population.’ But I’ve had friends that grew up on welfare and they have no idea how their families would have survived.

And consider this:

Why should we give welfare to companies and industries that tank? Because thousands of people rely on them for jobs and prosperity. Why isn’t an individual allowed that same hope? That same comfort.

I think it is absolutely appalling that anyone in this country is hungry right now. I think it is disgusting that we subsidize farmers not to grow crops when we have children starving to death in the inner cities. I think it is stupid to treat drugs problems as crime instead of a medical problem. I think it is stupid to think that abstinence-only education works when time and time again study after study as shown it doesn’t. I think it is crazy to believe that America is God’s favorite country. That America is somehow the chosen, lone superpowr and can therefore stomp where it wants and garrison the globe to protect and extend it’s economic interests.

I keep opening the book back up and re-reading passages.

The right has won the race to frame the debate. It is going to take more than soup kitchens and AIDS rides to transform the debate.

Go read this book. It’s not even 120 pages.

Just re-read this disjointed review. It all comes down to Fear or Hope. How do you want to motivate yourself and the world around you?

2 thoughts on “Don’t Think of an Elephant

  1. kelly

    It’s nice to see this article about Lakoff’s Don’t think of an elephant here. I am writing something on conceptual metaphor and political debate. And I am longing for the later chapter “Metaphor that kill” and “Betrayal of trust:Beyong liying”, so if it is convenient for you please present more stuff of his book.

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