George Lakoff: Obama in a Bind

A “metaphorical body” helped build Barack Obama’s triumph so far, in George Lakoff’s scientific reading. That tall, supple, smiling Obama figure, standing tall, fires up good feelings through the “mirror neurons” in our brains. “Up and forward” is the effect we feel, as Lakoff puts it in conversation. So what is the effect on our political minds of what feels now like an uncertain Obama shuffle to the center or the right? “Bad things” are transmitted by the same mirror neurons to our embodied brains, Lakoff says, when the gifted candidate’s “metaphorical body” seems to waffle — on phone-company immunity for illegal wiretapping, for example, or even on the use of churches as public social agencies.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with

George Lakoff (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

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George Lakoff: this is your mind on politics

Far the toughest, most consequential test will be Barack Obama’s response to the AIPAC pressures in both branches of Congress to blockade, or swat, or whack Iran in the last days of the Bush-Cheney administration. Obama’s mission, Lakoff says, must be to set a unmistakably different direction and tone from the hawkish resolutions now gathering sponsors in the House and Senate — to reframe the conversation in his own terms of America’s interest not only in a just world but in recovering moral force misspent in Iraq. “He has to decide how the resolution is framed, and make sure that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi carry it out — and that everybody in the party knows what’s at stake. This is where leadership starts, right now.”

George Lakoff is the most astutely political of the best-selling brain scientists — like the “predictably irrational” Dan Ariely — now sharing the fruits of 30 years of revolutionary research on how our minds actually work. On one rapt reading of Lakoff’s latest, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain, I had three main questions in this long conversation: how does cognitive science explain (1) the rise of Obama; (2) the mid-summer rattling of Obama and (3) the stakes for Obama and the rest of us in the multiple pressures to “get tough” with Iran.

You have to understand what Obama is up against. First, he’s up against a mode of thought that is very common, what’s called “optimism bias” in behavioral economics. That is, when you make a plan, you are more likely to think that it will work than that it won’t… There’s a set of biases that give hawks a better chance in debate, with lines like, “the surge is going to work.” Or “it will be a cakewalk,” you know, “they’ll be throwing roses in front of us,” and so on…

You also have a cultural narrative — basically on the hero-villain structure. The villain in this is Ahmadinejad who is inherently evil… It’s a dangerous world out there, so the conservatives will say. So the question is, ‘What do you do?’ and the answer, in the hero/villain plot structure, is the hero has to fight the villain… The assumption is that we’re moral and anything we do to fight this villain is going to be moral, and that could be utterly ridiculous. We could create utter catastrophe over there, but the story is what matters in the public mind… and if we stick to it, and we’re virtuous, and we’re strong, we’ll win.

That narrative shows up all the time on TV shows, in movies and in political campaigns, and it showed up in the first Gulf War and the Iraq War, and it is being played again. So you’ve got to undercut it. That is a very tricky thing to do. If you try to undercut it simply with military facts, you’ve got a problem. That is, you say, ‘We can’t fight wars on three fronts, we can’t even do it on two fronts. We’re losing in Afghanistan.’ That doesn’t make us look very heroic. That doesn’t fit with the U.S. as the strong super power, so you’ve got to fight that idea. What you need is a different idea, and what Obama has done has been very interesting so far… In discussing foreign policy — for example, in the American Prospect article called the “The Obama Doctrine” — Obama’s idea is not just based on the national interest and being the strongest super power, etc., but also on the idea that we want a just world, that the most difficult problems in the world are not at the level of the state, but at the level of the person: that poverty, hunger, disease, women’s rights and so on, are major issues in the world, as well as global warming, and that we have to take a different view of the world, we have to be the world’s greatest moral force. I think that’s the story that you’re going to get from Obama: We have to be the world’s greatest moral force again, and we’ve lost it. We’ve lost it because we’ve used our military badly and we’ve had bad judgment. That’s the story and the question is, ‘Will it go?’ ‘Will it fly?’

George Lakoff of Berkeley and The Political Mind in conversation with Chris Lydon, July 10, 2008.

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