Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Elmer Gantry

What George Lakoff analyzes scientifically and linguistically (see previous post), Sinclair Lewis dramatizes (somewhat melodramatically) in Elmer Gantry, his 1927 fictional satire on evangelical Christianity in America. Gantry is a master manipulator and rhetorical razzledazzler, who uses religion and human gullibility to gratify his own ego, satisfy his own desire, and build his own social power. He instinctively knows how to find the right frame and milk the right metaphor to take optimum advantage of his rhetorical situation.

Lakoff does not address the ethics of strategic framing, manipulation of metaphors, and the use of emotional appeals. Back in 1927, Lewis used those same methods to expose how they can be misused by a skillful and charismatic rhetorician to deceive, mislead, and harm an unsuspecting and ill-prepared audience.

Lewis uses the well-established frame of the American success story. In three different episodes Elmer Gantry rises from relative obscurity to a position of power. In the first third of the novel, he goes from irreligious student in a Baptist college to ordained minister to small congregation pastor. After disgracing himself, he begins the second episode as a traveling salesman and rises to prominence as right-hand-man and lover to a nationally known touring woman evangelist. After a fire destroys his evangelical ambitions as well as his lover and patron, Gantry joins the New Thought movement before becoming a Methodist minister, marrying a minister's daughter, who has been groomed as the perfect minister's wife, and moving up as a leading crusader against vice and the first radio broadcasting preacher in his state. He is nearly brought down by a couple of scam artists, who use sex and flattery to trap him in scandal, but, as on previous occasions, he manages to wriggle free, return to his pulpit, and begin eyeing his next young conquest in the choir.

Each episode follows the pattern of a rise to social power, sexual temptation, a fall from power, and a restoration. Gantry's success story is, of course, a satirical inversion of the popular narrative, designed to target evangelical hypocrisy, of which we have seen enough in the last 40 years to make Gantry's exploits seem tame. Lewis' satire seems almost equally directed at the naive and gullible followers of unscrupulous evangelism. It could also be read as a critique of the archetypal American success story itself, which not only falsifies the typical American experience but undermines the validity of the socially successful hero.

The irony is that, like every other creative writer, Lewis uses the methods of narrative framing, metaphor, strategic appeals to values, and emotionally connotative language in his critique of those who misuse such methods and those who fall for them.

Another way of viewing the novel is as a trickster narrative, in which the mischeievous "hero" clarifies the social norms by breaking them. The trickster character is often admired for challenging the social rules. In the case of Elmer Gantry, however, the character functions to expose the hypocrisy of our most socially admired social heros, our religious leaders.

While, in some respects, the novel seems dated, in others, it seems all too reflective of current reality, in which public figures in both religion and politics who uphold principles of "sexual purity" and "family values" and are vocal in their conemnation of those who don't act in accordance with such principles are revealed to be as two-faced and hypocritical as the now iconic Elmer Gantry.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Political Mind

If you liked Don't Think of an Elephant (2004) by George Lakoff, you will appreciate this 2008 expansion on his thesis. The Political Mind is a generally accessible account of how recent research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and linguistics informs current understanding of the way brain activity and metaphors unconsciously shape our political thought.

For example, conservatives refer to the "public option" in health insurance reform as a "government takeover" of the health care system, thus framing the debate in terms of an oppressive federal government overpowering and restricting the freedom of individuals and private insurers to function at will in the open marketplace. Lakoff's advice to health reform advocates might be not to accept this frame by trying to refute it, but rather to replace it with a different frame, such as consumer protection and empowerment through individual choice and market competition: "Uncle Sam looks out for YOU!" or "Uncle Sam has your back!" or something like that. (Does the "Uncle Sam" metaphor have too many negative connotations to work?)

Lakoff finds middle ground between traditional correspondence theory of meaning and post-modern constitutive theory. Brain biology and universal human experience in the material world shape language and language shapes the way we think. Change the language and linguistic frame, reinforce it enough, and rewire the brain (within limits, of course).

The book is easier to comprehend than to apply, but provides basic tools for analyzing political discourse and strategically producing it, something conservatives have been much more effective at than liberals. The brain biology gets a bit technical at times and a lay reader just has to take his word for it, but the cognitive psychology and linguistics seem fairly accessible, at least for the generally educated reader.

Lakoff uses post-modern critique effectively, but does not go so far as to discredit nature, biology, and science. Facts and logic have (relative) credibility, but the human mind doesn't naturally think in terms of facts and logic. To be persuasive, we must think strategically in terms of values, metaphors, and emotionally connotative language. So, which frame in the health reform debate is more "true"? It's not just a matter of facts and logic; it's also, perhaps primarily, a matter of values and world view.

If you believe in individual autonomy, free enterprise, market discipline, private charity, and limited government, then the "government takeover" metaphor will be true for you. If you believe in community, protection of basic human rights, the public good, consumer protection from profit-hungry private business, and government regulation of market excess and irregularity, then the metaphor of a protective government that promotes individual well-being and the common welfare will be true for you.

Since, according to Lakoff, most of us shift back and forth between both world views depending on context, it is possible to "frame" political discourse so that it appeals across conventional political divisions. The whole notion of right/left, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat polarities is itself a simplistic frame which ignores our full complexity.

I wish I were smart enough or ambitious enough to analyze Lakoff's own frame. I'll keep working on that.