Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea

Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea

by George Lakoff

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Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has relentlessly invoked the word "freedom." Al-Qaeda attacked us because "they hate our freedom." The U.S. can strike preemptively because "freedom is on the march." Social security should be privatized in order to protect individual freedoms. The 2005 presidential inaugural speech was a kind of crescendo: the words "freedom," "free," and "liberty," were used forty-nine times in President Bush's twenty-minute speech.

In Whose Freedom?, Lakoff surveys the political landscape and offers an essential map of the Republican battle plan that has captured the hearts and minds of Americans—and shows how progressives can fight to reinvigorate this most beloved of American political ideas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312426477
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/15/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 942,075
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

George Lakoff is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, as well as many seminal books on linguistics. He lives and teaches in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt

Whose Freedom?

The Battle over America's Most Important Idea

By George Lakoff

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2006 George Lakoff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8970-1

Excerpted from Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea by George Lakoff. Copyright Â? 2006 by George Lakoff. Published in July 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Ideas matter. Perhaps no idea has mattered more in American history than the idea of freedom.
The central thesis of this book is simple. There are two very different views of freedom in America today, arising from two very different moral and political worldviews dividing the country.
The traditional idea of freedom is progressive. One can see traditional values most clearly in the direction of change that has been demanded and applauded over two centuries. America has been a nation of activists, consistently expanding its most treasured freedoms:
Â?         The expansion of citizen participation and voting rights from white male property owners to non-property owners, to former slaves, to women, to those excluded by prejudice, to younger voters
Â?         The expansion of opportunity, good jobs, better working conditions, and benefits to more and more Americans, from men to women, from white to nonwhite, from native born to foreign born, from English speaking to non-English speaking
Â?         The expansion of worker rights--freedom from inhumane working conditions--through unionization: from slave labor to the eight-hour day, the five-day week, worker compensation, sick leave, overtime pay, paid vacations, pregnancy leave, and so on
Â?         The expansion of public education from grade school to high school to college to postgraduate education
Â?         The expansion of knowledge through science from isolated figures like Benjamin Franklin to scientific institutions in the great universities and governmental institutions like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health
Â?         The expansion of public health and life expectancy
Â?         The expansion of consumer protection through more effective government regulation of immoral or irresponsible corporations and class action suits within the civil justice system
Â?         The expansion of diverse media and free speech from small newspapers to the vast media/Internet possibilities of today
Â?         The expansion of access to capital from wealthy land-holders and bankers to all the ways ordinary people--more and more of them--can borrow money today
Â?         The expansion, throughout the world, of freedom from colonial rule--for the most part with the backing of American foreign policy
These are among the progressive trends in American history. Progress has not always been linear, and the stages have been far from perfect, but the trends have been there--until recently. The rise of radical conservatism in America threatens to stop and reverse these and other progressive trends together with the progressive ideal of freedom that has propelled them all.
Indeed, the reversal has proceeded at a rapid pace. Voting rights are being threatened, good-paying jobs eliminated or exported, benefits cut or eliminated. Public education is being gutted and science is under attack. The media is being consolidated, corporate regulations eliminated, the civil justice system threatened, public health programs cut. Unions are being destroyed and benefits taken away. There are new bankruptcy laws limiting access to capital for ordinary people. And we are seeing the promotion of a new form of free-market colonialism in the guise of free-trade agreements and globalization, and even the use of military force to support these policies.
But for radical conservatives, these developments are not movements away from freedom but toward their version of freedom. Where most Americans in the last century have seen an expansion of freedoms, these conservatives see curtailments of what they consider "freedom." What makes them "conservatives" is not that they want to conserve the achievements of those who fought to deepen American democracy. It's the reverse: They want to go back to before these progressive freedoms were established. What they want to conserve is, in most cases, the situation prior to the expansion of traditional American ideas of freedom: before the great expansion of voting rights, before unions and worker protections and pensions, before civil rights legislation, before public health and environmental protections, before Social Security and Medicare, before scientific discoveries contradicted fundamentalist religious dogma. That is why they harp so much on narrow so-called originalist readings of the Constitution--on its letter, not its spirit--on "activist judges" rather than an inherently activist population.
We will be asking three questions:
Â?         How are radical conservatives achieving their reversal of freedom?
Â?         Why do they want to reverse traditional freedoms?
Â?         What do they mean by "freedom"?
Freedom defines what America is--and it is now up for grabs. The radical right is in the process of redefining the very idea. To lose freedom is a terrible thing; to lose the idea of freedom is even worse.
The constant repetition of the words "liberty" and "freedom" by the right-wing message machine is one of the mechanisms of the idea theft in progress. When the words are used by the right, their meaning shifts--gradually, almost imperceptibly, but it shifts.
The speeches at the 2004 Republican National Convention constantly invoked the words "freedom," "free," and "liberty." George W. Bush, in his second inaugural address, used these words forty-nine times in a twenty-minute speech--every forty-third word. And if you take into account the opposites--"tyranny," "dictatorship," "slavery," and so on--as well as associated words like "democracy," the proportion rises higher. From freedom fries to the Freedom Film Festival, the right wing is claiming the words "liberty" and "freedom" as their brand: Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal, Liberty University, Liberty Counsel, Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and the list goes on.
To many progressives, the right's use of "freedom" is pure hypocrisy, and George W. Bush is the leading hypocrite. How, liberals ask, can Bush mean anything at all by "freedom" when he imprisons hundreds of people in GuantÃnamo indefinitely with no due process in the name of freedom; when he sanctions torture in the name of freedom; when he starts a preemptive war on false premises and retroactively claims it is being waged in the name of freedom; when he causes the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians in the name of freedom; when he supports oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, while claiming to promote freedom in the Islamic world; when he sanctions the disenfranchisement of African-American voters in Florida and Ohio in the name of freedom; when he orders spying on American citizens in America without a warrant in the name of freedom; when, in the name of freedom, he seeks to prevent women from making their own medical decisions, to stop loving couples who want to marry, to stop families from being able to remove life supports when their loved ones are all but technically dead.

Excerpted from Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff. Copyright © 2006 George Lakoff. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of George Lakoff's Whose Freedom? We hope they will enrich your experience as you explore Lakoff's provocative exposé of the rhetoric that empowers America's conservatives.


Hailed by Howard Dean as "one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement," George Lakoff is a revered adviser within the Democratic Party, a bestselling author, and a renowned scholar in the field of cognitive linguistics. Whose Freedom? combines all three perspectives for an engaging, authoritative, passionately argued survey of America's war over the word "freedom."

Since 9/11, the Bush administration has relentlessly invoked the word "freedom," using it to justify everything from preemptive strikes on Iraq to the privatization of Social Security. Yet many Democrats see President Bush's use of the word as meaningless and opportunistic—and ultimately leading to the curtailment of the very freedoms he claims to support. Whose Freedom? reveals the ways in which language and repetition in the media have been used to enact a devastating, calculated redefinition of freedom. Surveying a broad swath of the American political and cultural landscape—including religion, the economy, foreign policy, and science—Lakoff explains the mechanisms that have been used by the right to hijack our most cherished political idea. In the high-stakes duel over the beliefs most central to American life, Whose Freedom? offers a rousing strategy to restore the traditional American idea of freedom, while strengthening the very foundation of our democracy.

1. How did you define freedom before reading Whose Freedom? Did you consider your definition to be progressive? Were you surprised to discover that the progressive definition is also the more traditional one, as George Lakoff maintains in the book's opening pages?

2. What "frames" or cultural influences have shaped your political opinions throughout your life? In an enlightened society marked by considerable scientific discovery, why do frames still trump facts in shaping opinions?

3. In what way can the contested nature of language be an advantage for progressives?

4. Using Chapter 2 as a reference point, identify the folk theories that prevail in your community. Which folk theories have been the most difficult for you to reject?

5. Applying the author's logic of simple freedom, which cornerstones of freedom seem to be most in jeopardy today? How would you counter an argument that said equality and fairness are not inextricably linked to the definition of freedom?

6. Which aspects of freedom are currently not being contested in America?

7. Lakoff argues that the nation is understood metaphorically as a family, and that there are two very different models of parenting that reflect two opposing worldviews. Which model shapes your political views? Why has the authoritarian, paternalistic strict father model been allowed to flourish in so many cultures throughout history?

8. Which of the subgroups described in Chapters 5 and 6 (socioeconomic progressives, identity-politics progressives, environmental progressives, civil liberties progressives, spiritual progressives, antiauthoritarian progressives, idealists, pragmatists, militants, financial conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, fundamentalists, and neoconservatives) do you predict will prevail in future American political structures?

9. In Chapter 7, "Causation and Freedom," Lakoff begins with the observation that "the progressives argue on the basis of systemic causation (within a social, ecological, or economic system) and the conservatives argue on the basis of direct causation (by a single individual)." He goes on to explain the ways in which our understanding of causation can have profound effects on public policy. In what way does it empower us to be aware of the two models of causation?

10. How should "free" be defined in the notion of free markets? Do free markets undermine democratic freedom? Were the premises of the economic liberty myth, outlined in Chapter 9, readily believed by the American public?

11. In your opinion, is it right that American corporations in many ways act like governments, as discussed in Chapter 9? Should corporations be entitled to the same freedoms and liberties as an individual citizen?

12. How has religious rhetoric shaped American perceptions of freedom in recent years? How does the rhetoric of progressive Christianity differ from that of fundamentalist Christianity? What would the American political landscape look like without the influence of religion?

13. Based on what you read in Chapter 11, what seems to be the ultimate goal of George W. Bush's foreign policy? How did framing help him persuade Congress (and a substantial number of voters) to back many of these policies? Who has been liberated by his initiatives? Have Bush's policies been effective at spreading freedom abroad? What kind of freedom?

14. What fallacies can you identify in the radical conservative definition of freedom and liberty? To whom are those arguments appealing? How are these groups able to downplay FDR's goals of freedom from want and fear?

15. What would it take to enact the calls to action that form the closing paragraphs of Chapter 11?

16. How was 9/11 framed in terms of freedom? What were the consequences, in domestic and foreign policy, of this framing?

17. Is it possible to create a truly inclusive freedom—one in which the answer to "Whose freedom?" is "Everyone's"?

18. What does the author's closing anecdote (regarding the use of MRIs in examining partisan thinking) say about the future of political rhetoric? Where does the greatest hope for reframing freedom lie? In the media? Universities? Popular culture?

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