Listen to a very low-quality recording of the conference: Introduction (with Ben Cohen) (7.6MB MP3), Speech (Andy Stein and George Lakoff) (43.8MB), Panel discussion (25.1MB)

Today, in what is surely the crowning achievement of my life to date, I got Ben and Jerry’s ice cream served to me by Ben himself. Oh, and I met George Lakoff.

The story begins early this morning when I quickly get dressed, hop on my bicycle (MacGuyvering to use my jacket to attach my backpack to its seat), and ride to the train station, where I take a train to the BART, the BART to a bus, and the bus to a church.

Why am I going to a church? That story starts even earlier. After Ben Cohen left the ice cream company he founded, he decided to do some good with his money. As the Cold War was then ending, he came across the idea of using some of our insanely-high defense spending to improve our things like schools and such. Polls and focus groups found that he sounded credible talking about such big quantities of money because he was a business leader. So he founded a group called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities as a progressive alternative to groups like the Chamber of Commerce and to take on these issues. And today they’re holding a seminar. In a church.

Ben Cohen speaks first, giving his famous Oreo speech in person. (As an Internet grassroots addition to Business Leaders, Cohen also founded TrueMajority, which the Oreo movie promotes. The Oreo movie, for those who haven’t seen it, explains how we can cut defense spending using Oreos to represent money.)

Afterwards, he tells us how the clip (which got 1.5M viewers and 150K new members) incurred a letter from Nabisco. Now he was no stranger to this — one of Ben and Jerry’s first flavors was “Oreo Mint” and it also incurred a letter. That time it asked them to change it to “Mint with Oreos”, then they got another letter saying they couldn’t pluralize the trademark Oreo. Anyway, they consulted their lawyers about this one and found that you could use the Oreo trademark as long as a generic sandwich cookie would not suffice for some reason. So Ben wrote them a letter back saying they’d done extensive studies of sandwich cookies and found that Oreos had the highest level of quality control — they were all exactly the same height. And when you’re using Oreos to represent billions of dollars, as he is, that’s extremely important because a small change in height would mean millions in misplaced funds! He hasn’t heard back.

Next up was Rob Stein, reporting on his research into the conservative money machine. Using lots of colored bubbles with lines in between them, Rob shows how conservatives have learned to work together to pump their message out.

Concluding the first session was George Lakoff, who gave his standa rd speech about how conservatives used language.

Then there was a break and then a panel who did Q&A.

Afterwards, we retired to another room to mingle. It is there that they started scooping out ice cream. But apparently there was a personnel shortage or something because Ben offered to take over the job. And that is how I got Ben Cohen to serve me ice cream.

But free ice cream was not enough for Ben. He tried to upsell me his new TrueMajority Pie which, on the back of the box, features his famous pie chart showing how the federal discretionary budget is distributed (hint: most goes to defense). During his talk this morning, he had a huge version of the pie chart which came all folded up but expanded quickly with a little shake.

Lakoff also came by to chat with people and after standing creepily close to him for a while while he talked to other people, he finally finished and turned to me, extending his hand, and said “Hi, I’m George”. “I’m Aaron”, I said shakily while shaking his hand. I told him I was a fan and asked him my question: ‘Why, if cooperation is a progressive value, are progressives so bad at it in politics as compared to conservatives?’ He suggested it was because most conservatives are businessmen and you have to learn to cooperate and play by the rules at the upper levels of business. By contrast, progressives are ruggedly individual and resist conforming to the group.

Later, I asked him a follow-up: ‘Is anyone doing anything like the Wednesday Morning Meeting [a weekly meeting in Washington where all the conservative groups get together to decide on the official message] for the left?’ No, he said, but he hopes that if he suggests the idea in enough speeches someone will take it up.

However, he seemed more interested in me than my questions, asking where I was from and what I was studying, and talking about how good it was that college students were interested. He explained that they were starting a pilot college program at Berkeley which they hope to expand to other campuses. He invited me to apply for an internship. He introduced me to Kurtz, who I later discovered was their webmaster, who told me about their new forum software and the exciting work they were doing. And then I went home. And that is how I met George Lakoff.

posted February 04, 2005 05:17 PM (Education) (1 comments) #


Stanford: Monday, November 29
Stanford: Tuesday, November 30
Stanford: Wednesday, December 1
Stanford: Thursday, December 2
Stanford: Friday, December 3
Stanford: Saturday, December 4
Your Congress is a Bunch of Idiots
Stanford: Sunday, December 5
George Ryan on the Penalty of Death
Stanford: Tuesday, December 7
Stanford: Wednesday, December 8


‘Why, if cooperation is a progressive value, are progressives so bad at it in politics as compared to conservatives?’

I think it has exactly to do with the fact that cooperation is a progressive value. Or consensus is. The conservatives are good at politics because, as Lakoff points out in Moral Politics, they believe in hierarchies and doing what you’re told by your appointed leaders. So the party line is echoed all the way down to the county level, as all of the conservatives head in the direction that George Bush indicates.

Meanwhile, the progressives believe in consensus, in everybody getting their own say, which leads to indecision and confusion as each progressive runs off in their own direction. That’s where the individualism that Lakoff refers to comes into play; the progressives value the individual over the hierarchy, and therefore are not willing to compromise their individual positions for the sake of pulling together. To put it more succinctly, most progressives would rather be right than win.

And I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done about that. The importance of each individual to plot their own path is pretty central to the progressive movement, but it undermines their effectiveness in today’s brawling political climate. I wish I could think of a solution.

posted by Eric at February 5, 2005 02:00 AM #

Subscribe to comments on this post.

Add Your Comment

If you don't want to post a comment, you can always send me your thoughts by email.

(used only to send you my reply, never published or spammed)

Remember personal info?

Note: I may edit or delete your comment. (More...)

Aaron Swartz (