26 February 2009

The Obama Code

There was something very different about Pres. Obama's speech to the nation and, incidentally, to the assembled bicameral legislature Tuesday night (24 Feb. 2009). For roughly 24 of the past 28 years (ignoring the truculent George Herbert Herbert Bush), these speeches have felt more like performances: there have been stock muggings and pauses for applause lines, there have been rote coded 'dogwhistle' turns of phrase geared to excite certain key constituent bases, there has been preening egotism and petulance. I could go on.

Obama claims he wants to change the tone of the rhetoric on Capitol Hill. Of course, so did GWB and Clinton. Clinton, I think, tried but failed. GWB, as per usual, lied. Obama, on Tuesday, sounded like a roll-up-his-sleeves-and-get-to work problem-solver, something I've asserted here. This is different—at least for now. We can only hope he doesn't become corrupted by the status quo.

One of Obama's advisers, George Lakoff, Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, gave us fair notice of what Obama was hoping to accomplish "because tens of millions of Americans--both conservatives and progressives--don't yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about." Thus, we have what he calls: The Obama Code. It's been all over the Web.

Briefly, Lakoff asserts Obama is focusing, first, on values over programs. Obama has a vision of the fundamental values of this country and with his budget he is looking to implement, cut, or expand programs based on the values they inculcate. Second, the key value behind our avowed national emphasis on freedom, fairness, and equality is empathy:
"empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider--who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire "free market," which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone's interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama's foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states--with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world."
{Seems to me like he takes to heart the values inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and is not a faux Constitutional strict constructionist.]

The third aspect of Obama's appeal is "biconceptualism". Essentially, this means he can work with, let's say, Sen. X on economic matters because they share the same values even though they have to agree to disagree on foreign policy or other issues. This builds a fluid, issue-based web of value constituencies which excludes only the most ideological 'my way or the highway' hardened partisans.

The fourth idea reconceives the role of government as two-fold: protection and empowerment. "The idea is that government has twin moral missions: protection and empowerment. Protection includes not just military and police protection, but protections for the environment, consumers, workers, pensioners, disaster victims, and investors." Obama recognizes there are more stakeholders in the role of government than the party in power and its base. [We discussed this idea of broad base of stakeholders here.]

The fifth idea is a recognition that budgetary and economic priorities represent moral choices. The Bushes and Reagan never got this, or else their morality was perversely skewed to aid multinational corporations and the wealthy elite on the backs of the lower and middle classes. Don't kid yourself: there has been a transfer-of-wealth class war going on in this country, with little respite, since the Reagan days. It's just that the assets of the public sector have been pillaged by the well-connected, moneyed classes who, in turn, further received favorable marginal tax rate cuts. Viewed as a moral issue, this is reprehensible—and any honest religionist will tell you so.

Further, according to Lakoff, Obama recognizes the 'big picture' aspects of economics and government: there are systemic causes and systemic risk. That is to say, we as a society have a social responsibility to the rest of the world not to consume all its natural resources and destroy its environment, for example. No single SUV or carbon dioxide spewing factory is going to destroy the global environment, but the collective risk of doing nothing about the totality and proliferation of such things is huge. To ignore this is not only morally bankrupt, it could be suicidal.

Finally, because Professor Lakoff can say it so much better than I—and because it sounds suspiciously like it ties into a theme I've been pursuing lately here at WoW—I quote:
"As President, Barack Obama must speak in patriotic language. But all patriot language in this country is "contested." Every major patriotic term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way. But that common core meaning is very limited in its application. Most uses of patriotic language are extended from the core on the basis of either conservative or progressive values to produce meanings that are often opposite from each other.

I've written a whole book, Whose Freedom?, on the word "freedom" as used by conservatives and progressives. In his second inaugural, George W. Bush used "freedom," "free," and "liberty" over and over--first, with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning: defending "freedom" as including domestic spying, torture and rendition, denial of habeus corpus, invading a country that posed no threat to us, a "free market" based on greed and short-term profits for the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women's health facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands, all in the name of "freedom." It was anything but a progressive's view of freedom--and anything but the view intended in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

For forty years, from the late 1960's through 2008, conservatives managed, through their extensive message machine, to reframe much of our political discourse to fit their worldview. President Obama is reclaiming our patriotic language after decades of conservative dominance, to fit what he has correctly seen as the ideals behind the founding of our country.
"Freedom" will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it. Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated. Obama's inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic concepts to fit those ideals. Not just the concept of freedom, but also equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage, purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace. Look at these words in his inaugural address and you will see how Obama has situated their meaning within his view of fundamental American values: empathy, social and well as personal responsibility, improving yourself and your country. We can expect further reclaiming of patriotic language throughout his administration."
Again, Lakoff, echoing my previous post:
"The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year. The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning. Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who still being booked on tv and radio around the country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever. There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by Right's enormous megaphone. Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President's stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day."
Indeed, language matters. Policies matter. Budgets matter. Values matter.

David Brooks, the credentialed conservative columnist for the New York Times, called Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's speech an "insane", "nihilist" "disaster". That sounds about right. Obama is seeking to be transformative, and Lakoff's Code, if accurate, represents nothing other than a true "transvaluation" of the so-called values that have driven this country's and, in point of fact because of our power and influence, the world's economy and environment into the toilet. They hate him. They will try to tear him down; it's what they do.

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