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Little Blue Book' Author May Have Come Up With Idea Behind 'You Didn't Build That


"There is no such thing as a self-made man. Every businessman has used the vast American infrastructure, which the taxpayers paid for, to make his money."

George Lakoff

The "Little Blue Book," described by one blogger as a "wink-wink-nudge-nudge ironic-but-not-really reference to Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book" and praised effusively by such luminaries of the Left as Van Jones and George Soros, has already been exposed by multiple outlets, including theBlaze's own Erica Ritz, as deluded at best, and dangerous at worst. However, as anyone who follows the current administration will tell you, dangerous ideas are not precluded from entering politics. In fact, they frequently seem to exert an almost magnetic appeal on political actors simply by virtue of being dangerous.

This may explain the career of the "Little Blue Book's" author, George Lakoff, who has honed the art of spin peddling that he demonstrates to disturbing perfection in the "Little Blue Book" with a series of other books that hit precisely the same notes, albeit with less precision. And dangerous though these ideas are, they appear to have had an impact on the Democratic party long before "The Little Blue Book" was even an abstract, and before Van Jones' name was synonymous with this administration's troubling ideological roots.

How do we know? Because President Obama's infamous "You didn't build that gaffe" appears to have originated not with Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, but instead with Lakoff himself, in a little-read 2004 book titled "Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives." And while that title isn't nearly as punchy as "The Little Blue Book," the book that bears its name appears to have been read by enough Democratic power players to still have an influence. William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection was the first to notice this connection, and spells it out with this quote from Lakoff (emphasis Jacobson's):

There is no such thing as a self-made man. Every businessman has used the vast American infrastructure, which the taxpayers paid for, to make his money. He did not make his money alone. He used taxpayer infrastructure. He got rich on what other taxpayers had paid for: the banking system, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and the judicial system, where nine-tenths of cases involve corporate law. These taxpayer investments support companies and wealthy investors. There are no self-made men! The wealthy have gotten rich using what previous taxpayers  have paid for. They owe the taxpayers of this country a great deal and should be paying it back.

Note - this was written in 2004, when Barack Obama was still barely a Senator, and Elizabeth Warren hadn't been heard of. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal expands on the connection:

The source, as with so much in left-wing politics these days, is George Lakoff, the University of California linguist who is the Democratic left's leading light on questions of cognition and rhetoric. That passage comes from "Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives," the only book we can think of with an imperative title, an imperative subtitle and a nominative sub-subtitle.[...]

No one denies that people alive today owe a debt to the past, but Lakoff and his fellow progressives seem to be under the misimpression that government is the only means by which we receive that sort of inheritance. The great industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries might have paid a lot of taxes, but that wasn't their primary contribution to the world of today.[...]

But rhetorical tropes like "There is no such thing as a self-made man" and "If you've got a business, you didn't build that" do just the opposite: They call attention to the way in which the progressive ideology goes against the American grain. Americans believe in rugged individualism and self-determination, and it is foolish for a national politician like Obama to mock those values.

Taranto's analysis raises an interesting question: If Lakoff's gift at framing is so substantial, then why would a statement that owes an unacknowledged debt to his work at bare minimum be considered a gaffe? The answer: Because, according to his colleague, the Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, Lakoff is actually terrible at linguistics and psychology, but covers it up with a skill in political hackery. This was essentially what Pinker wrote in a scathing review of Lakoff's book "Whose Freedom?" in 2006:

There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author's own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds.[...]

Lakoff's advice doesn't pass the giggle test. One can imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff's Orwellian advice to rebrand taxes as "membership fees." Surely no one has to hear the metaphor "tax relief" to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around as long as taxes have been around. (Even Canadians, who tolerate a far more expansive government, grumble about their taxes.) Also, "taxes" and "membership fees" are not just two ways of framing the same thing. If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail. And even if taxes were like membership fees, aren't lower membership fees better than higher ones, all else being equal? Why should anyone feel the need to defend the very idea of an income tax? Other than the Ayn Randian fringe, has anyone recently proposed abolishing it? [...]

According to Lakoff, the ideal parent in the conservative worldview loves and cares only for those of his children "who measure up," and believes that "affection is important, either as a reward for obedience or to prevent alienation through a show of love despite painful punishment." Lakoff provides no evidence from linguistics or from surveys to show that this ludicrous ogre is the prototype of fatherhood in any common American conception of the family.

This put-up job is typical of Lakoff's book. While he ostensibly offers a scholarly analysis of political thought, Lakoff cannot stop himself from drawing horns on the conservative portrait and a halo on the progressive one. Nowhere is this more egregious than in his claim that conservatives think in terms of direct rather than systemic causation. Lakoff seems unaware that conservatives have been making exactly this accusation against progressives for centuries.

In other words, Lakoff's communication style, grounded as it is in wishful thinking backed by metaphors alone, is a miserable failure when put under the hard microscope of factual scrutiny. Exactly like the President's "You didn't build that" statement. So perhaps the next time one of the President's speechwriters considers picking up a copy of one of Lakoff's books, they'll remember the reception to this line, and try some actual arguments, rather than the work of a man whose political ideas don't even pass muster with the academy.


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