parallel urgencies

Antwerp

Watching the unfolding of social protest in Iran, and still recovering from the large dose of fear I’ve just had to (try to) absorb about climate change, I’m wondering if ‘we’ – populations in the western world – are giving valence (in a group relation’s sense) to the protesters in Iran. Put another way, are ‘they’ acting out not only against the apparent fraud of Ahmadinijad’s re-election, but are they emboldened by the growing sense of urgency among educated people that humanity itself is in a period of crisis?

Valence: second definition, Merriam-Webster:
2 a: relative capacity to unite, react, or interact
2b: the degree of attractiveness … [of] … a behavioral goal

The US did not rise up in protest against the re-election of George W. Bush, even though there were also concerns. Maybe we (Americans) felt (in 2004) that there was still enough time, that we’d get by, get through… are we now hoping to vicariously savor a success by Iranians in a way that we were incapable of even attempting then? And if this movement succeeds, then what?
A political scientist I know says:

it is reasonable to be skeptical about the policy differences between the two candidates on issues that matter. But, having fair elections is important in its own right, and it seems like this could open the door to more political freedom, which can influence a variety of other outcomes…

Jen is right, of course. Fair elections are important in their own right – but we (the electorate) are not willing to fight for them in all times and all places. Why now? Why there? Why with such force? (Note: I am not questioning the actions themselves, I’m inquiring into the motivations.)
What “other outcomes” might be opened up? Or, another way to phrase the crucial question: what deep needs are pushing this expansion of language-based communication? The momentum built up over the last centuries is encapsulated in an instant in this one minute video on the evolution of life by Claire L. Evans. Exerting enough force to alter the current vector is going to take an outcry from humanity several times the size of the protests in Iran.
We (all of us) must comprehend “the vector’s essential properties are just its magnitude and its direction.” And – we can’t give up! Over breakfast this morning, dismay and the sense of helplessness:

“We all know we need to act, but we don’t.”
“If we do it and China doesn’t, what’s the point?”
“We know it is serious, the politicians have to force it.”
“They ring the bell for thirty years. Ring. Then that old man dies. Ring.”

“We need to agree on the urgency.”

YES.

References/Resources:

“Watching” coverage of social protests in Iran via The Huffington Post
“if this movement succeeds” it will be because of communication technology
“force”: definition-in-context
“deep needs” come from deep time
“expansion of language-based communication” frames this as a case* of Bakhtin’s chronotope (see Michael Holquist, forthcoming: Cronotope’s central role in
dialogue
)
*”case” as in “case thinking” ~ see Philippe Lacour, Thinking by cases, or: How to put social sciences back the right way up
a “vector’s essential properties” is quoted from website on Elementary Vector Analysis, Harvey Mudd College.

“What now?”

Hoboken (Anvers), Belgium
regarding “Paris”

Luiza could not believe her ears. “We’re on the grounds of Fontainebleau!”

the grounds.jpg

“What now” is a question I borrow from curricular design, social justice style. First cover the what, then the so what, and finally now what. What is the subject matter? Why should we care about it? How are we going to use this knowledge?
window latch at Fountainbleau.jpg

I was ready for three days in France, away from the halls of the European Parliament and the concentration of stimulation. “Scientists,” Luiza quoted the director of her thesis, “throw away the most interesting stuff!” I needed the change in place for perspective, knowing that whatever I encounter has the potential to enhance or distract my focus from the essential elements and determinative dynamics of the system of simultaneous interpretation in such a concentrated center of global influence. “What do you think of France?” she asks me. I cannot give a discrete answer: I am treading water, immersed in a sea of history, currents of contemporary discourse, and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods. The evidence, I think, displays a need to worship and the desire for control.
This is not unique to France, of course – it is the story of Europe, perhaps of homo sapiens.

“How do you measure the return on your investment?”
The night before I left for Paris, Geoff offered one anecdote after
another, generously spiced with his finely-honed business acumen.

“What is the value added?” Intuition, I know, is not enough. Will I
find the language of articulation?

Upon return to Luiza’s mod flat, I retreated from the day-trip’s high-speed (time)travel to recharge my introvert self. I soaked up the smell of melting then baking chocolate, absorbed the sounds of Dvorak’s cello concerto and Yann Tiersen’s juxtaposition of strings and piano (Sur le fil), wondered at the juxtaposition of Flemish musical history with Romania’s inability to develop (so-called) high culture (“we were too busy being invaded”), and read:

‘Is it to be believed . . . that an island abundant in all things necessary has been leveled to this wasteland through the making of a Stone God and then by his destruction?’ (2007, p. 133)

Who builds in stone wants to be remembered; no other monument lasts so long or so well. Yet people (governments, organizations, groups of all kinds) also try to fix social reality – relationships, communication itself – as if hardening the rules will determine outcomes, enabling the assertion of final control by banishing all possible space for anarchy.
We hash over linguistics while we eat: attempting to digest the cognitivists, distributionalists, generativists, structuralists, psycholinguists, and sociolinguists all at one go. We sleep. (No one reports dreaming.)
The Islamic Arts Department of the Louvre is closed, so I opt for Near Eastern Antiquities. I learn about the land “between rivers” (Mesopotamia), known to us through the “archeological fortune” of remains from Girsu/Telloh and Mari and (particularly) the reign of Gudea, who poses in all statues with hands piously held across his heart. In one statue, Gudea holds a “gushing vase” from whence stream fish, invoking Geshtinanna, “the goddess of the reviving water.”
streams of fish.jpg

I note references to Ishtar and Inanna, figurines of women, and circles. I am fascinated by the “oscillation tendency” of the city of Susa to be both “the eastern extension of Mesopotamia” and “the western expression of Iranian mountain civilization.” I am as repulsed by the ancient rite of hierogamy as Luiza was by the relatively recent public birthing of royalty. The art of engraving stones, by the way, is called glyptic.
women in the Tuleiry.jpg

Then, we tiptoed through the Tuileries, sauntered the length of the Avenue de Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, past Place de la Concorde, La Madeleine, Napoleon’s burial site at the Dome des Invalides, and Grand Palais. We failed to find socks but did stop for sweets at Paul, before heading to The Lab.
Paul.jpg

Winterson writes an interpreter into The Stone Gods, although he
appears first as a tour guide, “explaining something to them in Japanese,
and gesturing . . .”
(p. 183). Interaction commences between Friday, a wise barman on The Front, and the
International Peace Delegation wishing to bring
Aid and Sanitation to War Refugees (i.e., people
living in The Back). “The tour guide, or interpreter, or whatever he was,
went on smiling. Then he bowed.”
Politeness is a
puzzling feature of interaction: what is polite and proper to you may strike me as
optional or unnecessary, possibly even downright
rude pending the assumptions that elicit its display (and vice-versa, unfortunately).
“‘Terrible conditions,’ said the interpreter.
‘I take that badly,’ said the barman.
‘We will come in and inspect,’ said the interpreter.”

Who is in charge of this communication?
Who is speaking, and on what authority?

“Community” interpreters (those of us who interpret for
people using different languages in their daily, nonpolitical lives)
wrestle with these questions constantly. We are
challenged by interlocutors about the
integrity of our interpretations and the
motivations for managing the interaction so that we can interpret
effectively. “Conference” interpreters are
insulated from this scrutiny by
technology that separates language use from human relationships.

ondes martenot.jpg

The Lab is a treat. Jose dives into musical history, demonstrating how each of the old instruments work and explaining the way scores were written. We even get to see one of the earliest precursors of today’s synthesizer. Then we walk through a quiet residential area, hearing birdsong en route to the Eiffel Tower – another impressive artifact of manmade worship. From viewing angles underneath, it looks like a spaceship. How many wonders can a single day hold?
eiffel tower.jpg

We passed the Pantheon (smart dead people buried here) on the way to dinner (which was absolutely scrumptious), and afterwards the fountain at Place Saint Michel and Notre Dame. Charlemagne looks like the WitchKing of Angmar; there were many times these past few days when I felt as if the statues atop eaves looked down on us mere mortals with bloody demand. How does it come to be that a quote by Napolean accompanies Barack Obama on the cover of Vanity Fair? Riding the Thalys back midday, I read:

the regrettable acts of war . . . to the broken and the dead, the wounded and maimed, to the exploded and shrapnel-shattered, to minds gone dark, to eyes that have seen agony no tears can wash away, it hardly matters that the dead language of war repeats itself through time. The bodies that can say nothing have the last word” (p. 233-234).

I wondered where we were, as the train hurtled at top speed across a plain toward France’s border with Belgium. What “regrettable acts of war” had occurred here, and what can be done to ensure that such “regret” becomes a thing of the past rather than a recurring motif of human history? I know the notion is counterintuitive, but interpreters – professionally trained, ‘conference’ and ‘community,’ of any and every language combination – are poised at a liminal opening to societal self-organization that structures difference and equality within the most basic component structure: that of language-based interaction between human beings.
holding a ring.jpg
Continuing to gaze out the train window I see the first fresh hints of spring; the trees tinged bright green appear aglow. Earlier, Jose had noticed that the conductor addressed passengers in the language of their destination. The only way to avoid war will be to intertwine economies and social relations so densely that no class interest can benefit from disruption. To keep the system vibrant, differánce must be celebrated in core institutional processes.

a chance for change

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23:30 pm, November 4: My colleagues (ahem) made up in a single evening, all the time that I’ve been late to events so far this year. It was nice that most of them eventually did arrive! 😉 Volunteering at the American Club‘s election eve event was the way to go; at least we were guaranteed entrance! In 2004, somewhere between 900-1200 people attended. This year, more than 2000 tickets were sold before the doors were essentially closed – well before polling ended on the East Coast and prior to a single projection! I enjoyed selling tickets at the main entrance, but checking those precious wristbands at the side door was not as much fun. One drunk guy didn’t miss a moment all night to glare at me for turning away friends he tried to usher in without having paid.
packed.JPG.jpg

After a month and a half in Belgium, attending a half-dozen more-or-less official events, the expat crowd begins to seem familiar. Faces seem recognizable, even if the names blur. I keep seeing look-alikes of several friends who I know are State-side; biology turns up similarities even across oceans! At this moment, the roar in the ballroom is near deafening. Some blokes on stage are shouting in debate at each other, critiquing the truthfulness factor in claims made by candidate’s advertising. CNN is on projection screens stationed at intervals throughout the first floor of the Renaissance Hotel, without audio so far. A rock band, The Wanderers, has been playing covers at intervals throughout the evening. 93% of the people who have so far filled out the lottery form have selected Barack Obama as the deliverer of this quote:

“The United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone.
We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies.”

Only seven percent imagined that John McCain could have said this, including me and Alyssa. (We were correct.)
01:30 am, November 5: The women’s bathroom is extremely entertaining. Earlier, there was a woman on her cell phone frantically scheming to get a friend without a ticket inside. Just now, an international trio including “a Swedish girl and a Canadian girl” (so they self-identified, if I recall accurately) were discussing whether a guy who looks pretty must be bi. “He has a pretty nose!” I really could not weigh in, although I did venture that “gay” is a cultural construction that may not apply uniformly in all parts of the world. This shifted us to a discussion of learning English via Michael Jackson and Madonna in Bulgaria.
In general, the crowd has thinned to half or even a third. A noticeable reduction occurred as soon as the band stopped. The buzz, however, is still achingly loud. It is hard to know if we’re getting down to only the diehards. Cheers go up each time numbers are posted showing an Obama lead (even if its only on 1% of polls reporting). The Republican table was unstaffed, although a few staunch supporters were undeniably present.
Republican Table.JPG.jpg

02:40 am: CNN just called Pennsylvania for Obama. The crowd here burst into its loudest and most sustained applause yet. (I confess; I teared up.) Alyssa and I are hanging out at our back corner table with its questionable views – she’s studying Flemish in-between updates and I’ve been reading The Bulletin. Folks keep dropping by to buy food tickets and ask questions, but we only look official (we know nothing!) Chris, however, scored a set of campaign set buttons, and proceeded to explain a project, “mindset” and its “zero interest group” platform.
chris and McCain.JPG.jpg

03:27 am: I finished reading the current edition of Flanders Today. The chatter is still loud. People have taken to the floors, sitting in small groups, although most of the remaining crowd (several hundred) remains standing. Wolf Blitzer just teased us with “a big projection coming up.”
03:35 am: Ohio! An eruption of cheers, upraised arms, flying objects, hoots and hollers. “No Republican has won the Presidency without Ohio.
03:50 am: New Mexico! Way to go, mom! 🙂
Dead heat in the popular vote at the moment; would like to see a wider margin. Meanwhile, they dimmed the lights here at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels a few minutes after the projection of Ohio. They don’t expect us to leave, do they?!
lights out.JPG.jpg

04:43 am: Folks have been slowly drifting out; the crowd is noticeable thinner as the night turns toward morning. There’s still over 200 people hanging in, waiting for the speeches. Did I mention popping out my contact lens in favor of old-fashioned spectacles?
05:06 am: They did kick us out of the main ballroom; fortunately we were all re-situated in the lobby when CNN announced

The din echoed off the ceiling for no short time; some groups further back in the hotel bar carried on for several minutes in hearty rendition of an Oktoberfest tune. Now, again, the constant chatter continues, and we wait . . .
05:29 am: McCain did alright with his concession speech. Three quarters of the stalwarts listened . . .
emotion.JPG.jpg

. . . and continued to listen carefully, while a handful kept trying to shush persistent chatterers in the background.
Finally – Obama’s turn.
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09:00 am: I am a wee bit tired. 🙂 We lingered for some time after President-Elect Obama’s acceptance speech, basking in the relative quiet (finally! after the noise of the night and the entire election). Then, Alyssa and I walked in the pre-dawn mist toward the U.S. Embassy’s breakfast affair. At one point, ducking into a virtually empty metro station to confirm our destination and relative whereabouts, we were embraced by Queen. As we walked the quietly-stirring city streets, office lights glowing as if suspended in the ether without structures, the topic of fear arose. Michelle Obama explained some time ago the role of fear in the family decision that Barack would run for President. I agree with her wholeheartedly.
I should have snapped a photo of the BMW showroom gleaming brightly with red and white balloons before we entered; the cops wouldn’t let me later! (I thought he was pulling my leg, he was so friendly about it. “You’re kidding?” I exclaimed. “Please comprehend,” he asked. Sigh.)
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U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox (to Belgium), U.S. Ambassador Kristen Silverberg (to the EU), and Rep. Kurt Volker (NATO) gave upbeat speeches.

“As an American, I have never been so proud of my country.”

Ambassador Fox extolled the election of Barack Obama, emphasizing the “peaceful transition of power,” and guaranteeing the continuation of strong trading relations. (BMW, Ambassador Fox informed us, manufactures cars in Alabama.) These themes were echoed by Ambassador Silverberg and Rep. Volker.

Prior to the three speeches, I was interviewed.

Twice.

Who knows what fool I made of me!

13:59 pm: On three hours sleep (!), I recall the loudest cheer during President-Elect Obama’s acceptance speech. He said,

“…the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals…”

and the people roared. At least half a dozen times our soon-to-be forty-fourth President of the United States of America was drowned out by spontaneous cheers in the cozy hotel lobby. It wasn’t until a second listen at the US Embassy reception that I heard the list of ideals:

democracy,
liberty,
opportunity,
and unyielding hope.”

beyond disturbing

There is always so much going on.
Too much?
I’ve been trying to sort out some distinctions between “being spiritual” and “being religious” (after being tag-teamed by an Eastern European cynic and an Undertaker from India for the past six years, it seems I’ve finally cracked). 😉 I know I become overwhelmed, often, trying to make sense of the whole – yet . . . the alternative doesn’t appeal. If we give up trying to grasp the whole, then what? Well, people carve out a niche for themselves, making intellectual, emotional, aesthetic choices and compromises and doing the best they can. Meanwhile, social forces twist and buckle the fabric of communities and our cross-cultural relations with each other.
When, I wonder, do we decide it is time to work together? And on what basis? At a community meeting yesterday, someone raised a concern with the erosion of constitutional rights, and someone else objected to the extremity of the claim. But world-class journalists are not supposed to get arrested in America. This occurred at the Republican National Convention, where riot police are keeping protesters as far as possible from the convention center. Since when did protests become such a problem in the land of free speech, the home of originary revolution?
Speaking of which, can you imagine the conversation in Governor Palin’s family? “Uh, mom, it’s great you just got selected to be the next Vice-President of the United States, but, uh, I’ve got to tell you something.” When does the generosity and understanding that we give our own children extend to other kids’ parents?
I was recently at a yoga center where hundreds of earnest persons went about their spiritual work. “Practice,” I thought to myself, “for being soon in another country.” All the anonymous people were nice enough: polite and indifferent. Don’t get me wrong, I was the same way: there to do what I came to do for me, open to engagement if it happened but not seeking interpersonal connection. It was a mild form of alienation. I “belonged” there as much as anyone else who had paid the fee. I look like 95% of the people who were there, and I behave similarly in culturally substantial ways. But I was bothered – it’s a commercial place from which collaborative social action might grow but (it seems) only on the basis of similarity.
In the U.S. (the one that I grew up in, have been shaped by, and currently worry about), the emphasis on individuality leads to the massive reproduction of independent spiritualists who – typically, usually – fail to commit to work together for any coherent social action. Even if people are atheists, that identity is defined in opposition to the notion of some kind of spiritual center. With secular yoga, the body has replaced god as the object of worship. In politics, the body is also central: “what” one looks like, and “how” one sounds become the basis for argumentation and persuasion.
Still . . . it is a measure of how far America has come that both candidates for President of the United States are members of multiracial families. (This point was also raised by a participant during that community meeting.) In my opinion, the most important thing Senator Obama said during the Democratic National Convention (quoted from memory) was to assert

“this is not about me; this is about you.”

We can continue to live as Americans without a common “religion,” or as Americans whose religion has become a narrowly-defined nationality, or we can find ways to build common cause with the very material of difference itself.

“This” – all of it – is about us. All of us.

democracy and doubt

The problem with democracy – real democracy, in which everyone actually has a say – is that there is so much waiting. I am generalizing from recent revelations acquired while participating in a second tubing adventure with a bunch of friends. In particular, an exchange with LavaMan (an ideal male specimen) showed me something about myself that I suspect is not uncommon.
The first tubing adventure I had to work with suppressing frustration; the second time I thought I was prepared (indeed, I was). My emotional experience was fine – either because I had already ‘gone through’ the frustration previously (and managed it), or because some part of me was prepared for things to go ‘this way’ again … or (probably) a combination of both. I was not wrapped up in the struggle of decision-making either trip, just a recipient of the process and outcome. A bystander, I guess, but an observant one, aware of the implications of my passive participation.
At one point, standing around the parking lot waiting for the downstream vehicle delivery people to return, a pal suggested no one knew what was happening – which was accurate: none of us had the whole picture in mind (where everyone was, who was doing what, what – in total – needed doing, etc). And – we all knew what we were doing: going tubing! (How hard could that be?!)
A few leaders emerged (trying to organize the group in certain directions) but there was always a competing idea or suggestion, so implementation was slow. These dynamics are not new or unique; indeed, I design curriculum so that students have to encounter and engage these dynamics, in order for them to practice how to negotiate roles and identities in uncertain social circumstances.
The crucial learning moment for me came on the river a few hours later. I had realized a couple of guys were behind us, and one of them – a first time rafter – had been described as “struggling” by a friend just a short time before. So I thought, well, I’ll wait for them; they are the last two. I wondered about one other guy, who had been behind us earlier but I had an evanescent impression that he had floated on ahead of me at some point.

“Do we leave a man behind?”

The pair came by and informed me that Jake was still behind. I waited awhile longer. As the time stretched, my doubt grew. Surely he couldn’t be that far behind? He knows what he’s doing anyway, so I don’t need to worry, right? And, I did have that sense that he had passed me, hadn’t he? Eventually, I noticed the guys had pulled off – waiting – for me? I didn’t really want to hold up the show with my own stubbornness . . .

I caught up with them, and LavaMan insisted Jake was behind us. He engaged my questioning process calmly, as I worked through the arguments pro-staying (based only on a guess?) and con-staying (if he hasn’t come, he can’t – we’ll be better able to reach him from upstream; and he might be in front of us). “Let’s wait five more minutes,” the LavaMan proposed, “if he doesn’t come by then we’ll leave.”
I had a suspicion he was just angling for more time to flirt (!), but lo-and-behold . . . here came Jake.
Wow – what had I been thinking? Even though I was told, “I just saw him,” and “we passed him doing something on shore just before we saw you,” I was ready to up-and-leave on the much-less-certain perception of my own “knowledge.” Ouch! The implication is hard to escape, no? I didn’t trust someone else’s judgment – and not even over something that I was sure of, but something that I wasn’t actually convinced of myself! Why?
The doubt disturbs me: not only as a reflection on me and how I orient to others, but as an indicator of a cultural bias against waiting (in particular). The evidence abounds – I witness it during interpretation when participants complain about how long the communication process takes, I see it in the levels of impatience and frustration expressed by students while they adjust to alternative learning structures – and now I get to recognize it, so blatantly, within myself.
The impulse, it seems, is to hurry up and end the waiting. The solution is usually proposed that “a leader” is needed. Well, I think, “yes, and.” Yes, we need to agree to follow specific suggestions from particular people, and I’m not sure we have to take all the suggestions from only one person. At some point, in a healthy collective, we know each other well enough that we ought to be able to acknowledge who has skills in a given arena. Perhaps it is my imagination, but don’t we know each other well enough, by now, to have a good sense of who makes good decisions about various kinds of things?
The question, then, becomes not “who will lead,” but “when will I suppress my doubt“?

High Summer

Summer has been at its peak, climate-wise, for the past few weeks.

corn in front of the seven sisters.JPG.jpg
During bicycle rides, I’ve been taking in the deep smells of haying, the lighter fragrances of flowers and crops, and the occasional blast of cow manure. The temperature has begun to drop more at night, a harbinger of fall – especially in combination with some early leaf-turning.
idyllic.JPG.jpg
I will miss Massachusetts this upcoming year – and who would ever have guessed I’d be saying that?! Yesterday, while floating down the Deerfield River in an inner tube with raucous friends, trying to dodge vigorous rafters and avoid skewering by overzealous kayakers, I thought, “But why not? I was conceived here.” The spark of potential consciousness embedded at that biological instant probably drew energy from these environs. (From where else could it come?)
The past month has been a blur of teaching, proposal-writing/refining, and soaking up as much socializing before the community’s inevitable dispersal. So many have already left, with so many soon to follow. My own departure approaches: probably temporary but who ever knows for sure?

glow of emergence.JPG.jpg

Types of fare-thee-well gatherings vary from certain kinds of overstock to full spread (delectable) meals, and gifts.
All manner of pronouncements have been made at said events, from “I will never forget!” to

“Present the new as if it was old, like Gandhi.”

Memory is short, however. 😉 And so a lot of time gets spent milling around. “We are waiting for a reason,” Hunter posed – not wanting to actually ask the question but wondering nonetheless. “Nobody knows what’s happening.” Dhara explained our group’s arduously slow process of decision-making while I mused on cultural differences. It struck me with the force of revelation that I have hardly ever waited for groups/events to happen. No wonder I’m so apt to the production of something, to doing something, of there being a thing requiring participatory action on my part! This is the (U.S.) american enculturation process – deep training beginning with preschool about time (schedules), timing (hurry up, switch now), and completion (well, we may not get a chance to come back to that so you better just get it done now).

This,” Don intoned on the edge of the Deerfield River, “is how it was at Troy.” I thought he meant hordes of strangers merging for a common purpose. No, seems he had burning the boats in mind, so there would be no possibility of retreat. That is the way life is, ain’t it? Sometimes you can backtrack but it is never the same as if you went that way the first time. “We need an airlift!” is not the same as, “Hey, can you drop us some more supplies?”

Such laughter!
. . . and the occasional reference to past and future lives.

“You’re not in Belgium yet,” Zeynep advised, as she congratulated (us both?!) on returning from our mental moments elsewhere.
This morning I began to read an analysis of Obama’s economic ideology, in which he is characterized as more left and more right than one might think, a position he describes as postpartisan. I definitely approve of this measure: “…changing the tax code so that families making more than $250,000 a year pay more taxes and nearly everyone else pays less. That would begin to address inequality.”
We got kids coming, y’know? And there are so many already in the world, growing up under a new climate, with a different reference point for the planet than we (at least most in my generation) ever imagined. We got chances to make things better, different: more fair, more possible.
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Sailing, 2008: Index

A Tale of Steph, the Once-Upon-A-Summer Sailor

adequacy conditions (cognition and morality)

George Lakoff’s important book, Moral Politics, describes the root metaphor at the base of conservative and liberal worldviews. “Cognitive studies,” Lakoff explains, have concluded “that moral thinking is imaginative and that it depends fundamentally on metaphorical thinking” (p. 41). The explanatory metaphor for both conservatives and liberals extends a notion of the family/parent to the nation/government. “The resulting moral systems, put together out of the same elements, but in different order, are radically opposed” (p. 35).
One of the interesting challenges of Lakoff’s book (i.e., another finding of cognitive science) is the myth of being conscious of one’s own worldview, and “that all one has to do to find out about people’s views of the world is to ask them” (36). Lakoff describes realizing the myth of transparent belief as “the most fundamental result of cognitive science” (p. 36).

“What people will tell you about their worldview does not necessarily accurately reflect how they reason, how they categorize, how they speak, and how they act” (p. 36).



Lakoff is careful not to tell us what our politics or our morality should be; he is not preaching or giving a prescription. Instead, he is describing the two logics composing the deep split in political thinking between conservatives and liberals in the United States. This is not philosophy; this is description. It is up to us to understand the descriptions and then figure out how to talk and reason based on the reality of these starkly different moralities.

“Our public discourse about the nature of morality and its relation to politics [is] sadly impoverished. We must find a way to talk about alternative moral systems and how they give rise to alternative forms of politics. Journalists – including the most intelligent and insightful of journalists – have been at a loss. They have to rely on existing forms of public discourse, and since those forms are not adequate to the task, even the most thoughtful and honest journalists need help. Public discourse has to be enriched so that the media can do its job better.” (2nd edition, 2002, p. 32)

Lakoff goes much further and deeper than merely slapping labels on certain brands of politics. “Classification in itself,” writes Lakoff, “is relatively boring” (p. 17). What we need – what Lakoff provides – are models. Models do much more than mere categorization, they

  • analyze modes of reasoning
  • show how modes of reasoning about different issues fit together
  • show how different forms of reasoning are related to each in other in such a way that they are all understood to be instances of the same thing (in this case, politics)
  • show links between forms of political reasoning and forms of moral reasoning
  • show how moral reasoning in politics is ultimately based on models of the family

Lakoff’s hope – and mine in reading his book and trying to understand the basic point – is that by understanding how our minds work, and especially how our words give clues to how our minds work we can address political dilemmas more effectively.

“The same mind that we study for scientific reasons creates moral and political systems of thought and uses them every day. For this reason, the findings of conceptual systems research will eventually come to matter more and more in understanding moral and political life” (p. 17).

Let’s Get Going: Obama 2008

“For better or worse, this is Chicago,” said Ms. Katz, who has held fund-raisers for Mr. Obama at her home.

“Everyone is connected to everyone.”

This is what I have always appreciated about Barack Obama:

“…he’s not looking for how to exclude the people who don’t agree with him. He’s looking for ways to make the tent as large as possible” (Abner J. Mikva, a former congressman and mentor to Mr. Obama).

Both quotes are from Pragmatic Politics, Forged on the South Side. (I have a hat, a cowboy hat adorned with abalone shell, black leather, and a ceramic bird’s skull, which someone once said – circa 1990 – would keep me safe on Chicago’s South Side.)