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July 17, 2016



As my followers know, I am very interested in politics, but cognitive brain science, intensely interesting as it is, is not my cup of tea, and I have therefore freely quoted Lakoff in this essay in order to bring one small piece of his offbeat story to readers. The only connection I have with Lakoff is that he earned his doctorate at the same school where I went through law school, Indiana University.

In his book “The Political Mind,” subtitled “a cognitive scientist’s guide to your brain and its politics,” he, among many other topics, writes of the Nation as Family metaphor in response to libertarian critics who seem to think this is the way he thinks politics should work when actually he is merely describing how this is the way politics does work in the cognitive unconscious, further noting that neural mapping exists just like gravity and species exist – that he didn’t create the metaphor but is just describing it.

Many voters today dislike the conceptual metaphor of the Nation as Family (Lakoff’s choice) and would prefer that we should adopt other metaphors, such as the nation as community, or as a team or as a collective. Lakoff defends his choice of Nation as Family by noting that it has a much stronger basis in experience than other models, and that our brains form that mapping more readily and much more strongly. He finally notes in this connection that the family metaphor is not one that he as a cognitive scientist likes or dislikes; that it just is.

Governing institutions (armies, teams, communities etc.) have to have a function, a culture and a structure, and they frequently adopt a metaphor from other institutions in order to satisfy that need. Take, for instance, the civil service bureaucracy in the federal government. Why a civil service system and what was its metaphor of choice?

The civil service system was designed to replace the old spoils system, where elected officials got jobs for their friends who, according to Lakoff, then took bribes. The civil service system did not adopt the Nation as Family but rather adopted the factory metaphor with officials like cogs in a big machine – with well-defined jobs as part of a large machine, and with well-defined career paths. I think it was a good choice of metaphors since the family metaphor in this case seems better fitted to the corrupt system the civil service replaced rather than the one that replaced it.

The Reinventing Government movement of the 90s was an attempt to model government on service industries to better “serve” the public. Its metaphorical base was fuzzy and it didn’t go far. It seemed to me a cover for what really happened, i.e., it provided a diversion from its real purpose, which allowed the government to cut budgets and not replace retirees, which to my mind did not need a metaphor.

However, and contrary to corporate propaganda with their “market metaphor,” there are many government agencies that do not exist to “serve customers.” They rather have a moral mission to protect and empower the public – to protect the health and safety of workers, to make sure food and drugs are safe, to help create an educated populace, to build and maintain a public infrastructure, to help people when natural disasters strike etc. Not all government functions can be described by a “market” metaphor since government in any event is not designed to make a profit but rather to serve the needs of its citizens, a fact that conservatives and their corporate friends conveniently ignore.

The moral mission of government changed under the Bush-Cheney administration. A strict father morality metaphor was seen as always right and to be obeyed. The concept of accountability changed: the president and the government were no longer accountable to the people. Rather, underlings became accountable to those higher in the chain of command. It was not Cheney or John Yoo (the AG who authorized waterboarding) who were responsible when things went wrong; it was the lowest accountable persons who were punished, not the highest, as in Abu Ghraib and its torture chambers.

Under the Bush-Cheney administration, government became an instrument to use public funds, manpower, and property to serve the needs of private business and other supporters. Lobbyists were recruited to come in and run government agencies and left thereafter for lucrative jobs in private industry. Functions of government were eliminated and privatized so as to provide private profits at public expense, which even extended to intelligence-gathering and military functions (see no-bid billion dollar contracts with Blackwater and Cheney’s old company, Halliburton). Corruption returned; bribes were commonplace (see the Abramoff scandal).

Aside from the chicanery involved at great cost to American taxpayers in privatizing, once public funds that used to go for government protection and empowerment are delivered into private hands, it is hard to get them back, and worse, government capacities to perform are destroyed as such as the Blackwaters and Halliburtons become the only alternatives for carrying out those functions. Proof? Blackwater and Halliburton are still profitably performing many of the tasks assigned to them by the Bush-Cheney administration (including protection of diplomatic personnel that used to be performed by the Marines at far less cost) more than seven years after Bush and Cheney left office. So do we describe this continuing privatization as momentum or do we need a new metaphor to describe government purpose and function? I vote for the latter. Corporate privatization and democracy cannot co-exist for the very simple reason that democracy involves self-government, not corporate government.

So what is the practical result of the Bush-Cheney change of metaphor? It is this: Corporations have become private governments. They govern us, but without accountability, and we pay for them, and will be paying more in the future, not as prices set by legislation (taxes) but by what the market will bear. Welcome to the corporate takeover of America, which I often blog is my chief concern (since it necessarily involves loss of our democracy in the process).

How could this happen? Lakoff writes that it is because the public and even the media have been largely unaware of the moral models governing our politics, since they are part of the cognitive unconscious. If this corporate privatization craze we see within the Republican Party these days is a manifestation of such unawareness which is leading us down the road to corporate control of not just our government and economy but our society as well, then I think it is incumbent on the rest of us not only to resist current attempts to further privatize America but to roll back their past successes.

We can start by cancelling the Blackwater contract to guard our embassy in Iraq and having Marines do the job, as they do elsewhere in the world. We can end the corporate land grabs of public lands in our national parks, the subsidies given to corporate farmers, the ridiculous tax breaks given to billionaires by which they pay at a lesser rate than those who trim the vines on their estates etc.

We have a lot of work to do if we are to re-establish public control over public property and how we are going to govern ourselves free of corporate control, so let’s get going.     GERALD     E


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