Maybe liberals need a linguist’s help to hide what they’re saying, not to promote it

I found the following paragraph, culled from the San Francisco Chronicle, fascinating (emphasis mine):

From top congressional leaders to online activists, liberals have sought the wisdom of UC Berkeley linguistics Professor George Lakoff for years. They ask him to teach them to do something that conservatives traditionally have done better — frame complex policy into simple, digestible morsels that voters will swallow.

(The rest of the article is about Lakoff’s own contribution to the California ballot, which is interesting, but does not interest me right now.)

There are two thoughts underlying that emphasized language.  The first is that voters can only understand the most simple ideas; and the second is that Machiavellian conservatives (probably because they are themselves simple-minded morons) have figured out how to tap into that vast, stupid national psyche.  The one thing that doesn’t seem to occur to the Chron writer, or to the Democrats themselves, is that conservative ideas might succeed because there is an elegant purity to them, that all can easily grasp without sophisticated salesmanship and translation.

Not all good things need to be complex, at least in their ultimate expression.  The Ten Commandments (although there are actually more than the core ten) are a lovely example of moral clarity in few words.  The ideas are remarkably sophisticated, and were groundbreaking when Moses first announced them in a pagan world, but they are simply written and require little in the way of clarification to appreciate them:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

Do not have any other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,

but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

For six days you shall labour and do all your work.

But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

It’s certainly true that one can refine on those core principles.  Murder can be situational.  Is it murder when one is engaged in war?  Is it murder when one is acting in self-defense?  Is it murder when one is in the grip of a delusion?  Stealing also might yield to situations:  Is it stealing if you’ve been imprisoned by the Nazis and are able to “obtain” food from one of those same Nazis?  While the nuances are pretty much endless, the core principles remain easy to follow.

The same is true for a lot of conservative core principles.  “The more power that vests in government, the less power there is for individuals.”  Again, you can debate situations in which it is appropriate to cede power to the government, but the underlying truism is easily expressed and helps guide conservative thinking without any fancy linguistic tricks.  “Government is a poor manager.”  Well, our own life experience shows us that.  We acknowledge that there are some things that government must manage (the military, national transportation, etc.), so the application of that principle is open to debate, but the principle itself is straightforward, and easy for the man on the street to understand.

One thing life in law has taught me is that the best arguments are invariably the ones that can be expressed in the simplest terms.  If I have to mass hundreds of little factual points and conclusions, and delicately weave them into some airy, gossamer fabric, I’m going to lose.  I’m adept at doing that, since I have a flexible mind and good writing skills, but even the best lawyer is going to have a hard time forcing a judge to bet on that tangled intellectual fabric.  If my argument, however, is a short, sweet, easy-to-understand amalgam of fact and law, I’ve won.

And here’s something for you to think about:  it’s no coincidence that the best writers on the Supreme Court are conservatives (Roberts and Scalia), while the worst writers are, and have been, liberals (Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter).  Liberals spend an inordinate amount of time trying to pretend that disparate ideas, false logic, unworkable syllogisms, bad law, and twisted facts can come together in a smooth, constitutionally whole fabric.

The conservative justices, however, since they begin each decision with the Constitution (itself a simply written document) as their guide, are easily able to bring facts and law together under that already logical umbrella.  They therefore repeatedly publish decisions that are well-written, comprehensible, and easy to sell to ordinary Americans, without translation through the Berkeley linguistic filter.

In other words, the problem doesn’t lie with liberal language, it lies with liberal ideas.  And if you don’t believe me look at Obama.  Liberals consider him to be the oratorical Second Coming of John F. Kennedy.  He has promoted his health care plan in 35 speeches, but has only succeeded in hardening voters’ dislike of government run health care.  It’s not how he says it, it’s what he says.

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    It’s the flowery language that mutes the message. You can’t throw perfume on a body that hasn’t been washed and think you’re gonna smell better. You stink twice as much.
    I liked the definition I found online for flowery language.
    While people on both sides of the US-Mexico border expected to hear President Barack Obama plan for dealing with problems involving drug smuggling, violence, crime, and illegal aliens, they were treated only to the usual flowery language that is the hallmark of an Obama speech,” wrote columnist Jim Kouri in the Law Enforcement Examiner.

  • phillips1938

    Lakoff has been saying this for more than ten years and the candidates who listen to him usually lose.  You have nailed the problem.  The Democrats have the problem of putting lipstick on a pigs lips.

  • David Foster

    Don’t know how much intellectual history Lakoff knows, but “framing” isn’t just about presentation, it’s also about clear thinking.

    Occam’s Razor suggests that when there are many possible explanations for a set of phenomena, a good rule of thumb is to go with the simplest one.

    In astronomy, the sun-goes-around-the-earth model needed continous improvement (the “epicycles”) to maintain its ability to accurately predict the observed data. Introduction of the earth-goes-around-the-sun alternative eliminated the epicycles and made everything much simpler…basically, a reframing.

  • Gringo

    Granted,  many Democrats have problems with being interlekshuls trying to make themselves understood to the great unwashed, like  John Kerry, who  would ad lib a speech – which he didn’t write- into polysyllabic incoherence.
    Like my Process Design professor said: brief, concise, and to the point.  Another suggestion I heard, not from that class, was: try to explain it to an eight year old.
    If you can’t simply it, if you cannot distill it, then perhaps you don’t have anything worth saying. Perhaps you haven’t spend enough time on your great concept if you cannot express it in clear terms. Contrary to what many of  interlekshuls on the other side of the aisle  think, that simple doesn’t mean simplistic. That they cannot state their ideas in clear concise terms may mean they don’t really have anything worth saying.
    Or rather that, as many have already pointed out, even when expressed in plain language, their ideas stink. Many have gotten the message, and don’t  like such leftist ideas as  “spend and tax and spend,” “bureaucrats are better than entrepreneurs,”  “dead white European males are the root of all evil as are their descendants,” etc.

  • nc

    I contend that one of the big reasons Obama and other Democrats have won in recent years is that they have hijacked conservative language and are actually lying about what they really stand for and will do once elected. Conservatives need to be bold and call them out on it as often as possible. Unfortunately, you will be treated like the worst person on earth by the media and the lying Dems (remember Joe Wilson?), but we have to stand up for truth.

  • Ymarsakar

    Dems are better at lying. Thus they can live mutually exclusive lives and not show the inconsistencies as much. They want it to be seamless, however, so they talk trash about the Republicans.

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  • Scott in SF

    Lakoff’s theory is very simple: Liberals believe that good government is a nurturing mother, Conservatives believe that good government is a strong authoritarian father.
    The problem is that Lakoff is so in his own box he doesn’t have a clue what conservatives think.  What he has described is the Liberal view plain and simple.  Liberals think that good government is a loving mom, bad government is mean old dad.
    Conservatives don’t fit into his boxes at all.

  • Mike Devx

    Scott in SF says in #9,
    Liberals believe that good government is a nurturing mother, Conservatives believe that good government is a strong authoritarian father.

    There are some conservatives who, like one type of “strong authoritarian father’ would lay down thousands upon thousands of rules and enforce them, trapping you in a web as lacking in freedom as any far-left progressive socialist die-hard.

    I prefer the “authoritarian” conservative that lays down a few simple rules for a prosperous and happy household – let’s call those simple rules The Family Constitution – and I should say the family is not guaranteed happy, but he’ll let them engage in the pursuit of happiness to their hearts’ content.  He gets out of the way, then, and offers support.

    Sometimes when observing their behavior, he’ll say, “What you’re doing is not a good idea, it’s gonna hurt”, and the vast majority of the time he’s right.  If you come back to him and say, “OK, that did hurt, so why didn’t you stop me?”, he’ll just respond, “Because I want you to be responsible for yourself.  If someone always catches you when you fall, it never hurts, and you’ll never learn, and you’ll start demanding I always be there.  Better to suffer a few bruises and learn than to be helpless and totally dependent, don’t you think?”

    Then again, there may come an evening when the entire rest of the family downs whiskey sours like there’s no tomorrow, for hours, and then staggering, weaving, and stumbling into the walls,  grab the keys to the car and head for the door.  You have to stop them in such dire circumstances, don’t you?   And what with us staring down the looming Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security bankruptcy crisis, and Obama care about to be added as a fourth nail in the coffin that may be worse in effect than the first three combined, are we now at one of those dire circumstances?

    But my main point is that conservatives may match the analogy to a “strong authoritarian father”, but only if you allow for many types, and most definitely include the one who believes in liberty and freedom and respect for each member of his family as individuals.  It’s the “Tea Party” Dad.

  • Charles Martel

    I think there’s a useful distinction to be made between “authoritarian” and “authoritative.” The former is, indeed, the bogeyman that leftists pretend to shudder at even though so many of them adore the type: Lenin, Mao, Castro, Rahm, etc. The latter is the loving, although sometimes stern, father Mike describes above, who lays down some clear and simple rules, then leaves it to people to understand the consequences for not observing them.

  • Ymarsakar

    It is as Charles said. The Left prefers authoritarian styles where a small elite rules over the great many, with no consideration at all for social harmony, just Utopia. The oligarchy’s Utopia. As in Aztec and Baal land, if that means sacrificing some human children, that’s good enough for them.
    However leadership just means that there is present a power structure, a hierarchy, that can withstand changes and prevent a power vacuum. The Left has always needed to destroy the functioning status quo for their revolutions, however. So no matter how well the status quo was working, they will say that it isn’t working. Obviously if it isn’t working, it is because the Left sabotaged the authorities.

  • Bill Smith

    Whoa, Mike! #10
    I almost always agree with you, but methinks you maybe spent too much time breathing the air in Berkeley recently? It is the libs who are authoritarian. Oh, they like to see themselves as the soft, loving mother, but who wants to throw you in JAIL if you don’t buy their one size fits all health insurance? Who ARRESTS people for silently praying at a gay event? Who — as an organized, uniformed group — beats up a Black man for selling Conservative literature at a political event?

  • Bill Smith

    No time to organize, so just some — I hope on-point thoughts.
    Government is, indeed, a poor manager when it manages things it has no business managing. (And, if you elect the wrong people, it can suck at managing things it should be managing, but that’s a separate issue.)

    What they’re really asking Lakoff is what Rush says they ask every day: “How can we fool ’em today?”

    There is no right way to do the wrong thing. But that won’t stop them trying.

    VT farmer coming late to a political speech asks his friend, “What’s he talking about?”

    Friend: “He don’t say.”

  • Mike Devx

    Bill #14:
    Yeah, I think I agree with you, but I haven’t been near Berkeley!  Nor, in Texas here, have I been anywhere near Austin in years!
    My definition in my post of “authoritarian father” was probably not at ALL authoritarian:
    > I prefer the “authoritarian” conservative that lays down a few simple rules for a prosperous and happy household – let’s call those simple rules The Family Constitution – and I should say the family is not guaranteed happy, but he’ll let them engage in the pursuit of happiness to their hearts’ content.  He gets out of the way, then, and offers support.