Spare the Rod, Spoil the Country

How George Lakoff almost gets it right.

Sooner or later everyone who is against the Iraq War faces the patriotism question. If you loved your country, the logic goes, you’d support it in its struggles with other nations.

Republicans like Pat Buchanan or Chuck Hagel can get a pass on this challenge, because the public has been pounded for decades with the idea that conservatives are more patriotic than liberals. But as the Swift Boat ads proved, even a Democrat with war wounds and medals for valor can have his patriotism called into question. Even losing limbs for your country, like Max Cleland did, won’t establish your bona fides if you’re a Democrat.

Within the party, right-leaning Democrats will play the patriotism card against left-leaning Democrats. In the Democratic Leadership Council’s magazine BluePrint , Will Marshall writes:

The right answer to GOP jingoism, however, cannot be left-wing anti-Americanism. Of course, progressives can criticize their country and still be patriotic. Indeed, one of the highest forms of patriotism is being honest about your country's flaws and taking responsibility for fixing them. But it is what's in your heart that counts. Are your objections rooted in a warm and generous affection for your country, or in a curdled contempt for it? Too many Americans aren't sure if the left is emotionally on America's side. And that's a big problem for Democrats. ... Democrats need to be choosier about the political company they keep, distancing themselves from the pacifist and anti-American fringe.

Marshall never says exactly who the bad company is, but gradually his article rounds up the usual suspects -- Michael Moore, Amnesty International, MoveOn, and “upscale white liberals.” He contrasts this anti-American fringe with “a progressive patriotism determined to succeed in Iraq and win the war on terror.”

As a liberal Democrat who simultaneously wants to withdraw from Iraq and feels a warm and generous affection for my country (as does Michael Moore, I strongly suspect), I have to wonder what (other than decades of Republican demonization) has made my heart suspect in the first place. Why can’t we define a progressive patriotism that wants to get our troops out of Iraq? Why can’t it be patriotic to use American power wisely and judiciously rather than rampaging like a bull in a china shop?

The Liberal Double Standard

Exhibit A in the case against liberal patriotism is the double standard: Liberals judge the United States more harshly than they judge other countries. Marshall points to the liberal obsession with prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo:

By dwelling obsessively on U.S. misdeeds while ignoring the far more heinous crimes of what is quite possibly the most barbaric insurgency in modern times, anti-war critics betray an anti-American bias that undercuts their credibility.

The core of this charge goes back at least as far as the Cold War, when liberals often devoted more attention to the lesser evil of America and its allies than to the greater evil of Communism. Lieutenant Calley killed hundreds at My Lai, but Pol Pot killed millions in Cambodia. The crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile (brought to power by a CIA-sponsored coup) were small potatoes compared to what went on in the Soviet gulags. Israel might not have treated the Palestinians with kid gloves, and other US allies like the Shah of Iran and the revolving-door generalissimos of Central America may have been cruel to their political opponents, but weren’t the abuses in Soviet client states like Syria and Cuba much worse?

This point seems devastating to the conservatives who make it, but most liberals simply stare in incomprehension. Of course I hold my country to a higher standard. It’s my country! I want to live in the greatest country in the World, not one that is marginally better than the Soviet Union. Sure, a bad day in the American prison at Abu Ghraib is probably a whole lot better than a good day at Abu Ghraib under Saddam. But is that the standard we want to be judged by -- that we’re better than Saddam? I dream of an America so exalted that you’d have to wash Saddam out of your brain before you could even think about America.

Does that make me unpatriotic?

The Worldview Gap

The answer I gave in the last section seems to me to devastate the conservative attack, but most conservatives simply stare in incomprehension. I said something-or-other about Saddam and the Soviet Union and America, and it sounded very emotional, but it was all some kind of gibberish. Even if it seemed to make sense while I was saying it, the ideas won’t stick in their heads. The next time someone attacks the liberals who “blame America first,” they’ll start nodding and they won’t even remember that somebody had a response to that charge.

This kind of mutual incomprehension goes way beyond logic and evidence. Liberals and conservatives don’t just believe a different set of facts, they cut the world up in such a way that the other side’s arguments are square pegs that won’t fit into their round holes. You can hand a peg to someone on the other side, and they may stare at it and shift it from one hand to the other. But ultimately they have no place to put it, so they’ll have to throw it away. The challenge in all these arguments isn’t to explain what makes sense to you, but to explain it in a way that makes sense to them.

George Lakoff seems to understand this problem, but so far his suggested solutions have fallen short. Try as he might, I don’t think George can step outside his own liberal worldview long enough to grok real conservatism. He can mold his theoretical clay into the shape of a conservative, but he can’t breathe the breath of life into it. Still, his theory is a good place to start.

Lakoff’s Theory

In a nutshell, Lakoff believes that Americans understand government and politics by analogy to family. Nations are big and abstract and hard to wrap your mind around, but we live our whole lives inside families of one sort or another. If America is one big family, we can start to make sense out of it. Otherwise it’s just too big to get a handle on.

The problem is, not everybody thinks about family in the same way. If you listen to parents debate a family issue like spanking, for example, you’ll hear the same kind of liberal/conservative disconnect: two dueling monologues that never quite succeed in becoming a dialog. Lakoff explains this as a split between two conflicting family stereotypes: the Strict Father stereotype and the Nurturant Parent stereotype. (Bad reproductions of Lakoff’s theory talk about two different families, as if any actual family lived up to its stereotype. Don’t go there. The conflict is between two ideal images of what a family should be, not what any actual family is.)

In the Strict Father stereotype, authoritarian parents distribute rewards and punishments in order to train their children to follow the right rules. In the Nurturant Parent stereotype, the parents create a safe and supportive environment in which the children’s full potential can unfold. Strict fathers worry about spoiling their children, nurturant parents about stifling them.

Now make the analogy to government and domestic policy. A Strict Father government tries to get the rewards and punishments right: If somebody follows the rules and succeeds, they should get rich, but somebody who doesn’t should be poor or even go to jail. If wealth isn’t sweet enough or poverty sour enough, nobody’s going to learn to follow the rules. A Nurturant Parent government tries to keep everybody safe and give them the tools for success: stop pollution, regulate dangerous products, teach criminals a useful trade in prison, and prevent people from slipping so far down the drain of poverty that they can’t climb back out. A Strict Father government worries about spoiling the poor by giving them welfare without expecting them to work; a Nurturant Parent government worries about stifling the poor by cutting them off from educational and economic opportunities.

So far, so good. But what about foreign policy? The analogy is not as tight here, but it still works. One way of applying the Strict Father vision is to see the US as the Father of Nations: It’s our proper role to reward and punish other nations according to their behavior. In this view, the unanswerable justification of the Iraq War is that Saddam was bad. He deserved to be punished, and if the US wouldn’t punish him, then who would? Rogue nation is an analogy to spoiled child.

The other way that the Strict Father model applies is that the Father speaks for the family. President Bush plays the role of the father of our country, and he has taken us to war. To criticize him is to criticize the family; it means siding with the family’s enemies. This is how anti-war Democrats are seen as unpatriotic.

The Class Issue

One thing Lakoff’s theory does well is resolve the what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas paradox: How can conservatives claim to represent the common man while painting liberals as elitists? (Notice the “upscale white liberals” among Marshall’s villains.) Sure, conservative domestic policies favor the rich and make life harder for the working class, and conservative wars are fought by working class kids rather than the Bush twins. But the Strict Father stereotype is a working class view of family while Nurturant Parent reflects the self-image of the educated professional class. Conservatives have succeeded by marrying working-class logic to plutocratic policies.

But what can we do about that?

This is where Lakoff goes off the rails, in my opinion. He wants to argue that the Nurturant Parent model is right. Lakoff wants us to acknowledge the Nurturant Parent logic that holds liberalism together and teach everyone to frame political issues in that way. In other words, get the working class to change their politics by changing their view of family.

I say: Good luck with that, but count me out. Views of family change over generations, not over election cycles. If we can’t frame liberal policies in terms that make sense to the working class right now, they’re not going to vote for us.

The right answer, I believe, is for liberals to learn the Strict Father worldview the way they would learn a second language. A Canadian politician who never bothered to translate his slogans into French wouldn’t get very far, and a Democrat who can’t go into the Heartland and explain his policies to people who think in Strict Father terms is doomed.

Does that mean abandoning liberalism? I don’t think so. Strict Father is as much a language as it is a set of values. Once we master the language I think we can say what we need to say.

Turning Strict Father Upside-Down

The key question in any strict-father framing is: Who’s the father? If America is the Father of Nations and President Bush is the father of America, then he wins. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

America was founded on this principle: Government comes from the citizens, not citizens from the government. In other words: Government is not the father. Who is the father? We are. You are. The responsible citizen is the father. The government is the child. It needs discipline.

Remember that liberal double standard? It makes perfect sense in a Strict Father worldview once you realize that the government is the child, not the father: You always apply a higher standard to your own child.

Imagine you are at the mall and you see a group of kids misbehaving. Maybe you let it go -- you’re too busy to parent everybody’s kids. Then you look closer and see that one of the kids is yours. Doesn’t that change the whole picture? You don’t let it go, and you don’t treat all the kids the same. You haul your own kid out of there and you make sure he knows that what he did wrong and that he should never do it again. He’s going to want to tell you that the other kids were even worse, but you’re not going to buy that excuse, even if it’s true. Raising those other kids is somebody else’s problem; your kid is your problem.

Spare the rod, spoil the country

If my Dad gets into a fight with some other kid’s dad, I should be loyal and support him. But if my kid is starting fights with the other kids on the playground, I need to haul him out of there and take him home.

That’s the message to take to the Heartland: Our country has been misbehaving in Iraq because our government is spoiled. We’ve been over-indulgent as citizens. We’ve been holding our president to a low standard and letting him get away with too much. Sure, we all love to cheer for America and nobody enjoys criticizing it. But we have a responsibility. If we don’t discipline our government, who will?

It would be easy to buy the president’s excuses. But I don’t want to hear about what Saddam did. I don’t care what the other governments get away with. I’m not buying any excuses about insurgents chopping off heads. If the other countries jumped off a cliff, should we do it too?

We don’t want to have a spoiled country or a delinquent country. We want an excellent country. And we’re not going to get one if we don’t start disciplining our government.

Doug Muder

22 August 2005

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