Saturday, March 24, 2007

Moral Politics

I bought this book by UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff after a long study of the politics rack at Barnes & Noble. I was looking for something to help me solve a problem I'm having in reconciling my politics and my overall belief system. Every election cycle, I feel torn between conflicting beliefs -- on the one hand, I believe that government CAN and SHOULD be a force for good in society by addressing problems that affect Americans and people in general unequally -- including things like health care, poverty, and racial inequality. Not that the government always IS a force for good, but it at least has the potential to do the right thing by people in general, and that it should try to address some of the major problems in our society. I believe that makes me somewhat of a liberal. I also believe in the authority of the Bible and that it is a guide to everyday decision-making, that the Bible teaches that life begins at conception, and that abortion is a threat to the moral fabric of the country. This book helped to make clearer some of the reasons why I am so torn, but it didn't help resolve the tension I feel between the conflicting moral choices in politics. The book looks at political discourse as a set of conflicting metaphors and attempts for about two-thirds of the book to represent those metaphors in an unbiased way. However, toward the end, the author drops the pretense of being merely descriptive and promotes his own views, the views of a "committed liberal." His thesis is basically that the country is split into conservative and liberal camps based on metaphorical understandings of the government as either upholding "Strict Father" morality or "Nurturant Parent" morality. He attempts to explain how conservatives can believe in both pro-life and pro-death penalty positions, while liberals support both abortion and Head Start. He argues that the two sides arrive at their positions based on their understanding of the ideal family, which support either "Moral Strength" or "Nurturance" as their overriding value. I have to simplify his argument here, but it's really not all that complex of an argument, and it appears to be based primarily on a cognitive/linguistic approach looking at the way people talk about morality. Toward the end of the book, Professor Lakoff takes on Dr. James Dobson directly, arguing that his moderate advice on parenting is not accurate, and that his "Strict Parent" morality does not necessarily result in "better" children. But he seems to have wandered here into a classic blunder, using empirical results to make a metaphorical point. Regardless of whether Dr. Dobson's prescriptions for child-rearing work, they still make a potent metaphor for millions of people who want to believe that the government, Hollywood, or other forces in society are "anti-family." And the fact is, liberals ally themselves with people who work against the traditional family as a "nominal mode" in our society. I probably lack the theoretical backing in political philosophy to make the best argument against this book, but I think it really oversimplifies the conservative point of view, while creating a coherent set of metaphors for the liberal view to gravitate around. His caricatures of Christian faith in particular are pretty insulting to a thinking Christian who holds both liberal and conservative views. So, I'm still searching for that guide for Christian liberals who want a coherent ideology. I hope someday I find it. Maybe I'll have to write my own.
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