The Weaponized Nonsense of George Lakoff

lakoff-berkeley-drybrush
George Lakoff

Sometimes you read a newspaper column that starts off so pointless and insipid you can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be a parody of bad writing, or the writer just wants to introduce a humorous idea but can’t find the right hook to hang it on. This happened a few days ago (April 10) in the Washington Post, with a column by one Steven Petrow.

Petrow, who appears to specialize in matters of “gay etiquette,” spent half his column rattling on about how people are hurling new insults at him these days, and they’re words he doesn’t even know. New words like . . . “libtard” . . . and . . .”SJW.”

…SJW? I had no clue. In a personal ad it might mean “straight Jewish woman,” but two of those don’t apply to me. So what was this snarky new gem of an insult?

Petrow probably intended to write to cute little glossary of Alt Right terms, then found out that idea has been done to death. So he went in another direction entirely and told us these “new terms” are actually a Nazi-like “coded language” that the Alt Right came up with to “control discourse.” At least, according to an authority at UC Berkeley by the name of George Lakoff. 

You may never have thought of “SJW” or “libtard” as specifically Alt Right, but you’ve probably heard of George Lakoff. This emeritus professor of linguistics was one of those oddball pundits who went against conventional wisdom and predicted Donald Trump’s victory last year. Lakoff supposedly based his prediction on close analysis of Trump’s speeches and tweets, which he says were carefully crafted to tug at the authoritarian heartstrings of American voters.

And according to Lakoff, Alt Right terminology is designed along similar principles:

These new words are intrinsic to the alt-right’s rise, according to Lakoff… He connects this to the Nazis and the coded language (prime example: “the master race”) that eventually allowed them to topple governmental institutions. “The strategy is to control discourse,” Lakoff points out. “One way you do that is preemptive name calling . . . based on a moral hierarchy.”

All this scary talk of Nazis and Herrenvolk gives the game away, of course. Lakoff is less interested here in linguistic analysis than he is in painting the Alt Right as dank and sinister. When he explains what he means by “moral hierarchy,” it’s equally unhinged, as though he’s trying to troll poor Petrow with ineffable nonsense:

“God above man, man above nature, men above women. The strong above the weak. Christians above gays,” he said . . . Lakoff emphasized that [Alt Right name-calling] is different from the Democrats’ labeling some conservatives racist, sexist or homophobic — which they do — if only because that usage is not as “canny” or strategic.

Is Lakoff just kidding around here? No, he’s perfectly serious. He really, truly is maintaining that leftists don’t strategically weaponize language when they bully and name-call with such cant words as “racist” and “homophobic.” And while this argument is preposterous, Lakoff is one the biggest, bullying offenders of all. The whole thrust of his esoteric, impenetrable theories of political language is that traditional “right-wing” values ought to be regarded as pathological. In this respect he’s a throwback to leftist and Jewish community-relations propagandists of the 1950s and 60s, always detecting “neuroses” or a “paranoid style” among Joe McCarthy fans, Birchers, segregationists, Barry Goldwater, and even National Review-style conservatives. 

Last year’s Presidential campaign gave Lakoff renewed prominence, with a golden opportunity to apply his cockeyed theories to the public character of Donald Trump. He revisited this subject again recently, on the Marketplace program on public radio. (Link here; Lakoff begins about 18 minutes in.) In this radio talk, Lakoff describes Donald Trump as a master salesman who deliberately chooses words and catch-phrases to win over voters who have a certain type of personality aberration. This aberration leads Trump voters to prefer authoritarian personalities, particularly candidates who have what Lakoff calls a “strict-father morality” way of speaking. He estimates this segment of the electorate at about 35%, and notes that it’s close to the percentage who like President Trump in approval-rating polls.

For Lakoff, that strict-father morality theory is his Grand Unifying Principle of political behavior. It sounds interesting, but alas, whenever he tries to illustrate what he means by it, it comes out like psychobabble from a street-corner prophet. From the radio interview:

If you look at history, you see that strict fathers win… So you see religion won out, you have God above man, and we have conquered nature, we have man above nature, we can take anything we want for our use. Uh, you have the strong above the weak, you know, we need a strong army and so on. And that hierarchy follows from one idea, it’s not a bunch of different ideas, it’s strict-father morality as applied to all aspects of life.

The main thing is if that is your world view and that’s your morality, that defines who you are a person, it’s self-definition. And people don’t vote against their self-definition. Not only that, but it doesn’t matter if Trump lies to them, and they know he’s lying, because there’s a Higher Truth, which is strict-father morality itself… That’s why there are “Alternative Facts”!

On his website and blog, Lakoff’s thoughts are just as indecipherable. It’s like stepping into a bottomless pit of quicksand, leftist murk and clichés closing in about you from all sides, unbroken by any ray of reason or good sense. Last July he wrote a long essay called “Understanding Trump,” and it is little more than collocation of all the anti-Trump, anti-nationalist stock phrases we heard over and over. Trump is a bully, says Lakoff; and he appeals to people because he attacks Political Correctness and promotes easy answers to problems. If there are 11 million illegal aliens, Trump says they should be deported, and Lakoff is aghast at such simplicity; though he fails to propose alternative solutions to this, or any other issue.

Lakoff simply dismisses all pro-nationalist ideas, à l’outrance, on the grounds that they are popular, common-sensical, and appeal to traditional values. Again and again he locates the blame in his mystical bugaboos of “moral hierarchy” and “strict-father morality”:

There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict-father morality and its moral hierarchy. . .  For many years, such bigotry has not been publicly acceptable, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have become educated and moved into the workplace, and as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable. As liberal anti-bigotry organizations have loudly pointed out and made a public issue of the unAmerican nature of such bigotry, those conservatives have felt more and more oppressed by what they call “political correctness”. . .

Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they feel — with force, aggression, anger, and no shame. All they have to do is support and vote for Trump and they don’t even have to express their ‘politically incorrect’ views, since he does it for them and his victories make those views respectable. He is their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.

Does anyone take George Lakoff seriously? On the Left, his reputation has ranged from guru to wacko. In the early 2000’s he was a popular speaker at Democrat candidate conclaves, brimming with theories and linguistic magic tricks that would help them start winning again. Howard Dean pronounced Lakoff “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement” in a 2004 book-blurb endorsement. But then the Dean campaign tanked, the John Kerry play-it-safe candidacy got Swift-boated, and Lakoff was out of favor.

Recounting the ups and downs of Lakoff’s fortunes, Andrew Ferguson wrote in 2006 that Lakoff was now a “stock figure of fun” in the pages of the American Prospect, while The New Republic had just “trashed” Lakoff’s latest book. Ferguson recalled that Lakoff had first reached a widespread audience in September 2001, with his bizarre essay (“Metaphors of Terror“) about the sexual symbolism of on the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon:

“Towers are symbols of phallic power,” Mr. Lakoff explained, “and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power.”

And if you think the Twin Towers were symbolically profound, wait till you get a load of the Pentagon: “Another kind of phallic imagery was more central here,” Mr. Lakoff wrote. “The Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air, was penetrated by the plane as missile.”

Ferguson noted tartly that a man who could write such things “may be suited to many tasks, but counselor to a major political party . . . is not one of them.”

The Weaponized Nonsense of George Lakoff

Metapolitics of Swift and Trump

swift-trumpFuture historians will be endlessly fascinated by the intertwined media phenomena of Taylor Swift and Donald Trump during 2015-2016. The parallels and symbiosis of the two have been noted by many, particularly in the precincts of Twitter and the Alt Right, although no one’s ever studied the thing in depth.

A couple of weeks back the online Haaretz led off with a “glossary of the alt-right.” All in all, an impressively balanced and informed compendium. And right there in the header graphic you had Taylor Swift, Steve Bannon, and Pepe the Frog as leading icons of what Haaretz deigns to call the “Trumpist Alt-right” [sic].

But alas, the glossary’s author didn’t care to dig into subtextual ties between Taylor and Trumpistry, preferring instead to fall back upon the shallow explanation that Alt Righters admire Tay Tay for her “Aryan appearance.”

As seen in Haaretz
As seen in Haaretz

This just won’t do. The similarities between the pair, arguably the two most recognizable celebrities of the current epoch, are legion. They begin with a fierce self-creation, both in career success and self-presentation: each with a tightly crafted visual persona—simple, iconic, and ever-so-slightly eccentric.

We can move on from that to their insistence on following personal, quirky, seemingly counter-intuitive ideas that nobody else liked. What could be more obscure and potentially disastrous than naming your pop-music album and world tour “1989,” simply because that was the year you were born? What could be more outlandish than the idea of Donald Trump running for President? Surely that is the self-indulgent pipe-dream of an aging tycoon who’s willing to part with his money and will drop out before he gets to New Hampshire?

And of course the mad ideas worked.

Taylor Swift came down from her sell-out 1989 World Tour a year ago. Her audiences exceeded 100,000 if the venue was big enough. For 2016 she is the world’s highest-earning “artist” ($170 million). She enjoyed levels of media saturation hitherto unknown even to pop entertainers, unless you want to go back to the Beatles in 1964. It’s a sustained exposure that has been surpassed these past 18 months only by one Donald J. Trump.

With her colossal crowds, instant recognizability, meme-ability, and fan-devotion, Taylor was a metapolitical advance-act for Donald Trump, softening up the public for Trumpamerica by reminding people that there is an alternative to degeneracy and civil strife. And that alternative is not a hopeless, mawkish nostalgia, as the lefty press likes to carp, but a real, achievable goal, one that Donald Trump was both praised and mocked for articulating in simple words. Make America Great Again? It means a corrective rebuilding of a society that has crumbled and slipped away from us in just the last few decades.

A Land Safe for Heroes

For most of Taylor Swift’s career her songs and performances have been an evocation of an ur-wholesome America. A high-trust place where people don’t lock their front doors, and where nonwhites are even rarer than at Trump rallies. A Norman Rockwell-ish land where there are few disasters or tragedies bigger than an unrequited adolescent crush. Even after Taylor bought a vast loft in Manhattan in 2014, and led off her new album with a techno-beat paean to the Freedom and Diversity of the city (“Welcome to New York”), she seemed to be singing about the manicured and malled-over Safest City in America, where “racial minorities” could connote nothing more threatening than gay black chorus boys. The New York of Donald Trump and Taylor Swift, in other words; not the endless slum of The French Connection (1971).

Still largely a fantasy, perhaps, but you don’t have stroll for long in Midtown these days to see that the sidewalks are clogged with tourists photographing themselves at Trump Tower. When was the last time tourists visited Manhattan mainly to see a skyscraper? And they don’t ask you if these streets are safe at night, or if they’ll get mugged going into Central Park. It feels secure. This is the land of Trump and Taylor.

Everything Has Changed
Everything Has Changed

This idealized, non-threatening America is well depicted in Taylor’s 2013 song/video collaboration with the English-Irish singer Ed Sheeran, Everything Has Changed, from the Red album A memory of unfulfilled childhood romance, set in and around an elementary school in some bucolic exurbia. The singing duo are depicted in flashback by grade-school lookalikes, and most of the other pupils are likewise towheads and gingers. Significantly this isn’t set in some long-ago past—Sheeran and Swift would after all have been those little kids around 1999. This is the near-present. Subtext: guilelessness and wholesomeness are neither distant nor irretrievable.

Race and culture became an overt issue in Taylor videos in only the last couple of years, via the brilliant work of her best-known director, “Joseph Kahn.” Kahn is his Hollywood name; he’s actually a Korean-American called Ahn Jun-hee. He jokes darkly that Koreans are now an endangered species “like pandas” because they have the world’s lowest fertility.

Maybe that existential worry is just sheer coincidence, but it was with Kahn that Taylor videos got attacked for their implicit “racism.” Wildest Dreams from 2015 got called an “African Colonial Fantasy” by The Guardian, because it dared to conjure up a posh white life, circa 1950, on the plains of Kenya—a Kenya that has lots of giraffes but somehow no black people. 2014’s Shake It Off was said to “perpetuate racist stereotypes” because it featured a chorus line of colored girls energetically twerking in ghetto earrings and denim cutoffs.

taylor-do-not-compareGoddess and God-Emperor

As with Donald Trump, sniping against the Swift enterprise passed very quickly from innuendo to outright accusation during 2015-16. In both cases this was speeded along by their legions of alt-right and white-nationalist Twitter fans, who found that two most recognizable faces in the world were supremely adaptable to any number of visual “memes.”

Most of these images were so broad and silly it was near-impossible to mistake them as anything other than gags. For example, the endless series of pictures with “motivational” quotations attributed to Taylor Swift but actually from Adolf Hitler. Similarly with the manic, fun-loving embrace of Andrew Anglin’s Daily Stormer (“Aryan Goddess Taylor Swift—Nazi Avatar of the White European People“). This looked just like something out of the 1970s National Lampoon, and did Taylor no more harm than the factitious froth endlessly concocted by Bonnie Fuller’s Hollywood Life, or Camille Paglia’s denunciation of her a year ago as a “Nazi Barbie.”

No one took the “Aryan Goddess” trope seriously. For all but the most deluded paranoids, hearing the thump of jackboots behind the lyrics of “Blank Space” was just too much of a stretch. This was true even after Breitbart News ran a lighthearted piece in May 2016 (largely cribbed from two Counter-Currents articles) about Taylor Swift’s mystique among the Alt Right. And it continued to be true even after the Breitbart article was further sliced, diced, and echoed through Slate, Vice, the NY Daily News, and even the Washington Post. Her lawyer did eventually write a cease-and-desist letter or two to those pushing the Taylor-Hitler memes, and Taylor eventually changed her public profile just a little bit. Mainly, she lowered it and said almost nothing about any media stir, while the showbiz press struggled to make news out of her breakup with one boyfriend, her new liaison with another, and some indecipherable feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Through summer and fall came the headlines:

Taylor Swift Hiding — Her Plans To Stay Out Of Spotlight. (Hollywood Life)

Taylor Swift Comes Out Of Hiding (i.e., she sings at a birthday party). (MTV)

What Is Taylor Swift Hiding? (Jezebel)

Washington Post‘s “Taylor Comes Out of Hiding” story arrived last week (December 9, 2016) and speculated idly on why she suddenly released her first song in many months, noting that it was a contribution for a soundtrack to a very kinky sequel to the film Fifty Shades of Grey:

[W]hy did the calculatedly prim star decide to contribute to a movie based on a best-selling erotica series that delves into the finer points of sadomasochism? 

Even for WaPo, this was a particularly insipid attempt at sensationalism, hardly even worth calling Fake News. It appears Taylor contributed a song because she was asked to, and because collaborator Zayn Malik happens to be the boyfriend of Taylor’s comrade, the half-Dutch, half-Palestinian model Gigi Hadid.

Anyway, the “Aryan Goddess” controversy now appears to be dead (Haaretz graphic notwithstanding), buried under the sedimentary layers of unmemorable gossip.

Funny Meme
Funny Meme

Donald Trump did not fare so well. The paranoids looked at his support among the hard-right, and flew into the same kind of panic we saw last month when a few Roman salutes were thrown at the NPI conference. Except they were panicking every single day—for months—always finding some excuse to become newly unhinged.

The satire in Twitter memes completely threw them. The anti-Trump partisans couldn’t grasp that Donald Trump is a Very Funny Guy. Nor could they even figure out what Funny is. They tried creating their own anti-Trump memes (Google them!) but never got the hang of them. All they could think of was Donald Trump Racist. Donald Trump Orange Face. Donald Trump Funny Hair.

Sad Meme
Sad Meme

They got Alec Baldwin, a talented comic actor not unlike Trump in build, to spoof Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, but the caricature lacked depth and wit. Donald Trump is simply a much funnier guy, defying broad parody.

As Trump would tweet: “Sad!”

Nor could the anti-Trumpians comprehend healthy self-mockery on the part of Trump enthusiasts who spoke of “The God Emperor” or “The Trumpenführer.” The anti-Trumpians heard, and may have literally believed, that these terrifying “Trumpkins” really truly believed Donald Trump was a God. An Emperor. (Who would be a Führer…and they think that’s a good thing!)

Five weeks after the election, the Alt Right and “racist” taint still colors the press coverage of Donald Trump. He’s President-Elect, and sensationalism from six or eight months ago is not about to get wiped away by showbiz gossip from hollywoodlife.com or US magazine. But there are some interesting parallels between Trump and Taylor’s press-management. Much to the dismay of fervent supporters, Donald Trump has been adding suspicious-looking power-brokers from Goldman Sachs to his administration’s upper tier. There’s Treasury Secretary appointee Steven Mnuchin, and National Economic Council director-appointee Gary Cohn. Obviously he’s putting them in there in order to discourage Wall Street from sinking the economy in the early months of a controversial administration. Still, Mnuchin and Cohn look like the kind of guys a Clinton or Obama would put in, so some Trump partisans, particularly Alt Right ones, are mighty disheartened. (Perhaps Mnuchin and Cohn will be gone in a year or so; first-year Treasury and economic appointees tend to have a short shelf-life.)

You can detect the same kind of thing going in the ephemeral news on Taylor Swift. In recent months she been collaborating with, and seen in the company of, a black rapper named Drake, and the aforementioned Mr. Malik, a half-Pakistani from Britain. Inevitably the press has made lip-smacking, prurient suggestions. USA Today asks: Are Drake and Taylor Swift Dating—or Just Trolling Us? It’s decidedly the latter, with the emphasis on trolling. Another unlikely story making the rounds is that Taylor’s next album would be hip-hop, or something with an “urban” (black) vibe. As in the case of the President-Elect Trump, many devotées are appalled that such things could even be joked about.

The Master Trollers

Both Donald Trump and Taylor Swift are proficient trolls. Or, to give it more gravitas, they are top-tier masters in the art of PR management and control of their personal image. They work the media, and they know social media. They know you can throw the press a dubious story, and the press will take the bait, and stop poking around about other things.

For weeks the President-Elect tamed the press rowdies by keeping them focused on a lead that any clearheaded person knew was a dead-end. That was the strange premise that Mitt Romney could truly, seriously become Secretary of State. Trump invited Romney to a long afternoon at his New Jersey golf club, had repeat meetings with him Trump Tower, got photographed at a yummy candlelight dinner at Jean-Georges. The media followed along. Then poof!—it all went away.

esquire-taylor-tweetTaylor Swift’s mastery was in evidence during her “hiding” period, when one of the persistent questions on clickbait sites was Whom Is Taylor Voting For? Often this came out as, Why Hasn’t She Endorsed Hillary? Once upon a time (2008) she did tell the world that she was casting her first vote for President for Barack Obama. But eight years later, with Hillary Clinton pre-anointed as Our First Woman President, Taylor was keeping mum. Meanwhile such celeb peers and rivals as Lena Dunham, Madonna, and Lady Gaga were angrily, aggressively promoting Hillary.

Did Taylor simply find this political talk improper for celebrities, as Mark Wahlberg did? Or could she possibly, like Marky-Mark, be leaning towards Trump, to whom she at least had a social connection? (Best friend Karlie Kloss has been going with Ivanka Trump’s brother-in-law for a long time.)

A snarky Esquire writer suggested that celebrities who were “remaining silent” (i.e., not declaring for Hillary) were secretly Trump supporters. He then called out Taylor in a rude tweet. 

When the election came, and Taylor still didn’t announce her choice, the media started to do tea-leaf readings on the subject. On November 8, USA Today actually ran a piece claiming she must have voted for Hillary because an Instagram photo of her (ostensibly in line outside her voting place) showed her wearing a black sleeveless sweater a bit like the black sleeveless sweaters that both Hillary Clinton and Lena Dunham had been photographed in.

In the week after the election, some sites rationalized, on similarly notional evidence, that Taylor probably voted for Trump. This was too much for the Taylor-for-Hillary partisans at NYMag and Huffington Post. They promptly slammed the Taylor-for-Trump clickbaiters and accused them of spreading Fake News on behalf of the Alt Right!

Meanwhile, Taylor Swift still hasn’t told. And Mitt Romney will never be Secretary of State.

Metapolitics of Swift and Trump

Time for Tolkien

David Engels 

Originally published in Le Vif/L’Express  [1] (Brussels)
Translated by Margot Metroland

aragorn-trump-levifWe are in an epoch in which numerous religious, ethnic, or sexual groups are risking community-implosion by trying to impose their own values on everyone else. A time in which a certain politician we shall not name has been pushing political correctness to the point where it’s now proposed we should teach history according to the ethnicity of students.[2] At the same time we’re witnessing a paradoxical return to the nostalgic comfort of the old-fashioned grand epic, marvelously exemplified in the current craze for  J. R. R. Tolkien.

The Tolkien world is deeply imbued with a hierarchy that is charismatic rather than technocratic. A place where earthly power, in the image of the Kingship of Aragorn, is depicted as a burden, while obeisance is an honor. Here the hero is deeply individualistic, though driven not by egotistical materialism but rather a moral humanism that forces him—Elendil, Bilbo, or Faramir—to remain faithful to his convictions even at the price of a rupture with society.

Herein lies Tolkienian conservatism, which understands that happiness and harmony cannot be guaranteed by external means such as technology or institutions, but only through the ethical behavior of the individual, who learns, as Eowyn or Sam do, to accept their innate nature rather than a disordered idea of artificial egalitarianism. At the same time, this universe is deeply religious: it was defiled by the original fall of Melkor [or Morgoth, the First Dark Lord], making all happiness transient, and any hope of an ideal earthly order illusory. The history of Middle Earth is fundamentally a tragedy, consisting of a series of heroic acts —by Beren,  Eärendil and Frodo—doomed to failure. Only divine grace permits one to achieve the ideal of completing his quest.

But this vision is not merely confined to literary imagining. It’s also accompanied by a critical reflection on modernity, which today would probably suffice to expel Tolkien from Oxford. Here he is in a letter of 1943, being ironical: “It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production throughout the Near East, the Middle East, the USSR . . .  how happy we shall be.” [3]  Even the long-awaited Allied victory leaves him skeptical: “The real war is not like the legendary war. If it had inspired or dictated the development of the legend, the Ring would certainly have been seized and used against Sauron.” (The Lord Of The Rings, 2nd ed., Foreword.)

What to say of the ulterior reasons beyond this renewed popularity of Tolkien at the beginning of the twenty-first century, other than that it conceals a deep dislike of our postmodern world and a longing for a grand epic about a simple, integral, ancestral society? An escapism, moreover, which is in the process of gradually transforming itself, as shown in the rise of charismatic, conservative movements for political restoration… When is the return of the king?

Notes

1. “C’est le moment de… (Re)Lire J.R.R. Tolkien.” Le Vif-L’Express, Brussels. 2 December 2016. Online: https://www.academia.edu/30198155/Cest_le_moment_de_…_relire_J.R.R._Tolkien_in_Le_Vif-Lexpress_1.12.2016_18

2. Deputée Catherine Moureaux. (Not named in original, but discussed here: http://www.causeur.fr/belgique-education-islam-histoire-molenbeek-41291.html )

3. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. 1981. London and New York: Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Time for Tolkien