The Alternative to Bush's Family

The fact that the Republicans succeeded in appropriating the terms "family values" and have become the knights of "morality" is their most significant victory, says Prof. George Lakoff, a Berkeley linguist.

Democratic America cannot calm down after Bush's reelection. "God," said the minister at Glide Church in San Francisco, "We prayed to you, we asked for your help, we believed in you, but you chose to test us. We beseeched you, please, don't give him four more years, but you did not listen to us. We will not despair, God, we will not give up, we will not emigrate to Canada. We believe, God, that you have a plan. We do not understand it, but we will keep praying, believing and hoping for the best. Amen."

The prayer at Glide Church is very different from thousands of prayers said every Sunday throughout the United States. Glide is not merely a church; it is a shelter for all those whom Bush's policy has cast out of the political and social arena - the homeless, the hungry, the sick, those with HIV and AIDS, homosexuals. We want you, the minister told the diverse crowd, we love you and support you. We are your family.

The family, experts say, not the war, determined the outcome of the elections in the United States. Indeed, the concept of the conservative family - based on the institution of marriage, belief in God, parental responsibility for children's religious and moral education, prevention of abortions, fighting crime and supporting the death penalty - was at the heart of the conservative election campaign.

Few noted the fact that the connection among the various components of the conservative family is not self-evident. The oddest coupling pertains to the support for the death sentence on the one hand and the struggle against abortion on the other. If the sanctity of life is the main thing, if we were created by God and only he determines the beginning and end of our life, then we cannot put an end to a man's life, guilty as he may be, with our own hands.

Objection to abortion and support for capital punishment show that the central value at the heart of the conservative world of values is not the sanctity of life but rather man's responsibility for his acts. In a world guided by principles of reward and punishment, objection to abortion and support for the death penalty go hand-in-hand. The life of every man is supposed to reflect his acts. According to this world view, help for the poor, the weak and the unemployed releases people from responsibility for their acts and leads to idleness and social dependence - which beget moral and social deterioration. By comparison, reducing the welfare state requires people to assume responsibility for their life, drives them to work harder and turns them into better people. This world view enables those who oppose abortions to object to social and health services for children who are born, to reject the need for supporting mothers during pregnancy and parenthood, and to act to reduce state education.

The fact that the Republicans succeeded in appropriating the terms "family values" and have become the knights of "morality" is their most significant victory, says Prof. George Lakoff, a Berkeley linguist. Lakoff clearly shows how the Republican victory was carefully planned and built gradually. If the Democrats wish to regain power, he argues, they must study this victory and learn how language molds politics.

"If God created you, we want you," Glide's minister tells his audience. Thus, with one well-aimed sentence, he presents the Glide family opposite the Bush family, sharpening the Democratic message. This message sees society in terms of a pluralistic family whose members support each other in times of need. The Democratic "family state" is much closer to the prevalent definition of a unit characterized by caring and mutual responsibility. The Democrats should not fear the family concept - they, not Bush, represent traditional family values - the readiness to see those who live with us under the "same roof" as members with equal rights whom we must support and protect when necessary.

If Benjamin Netanyahu has imported the language of the American right wing to Israel, the Israeli left must see Glide's language as its own. It must not fear from debate over the values of the family, the group or the nation. Rather it must place these values opposite the values of free competition and see them as a basis for renewed construction of human and civil solidarity.