Framing Won’t Fix What Ails Progressives

Published Friday, April 25, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

George Lakoff is almost right. George Lakoff is coming to campus this evening to give a free lecture, “The Brain and Its Politics.” (Columbia Hall, 7 p.m.) George Lakoff wrote a book that scolds the political left for not “framing” issues well. George Lakoff wants liberals to speak more simply, summarize more succinctly, and repeat names and key points more freely. Did I mention George Lakoff is coming to town?

Five years ago, Lakoff started an Institute, which is what professors at places like University of California Berkeley do when they tire of the adulation and comfort that comes with tenure. The Rockridge Institute was founded to take what Lakoff teaches as a linguist and cognitive theorist, fling it over academia’s ivory wall and test its treads on the ground. In this way, Regular People might benefit from his insights.

Lakoff believes that Republicans, beginning with Ronald Reagan, have had better gurus to teach them the black art of communication. The political left has spent the last three decades scratching their oversized heads, wondering how the other side keeps winning with ideas that aren’t as good. Lakoff wants to help them.

Lakoff believes people are ignorant and they simply need answers better spelled out for them. I believe people are not ignorant. I believe they’re stupid. The cure for ignorance is information. But information only worsens stupidity — it’s like giving salt water to a thirsty man.

Our open society is well equipped to get people information. We never contemplated what would happen when they began getting too much.

Around 1980, in response to the Iran hostage crisis, Americans craved information. They got “Americans Held Hostage,” which became NightLine (Nov 8, 1979). They also got NPR’s “Morning Edition” (1979), CNN (1980), and USA Today (1982). Meanwhile, Microsoft’s MS-DOS (1981) and the personal computer opened the door to an infinite world of information. The Information Age became the Too Much Information Age.

The new era brought new rules of political engagement. Information became a burden. Simplicity had a new sheen. It’s hard to stay open-minded when your brain is always full. The challenge of this new era has not yet been met by progressive leaders.

Liberals always earned their keep by grasping the complexity of issues. Inclusiveness is a core value for liberals. Everyone’s concerns are addressed. Nobody is left out. All are equal.

Conservatives won’t waste their time. They favor quick solutions. Decisive. Expedient. “Get ‘er done.”

Progressives don’t need simpler sentences. They need simpler solutions. It’s not how they talk; it’s how they think. Regular People don’t want to think so much.

They trudge through their days, stupefied by the flood of information that attacks them constantly. They can’t keep up. They want to make it stop. It’s not that their intellectual engines won’t run; it’s that they can’t find a place to park.

You reacted emotionally when you I called people “stupid,” didn’t you? That letter to the editor was halfway written before you finished reading the paragraph. Did that surprise you? Lakoff got that part right. We think with more than just our brains. But “partly right” isn’t helpful on an issue as enveloping as how we understand and communicate about the world we experience. Rockridge Institute: rest in peace.

Rockridge Institute announced Monday that it is ceasing operation the end of this month. Its explanatory farewell (1428 words, if you include the title) blamed its demise on six problems, helpfully listed in formatted bullets, that have infected the progressive movement itself. The circular firing squad allows everyone to participate equally.

Where will progressives turn?

As it happens, a biologist from the University of Oregon who studies neurology will also be speaking today. Professor Nathan Tublitz will be at City Club to give his lecture, “Blondes, Jews, Lawyers, and George W. Bush: the Biology of Humor.” This presentation (noon at the Downtown Athletic Club) is also open to the public.

If you have time to attend only one of these two cogno-politico lectures today, remember what a hassle parking near campus can be.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) teaches Media Management and Economics at the University of Oregon. He is a past president of the City Club of Eugene, where he’s been invited to ask the first question of Tublitz today. Kahle blogs right here. (Duh.)