Is John Howard a strong father or just an annoying older brother?
Voters see their nation as a family and its leaders as parents, says cognitive linguist George Lakoff. In the US, voters often see their leaders as the world’s parents — as if it was their job to protect smaller, less grown-up nations from threats like communism and terrorism. What if Australians see the world the same way?
Peter Hartcher’s new Quarterly Essay, ‘Bipolar Nation‘ captures our ambivalence about our adult status. Early in the essay he invokes the Mummy/Daddy metaphor with Labor as Mum and the Coalition as Dad. But in another section we’re all children. Hartcher quotes former diplomat Alan Renouf:
Like a child, Australia has shown a marked inclination to "stay with mother", first Britain and then the US, or as Bruce Grant has felicitously put it, to be the "spear carrier to the chief".
We like to think of ourselves as a nation of larrikins. ANZAC mythology casts the diggers as a rebellious adolescents — willing to lay down their lives for the mother country but at the same time keen to assert their independence through pranks, drunkenness, and insubordination. During the Second World War Prime Minister Curtin asserted Australia’s independence from Britain and sought an alliance with the United States. So while Australians may have left home, we still expect our parents to help us out if we get into trouble.
By joining America’s War on Terror and its military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Howard may have rekindled the sense that Australia is a nation which has yet to grow up. In this dangerous bin-Laden infested world Mark Latham’s adolescent cockiness looked irresponsible and Howard naturally assumed the role of sensible older brother. After all, he and Dad had a special relationship. On an recent trip to Washington Howard made it clear that we couldn’t go it alone:
The world will need America just as much in the future as the world has needed America in the past, and as the world needs America at the present. Those foolish enough to suggest that America should have a lesser role in the affairs of the world should pause and think whether they really mean what they say, because a world without a dedicated, involved America will be a lesser world, a less safe world, a more precarious world.
But our new Washington Dad turned out to be flaky and irresponsible. Perhaps he was having some kind of mid-life crisis where aircraft carriers and stealth bombers took the place of motorbikes and sports cars. However it happened we are now all caught up in a mess we can’t get ourselves out of. People couldn’t help thinking that maybe our big brother should have taken more responsibility for things himself.
Now Kevin Rudd looks like the sensible sibling — even Uncle Dick is taking him seriously. Rudd’s serious and rather dull image contrasts with the Coalition front bench’s teasing and bullying. Costello attacked Rudd by quoting from comic books, Tony Abbott accused him of telling porkies, and the Prime Minister now looks like the head bully in a schoolyard brawl. Few of the attacks touch on serious issues of policy.
As Peter Hartcher says, national security and the economy are typically seen as Daddy issues. According to the theory, if these issues are high on the public’s agenda during an election campaign then conservative parties have the advantage. But what if Australia’s national security isn’t in our own hands? And what if it’s the global marketplace that determines interest rates and unemployment levels? Who’s your Daddy now?
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Lakoff vs Pinker
George Lakoff and Steven Pinker go head to head over Lakoff’s 2006 book Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea.
Block That Metaphor! Pinker’s review in the New Republic.
When Cognitive Science Enters Politics. Lakoff’s reply.
George Lakoff’s tendentious theory of everything. Metaphorical Limits. Pinker hits back.
Beyond Beauty and Wonder. Lakoff replies to Pinker’s reply.
Frame Game. Geoffrey Nunberg joins the debate.
Thinking Points: Communicating our American Values and Vision
From the Rockridge Institute:
Thinking Points: Communicating our American Values and Vision is George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute’s handbook for the grassroots progressive community. You, the progressive community, have expressed a need for a short, easy-to-read systematic account of the progressive vision, for the morals and principles that apply across issue areas, and for all the essentials of framing. That, along with extensive argument analysis and an important new explanation of the so-called political center, is what we’ve written. We are confident that this book will empower progressives to express themselves in an authentic, values-driven fashion.
‘Competing Visions of Parental Roles and Ideological Constraint’
Political scientists David Barker and James Tinnick conduct an empirical study to test Lakoff’s theory. The researchers "were impressed at the degree to which Lakoff’s thesis holds up under empirical scrutiny." [Abstract].