Once Again, Stop Talking Like Progressives
The vital importance of fighting off "semantic infiltration."
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Anyone who regularly comments on current political affairs will eventually end up repeating himself. Usually that’s because politicians and pundits keep making the same errors of thinking, and displaying the same lack of critical self-awareness of those mistakes. Some, like Capote’s Holly Golightly, are true believers who sincerely believe all “this crap” they believe, and “can’t be talked out of it.” Or they are conscious liars who don’t care that their ideas and beliefs are incoherent or pernicious, as long as they win them more power and privilege.
That truth is a commonplace. But as novelist André Gide once said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again,” in the hope that somebody will be listening, since using the dishonest, politicized words of progressives helps to spread the malign concepts and ideologies like a virus, infecting the body politic.
Recently columnist George Will called this phenomenon “semantic infiltration . . . the tactic by which political objectives are smuggled into discourse that is ostensibly, but not actually, politically neutral. People who adopt a political faction’s vocabulary also adopt — perhaps inadvertently, but inevitably — the faction’s agenda.”
Will’s example is the “woke” economic term “stakeholder,” a synonym for “stockholder.” Extending a “stakeholder” to include anybody and everybody whom a business even slightly affects is to indulge a false analogy, the logical fallacy favored by those who are up to no good or smuggling their ideology into an argument––which, as Will points out, is exactly what the “stakeholder” metaphor does: “Stakeholder capitalism violates fiduciary laws that require those entrusted with investors’ money to employ it ‘solely in the interest of’ and ‘for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to’ the investors.”
Most of us can cite a whole catalogue of scare-words and question-begging epithets, like “racist” and “sexist,” used not to communicate precisely but to demonize a political enemy or advance a dangerous ideology under cover of invective. One scare-term nearly a century old is “fascist” or “fascism.” George Orwell in his 1944 essay “What is Fascism?” showed how in everyday usage, the term is over-broad and often historically incorrect. Especially in political rhetoric, “this word has lost the last vestige of meaning.”
For example, “All Conservatives, appeasers or anti-appeasers, are held to be subjectively pro-Fascist. British rule in India and the Colonies is held to be indistinguishable from Nazism.” Those who use this term so vaguely, Orwell continues, “mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.” Today we would add “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “Islamophobic,” and “cis”-whatever to that list.
Seventy-eight years later, “fascist” remains the Left’s favorite smear. The political ascent of Donald Trump set off an orgy of “fascism”-mongering by progressives and NeverTrump Republicans alike. It was disappointing during Trump’s term to read otherwise savvy and respectable Republicans indulge such an obviously empty word.
For example, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens wrote a whole column on superficial historical parallels with the 1930s, linking Trump to Italian fascism. In the Washington Post, the Brookings Institute’s Robert Kagan explained “this is how fascism comes to America.” Arch-NeverTrumper Jonah Goldberg accused conservatives of giving in to the “fascist temptation.” Likewise, NR’s’s Jay Nordlinger’s meditated on whether or not the “F-word” applies to Trump, and concluded, “I’m not sure”––a cringing cop-out.
Reading these hyperbolic slanders, one might conclude that these commentators don’t know that even during the Great Depression, fascism has never had the sort of political influence and presence in our culture, education, and politics that communism had and still has today. Misusing this word bespeaks an undiscriminating and lazy mind.
Then there are “imperialism” and “colonialism,” and their postmodern variant “post-colonialism.” The great scholar of Soviet terror, Robert Conquest, called out this linguistic corruption decades ago. Historical terms like “imperialism” and “colonialism,” Conquest wrote, now refer to “a malign force with no program but the subjugation and exploitation of innocent people.” As such, these terms are verbal “mind-blockers and thought-extinguishers,” which serve “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.”
Worse, they are weapons of propaganda used to denigrate the West, especially the U.S., even though actual colonialism and imperialism were brief episodes in American history. Moreover, it was American President Woodrow Wilson who put anticolonialism and anti-imperialism, as well as national self-determination, at the forefront of the “new world order” created by the Versailles settlement. Yet today these terms have little to do with historical reality, and everything to do with Leftist anti-Americanism and globalist “new world order” hatred of Western nationalism.
More dangerously, these terms have underwritten the reflexive guilt of the West, the idea that “every Westerner is presumed guilty until proven innocent,” as French philosopher Pascal Bruckner writes, for the West is guilty of an “essential evil that must be atoned for,” colonialism and imperialism. The cringing acceptance of these specious charges compromises our foreign policy by giving our rivals and enemies a linguistic weapon for influencing our policies and blackmailing us into subordinating our interests and security to their own.
Another misleading politicized phrase is “income inequality,” a verbal bludgeon that big-government progressives wield to support tax-and-spend redistributionist policies, and to expand entitlements that are already bankrupting the country. But it is a simplistic statistical artifact that doesn’t capture the reality of Americans’ economic condition. For example, census data are used to decry that for 2017, the top 20% of earners had 17 times more income than the bottom quintile, a damning indictment, so progressives argue, of our heartless free-market cowboy-capitalism.
But as Phil Gramm and John F. Early pointed out, that datum ignores the fact that the richest 20% pay about two-thirds of all taxes, lost income that is not accounted for in the reckoning of income disparities. Nor is the $1.9 trillion redistributed to citizens, mostly to the bottom quintile, 89% of whose resources come from 95 federal programs that redistribute wealth, 80% of which comes from the top 10% of taxpayers.
Moreover, even after taking into account the state and payroll taxes the bottom quintile pays, Gramm and Early continue, when these transfers are added to household income it jumps from the official $4,908 to $50,901. Contrary to lurid leftist rhetoric about the selfish rich who need to pay their “fair share,” “America already redistributes enough income to compress the income difference between the top and bottom quintiles from 60 to 1 in earned income down to 3.8 to 1 in income received.”
The phrase “income inequality,” then, indulges an emotional rhetoric more suitable for a Dickens novels or rural America during the 1930s, in order to camouflage the reality that we live in a society in which the “poor” enjoy a material existence superior to 99% of all the human beings who ever existed. But for phony class-warrior senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, “income inequality” is useful for increasing the power and reach of the federal Leviathan, not to mention perfuming their own privilege and wealth.
Finally, no catalogue of Orwellian linguistic lies would be complete without including the word “gender.” Beginning in the early Sixties, “gender” has replaced the word “sex” to mean “male” or “female.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “gender” is a feminist “euphemism” that is “often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to biological, distinctions between the sexes.”
This change in usage was popularized to reinforce the dubious, and unscientific idea that biological sex-identity is not binary by nature, but a spectrum comprising multiple variations, just as linguistic gender is not restricted to masculine or feminine, but can classify nouns by other qualities such as “animate” or “inanimate.” Male and female, masculine and feminine, the “woke” tell us, are not facts of nature, but social, cultural, and political “constructs” that serve the selfish interests of the prevailing regime of power. This unscientific antinaturalism is a hallmark of postmodern and poststructuralist ideology, as well as Marxism and its “epiphenomena” and the “false consciousness” they create in the oafish bourgeoise.
Using the word “gender,” then, to mean biological “sex”––which today just about everybody does, including Republicans––insidiously and relentlessly reinforces and validates the notion that human will and scientism can override and ignore the restraints of nature and nature’s God, and that human reality can be manipulated, changed, and perfected by “technicians of the soul,” as Stalin euphemized the thuggish agents of “improvement.” Of course, that malignant idea produced not utopia and social justice, but mass murder and dehumanizing tyranny.
Trying to avoid corrupted words that are constantly in circulation is nearly impossible, especially when these words and phrases serve political interests. But even though people may not be listening, we should continue to warn our fellow citizens about the dangers of what Will calls the “semantic infiltration” of our language, which always is followed by the big battalions of tyranny.