Don't think of an adjective . . .
In a New York Times Magazine article about political framing, Matt Bai profiles the recent political life of George Lakoff, formerly “an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley, renowned as one of the great, if controversial, minds in cognitive science but largely unknown outside of it.” Lakoff’s short book about politics, Don’t Think of An Elephant, was a best seller, selling 200,000 copies through Chelsea Green, a Vermont based publisher of environmental books. His next book, forthcoming in 2006, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Bai discusses Lakoff’s little-written-about academic feud with his mentor Noam Chomsky. According to Bai, Lakoff “rebelled against his mentor, Noam Chomsky, the most celebrated linguist of the century. The technical basis of their argument, which for a time cleaved the linguistics world in two, remains well beyond the intellectual reach of anyone who actually had fun in college.” Bai also notes differences between Lakoff and “unapologetically partisan pollster” Frank Luntz, who believes that framing isn’t as important as Lakoff thinks, especially since framing only works in selling ideas that voters are already favorable towards. Through Bai’s research, the two political minds actually communicated with each other. Bai writes: “After we talked, Luntz challenged Lakoff, through me, to a ‘word-off’ in which each man would try to ‘move’ a roomful of 30 swing voters. Lakoff responded by counterchallenging Luntz to an ‘on-the-spot conceptual analysis.’ Since I had no idea what either of them was talking about, I let it go.”
• RELATED: In a guest commentary for MobyLives last fall, Lakoff’s publisher, Margo Baldwin of Chelsea Green, described her bizarre confrontation with The New York Times when it insisted that Lakoff’s book was a bestseller—in the “how-to” category.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.