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

Ginsburg on the US ConstitutionI 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.