The Obama Code

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big picture stuff, conservatism, liberalism and progressivism, Obama Administration

George Lakoff dissects Obama’s moral vision in The Seven Intellectual Underpinnings of the Obama Code. It appeared in concert with Obama’s SOTU address, on several websites – you may have already seen it. If not, it’s a bit long but well worth reading. Some excerpts: st obama

…Obama’s second …move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought. Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy—putting oneself in other people’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better—what Obama has called an “ethic of excellence” toward creating “a more perfect union” politically.

Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link. Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy—to be “our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper”—and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.

The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality — for everyone, not just for certain individuals. If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly. Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than anyone else. Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.

This is key:

Obama has consistently maintained that what I, in my writings, have called “progressive” values are fundamental American values. From his perspective, he is not a progressive; he is just an American.

That is a crucial intellectual move.

Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility. They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider—who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody. Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire “free market,” which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone’s interests. They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states—with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world….

We talk all the time about how empathy is crucial distinction between left and right.

The third crucial idea behind the Obama Code is biconceptualism, the knowledge that a great many people who identify themselves ideologically as conservatives, or politically as Republicans or Independents, share those fundamental American values—at least on certain issues. Most “conservatives” are not thoroughgoing movement conservatives, but are what I have called “partial progressives” sharing Obama’s American values on many issues. Where such folks agree with him on values, Obama tries, and will continue to try, to work with them on those issues if not others. And, he assumes, correctly I believe, that the more they come to think in terms of those American values, the less they will think in terms of opposing conservative values.

Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural. Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger evangelicals. He shares Obama’s views of the environment, poverty, health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a conservative. Biconceptualism is behind his “courting” of Republican members of Congress. The idea is not to accept conservative moral views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already share what he sees as fundamentally American values…

Biconceptualism is central to Obama’s attempts to achieve unity —a unity based on his understanding of American values…

Finally, as a consequence of low empathy…

Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral—and economic—values is fallacious. Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis…

I’ve often said that conservatives cannot see past the ends of their own noses. Read the whole thing.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. ironranger  •  Feb 25, 2009 @8:46 am

    I have a suspicion that as children, conservatives were much better at coloring within the lines than connect the dot activities.

  2. maha  •  Feb 25, 2009 @9:10 am

    This is a fascinating piece, and I’m glad you called it to our attention. The bit that comes under “I hadn’t thought about it that way before” for me is that right-wingers can’t see systemic causation. I’ve ranted in the past that wingnuts are willfully blind to the interconnections of things, and that they tend to think of issues and policies in isolation without considering larger contexts. But to understand that they deny the possibility of systemic causation really does explain a lot. For example, it shows us why they continue to frame the financial meltdown — a systemic failure if there ever was one — in terms of individual effect or responsibility.

    That some people define “progressive” and “conservative” by policies instead of by values (see longer piece) hit home, also. This is something you see on Left and Right, but I think it’s more widespread on the Right. It explains why conservatives view all spending increases as “liberal” even when the spending has nothing whatsoever to do with liberal values.

    Finally, if you go to the link and read the comments on Buzzflash, you see that lefties can be assholes, too. Some shockingly stupid comments, I’m afraid.

  3. k  •  Feb 25, 2009 @1:01 pm

    It is not so much about empathy, as about dealing with everybody’s reality, not just your own. Acknowledging that and recognizing that maximizing everyone’s chances is not just the right thing to do but the practical and practicable thing to do. to me that is the difference between forward and backward societies.

  4. joanr16  •  Feb 25, 2009 @1:16 pm

    Yes, moonbat, thanks for that. I printed off the whole piece from buzzflash so I can digest it slowly, and maybe in future give better answers to Obama’s critics than my usual, “Oh, you’re just a poopyhead.” (Hey, it’s been rough defending that stimulus bill! My heart wasn’t always in it 100%.)

    Speaking of percentages, CNN reports that its poll taken immediately after last night’s address had astonishing results. 68% of respondents had a “very positive” reaction to the address, and another 24% had a “somewhat positive” reaction. That leaves only 8% of respondents with a “negative” reaction to Obama’s speech. (Of course, take this with a ton of salt, as there were only 484 respondents in the poll.)

    The MSM is now comparing Obama to Reagan, which naturally makes this old progressive-American want to barf. If Obama can back up last night’s address with actions, that will be something. It’ll certainly leave old Ronnie Rayguns in the dust.

  5. moonbat  •  Feb 25, 2009 @3:19 pm

    It is not so much about empathy, as about dealing with everybody’s reality, not just your own. Acknowledging that and recognizing that maximizing everyone’s chances is not just the right thing to do but the practical and practicable thing to do.

    k, I agree with you. The phrase “when everybody wins, everybody wins (including me)” is a way of stating it. When someone else is helped, that help, or the consequences thereof, eventually comes around to benefit me. By contrast, conservatives believe life is a zero-sum game, that if someone wins, someone else loses, and they’re all about making sure they are the winners.

    Empathy is a loose term for the ability to understand others, which facilitates seeing that life works in an “everyone benefits” way, instead of in a zero-sum fashion.

  6. Pat  •  Feb 25, 2009 @11:47 pm

    Lakoff is fantastic. Especially notable is his concept of contextual frames. What he predicted in talks he gave to democratic organizations several years ago is coming to pass. He spoke of larger contextual frames that would subsume those inherent in right-wing talking points.

    There is legitimate debate on the limits of his family models and what they explain but much of what he writes is spot on. I’ve blogged on both the Nurturant Parent family model and the Strict Father family model.

    The talking points thrown out by the right are in sharp juxtaposition with Christian values and icons which suit conservatives when it comes to crosses in pubiic places but not when it comes to the basic tenets of charity in policy. See they really are for the separation of church and state.

    It’s the church of whats-happenin’-now…a theology of whatever-I-want-to-make-of-it. In this alternate universe all our GOP in congress are destined for sainthood.

    Obama discusses his philosophy of helping those who need help in one of his books, crediting his mother with instilling these values in him. Some of that is reminiscent of mudita: “sympathetic” or “altruistic” joy, the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it.

    Quite a beautiful little concept, eh?

    Trump that wingnuts.

  7. PW  •  Feb 26, 2009 @5:25 pm

    Having spent 20 years living outside the USA, I was stunned when I got back at the extent to which value was measured in economic terms. It was done by both right and left, though on the left (as for example supporters of and toilers in arts organizations) it was done a little more ruefully! If it isn’t worth something in the “free market,” then it isn’t worth something. No wonder the right clings to religiosity as a handy way of appearing to have some moral concerns.

    BTW, empathy is not all that loose. It implies the ability and willingness to see/feel something from another’s point of view. Empathy is “intimate understanding” while sympathy is more closely associated with pity and sorrow — is more distant and self-preserving than empathy. Hope that doesn’t sound pedantic, but it’s really an important difference not unlike the difference between “I’m sorry you took offense at what I said” and “I’m sorry I offended you.” Both empathy and real apology are several steps away from the narcissism and irresponsibility so often associated with faux apologies and quick expressions of sympathy from some careful distance.

  8. moonbat  •  Feb 26, 2009 @10:11 pm

    PW – thanks for the clarification on empathy. I’m old enough to remember the shift that you describe – to where we’re at today when everything is measured economically. It was one of those beliefs that fell out of the sky – somehow everyone felt they had to do this, or they wouldn’t be taken seriously, and there was no easy way to rebut this mindset.



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