Conservative Lies About Human Nature

Since World War II, America’s elite policy makers have arranged and re-arranged our political and economic relationships around an empirically false – radically false – understanding of human being and behavior.

Paradoxically, the false portrait of humankind feeds both an unwholesome worship of dog-eat-dog individualism and a sense of powerless in the face of godlike market forces that must be obeyed no matter the cost in lives, global environmental catastrophe or gross economic injustice.

Its roots lie in the gloomy Hobbesian picture of unredeemable, brutish humanity and in the Enlightenment’s faith in universal reason. Twentieth Century conservative thinkers, looking to rationalize authoritarianism and excuse the inevitable social destruction caused by unrestrained greed, simply invented new concepts of human nature that made their policy goals seem essential.

It’s just one of many ironies that this authoritarian view was swallowed whole hog by so-called libertarians. It should be noted that Robert Nozick, author of the seminal libertarian book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, later spit out the worm he’d swallowed and repudiated his earlier work.)

The ugly, empirically false portrait is this: a human is a cold and isolated individual who uses unemotional reason to reach pre-determined ends. This is the widely discredited but still popular “rational actor” model. And there’s another color in the picture, which some are now calling the “rat choice” model. This tells us those pre-determined ends are always selfish or self-interested.

We are, these conservatives say, rats.

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Obama Returns to His Moral Vision: Democrats Read Carefully

Last week, on April 13, 2011, President Obama gave all Democrats and all progressives a remarkable gift.  Most of them barely noticed. They looked at the President’s speech as if it were only about budgetary details. But the speech went well beyond the budget. It went to the heart of progressive thought and the nature of American democracy, and it gave all progressives a model of how to think and talk about every issue.

It was a landmark speech. It should be watched and read carefully and repeatedly by every progressive who cares about our country —whether Democratic office-holder, staffer, writer, or campaign worker — and every progressive blogger, activist and concerned citizen. The speech is a work of art.

The policy topic happened to be the budget, but he called it “The Country We Believe In” for a reason. The real topic was how the progressive moral system defines the democratic ideals America was founded on, and how those ideals apply to specific issues.  Obama’s moral vision, which he applied to the budget, is more general: it applies to every issue. And it can be applied everywhere by everyone who shares that moral vision of American democracy.

Discussion in the media has centered on economics — on the President’s budget policy compared with the Republican budget put forth by Paul Ryan. But, as Robert Reich immediately pointed out, “Ten or twelve-year budgets are baloney. It’s hard enough to forecast budgets a year or two into the future.” The real economic issues are economic recovery and the distribution of wealth.  As I have observed, the Republican focus on the deficit is really a strategy for weakening government and turning the country conservative in every respect. The real issue is existential: what is America at heart and what is America to be.

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Disaster Messaging

Democrats are constantly resorting to disaster messaging. Here’s a description the typical situation.

• The Republicans outmessage the Democrats. The Democrats, having no effective response, face disaster: They lose politically, either in electoral support or failure on crucial legislation.
• The Democrats then take polls and do focus groups. The pollsters discover that extremist Republicans control the most common (“mainstream”) way of thinking and talking about the given issue.
• The pollsters recommend that Democrats move to the right: adopt conservative Republican language and a less extreme version of conservative policy, along with weakened versions of some Democratic ideas.
• The Democrats believe that, if they follow this advice, they can gain enough independent and Republican support to pass legislation that, at least, will be some improvement on the extreme Republican position.
• Otherwise, the pollsters warn, Democrats will lose popular support — and elections — to the Republicans, because “mainstream” thought and language resides with the Republicans.
• Believing the pollsters, the Democrats change their policy and their messaging, and move to the right.
• The Republicans demand even more and refuse to support the Democrats.

We have seen this on issues like health care, immigration, global warming, finance reform, and so on. We are seeing it again on the Death Gusher in the Gulf. It happens even with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

Why? Is there anything the Democrats can do about it? First, it has to be understood. It doesn’t just happen.

The Difference Between Framing and Messaging

Framing is the most commonplace thing we do with thought and language. Frames are the cognitive structures we think with. They are physical, embodied in neural circuitry. Frames come in systems. Their circuitry is strengthened and often made permanent through use: the more the circuits are used, the stronger they get. Effective frames are not isolated. They build on, and extend, other frames already established.

All words are defined in terms of conceptual frames. When the words are heard, the frames are strengthened — not just the immediate frames, but the whole system.

Fit matters. The brain is a “best-fit” system. The better a new frame “fits” existing frames, the more effective it will be; that is, the more people will think, and make decisions, using that frame.

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Character Versus Brand: A Lesson in Framing

Advertising and marketing gurus have so successfully established the importance of “brand” that we in the political sphere often lose sight of the real core of political argument: character.

The distinction is not trivial. Brand is about a list of facts or attributes. It’s character people use in sizing up strangers, checking in on friends, weighing the merits of a politician. Continue reading “Character Versus Brand: A Lesson in Framing”

“Sixteen Tons”: A National Anthem?

Centuries of cultural inheritance teach us that debt puts us at moral and material disadvantage. As Margaret Atwood points out in her book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, there are ancient reasons that Jesus was called the “Redeemer.” He came to pay our debts. Continue reading ““Sixteen Tons”: A National Anthem?”

Death Before Disorder: Health Care and “The Reader”

In the movie, “The Reader,” Hannah Schmitz is on trial for her Nazi-era war crimes as an SS officer and prison guard, including the murder of 300 Jewish prisoners kept locked in a burning church. Why, she’s asked, didn’t you let them out? Her answer, a terrifying one, is that she couldn’t. The prisoners might escape. “There would be chaos,” she said. Continue reading “Death Before Disorder: Health Care and “The Reader””

Republicans: “Take Away the Car Keys”

Conservative ideologues looking to punish workers and the American middle class for auto industry failures are driven by an authoritarian worldview George Lakoff calls the strict parent model. Continue reading “Republicans: “Take Away the Car Keys””

Don’t think of a sick child

George W. Bush doesn’t want you to think of a sick child. Not Graeme Frost. Not Gemma Frost. Not Bethany Wilkerson. Not any of the real children affected.

He wants you straining your eyes on the fine print of policies, puzzling over the nuances of coverage — whether you can afford premiums for basic, catastrophic, comprehensive or limited health insurance. Last week on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” even Tucker Carlson kind of got it right, saying, “No one child is a metaphor — he’s a kid!” That’s the point. They’re all kids, each one, one by one. The question is, do you care? Continue reading “Don’t think of a sick child”

George Lakoff’s Freedom Frame

George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist whose theories have deepened our understanding of the brain and how we think, act, talk and feel. He works in the domain of mirror neurons and cognitive systems, which may be the stuff beneath our poetry but not necessarily the stuff of poetry. Still, readers who follow him in his new meditation on the fate of freedom in America might find themselves calling up their own images from our historic struggle for freedom: Continue reading “George Lakoff’s Freedom Frame”