Tuesday, November 09, 2004

What is Conservativism and What is Wrong With It?


The Destruction of Language

Reason occurs mostly through the medium of language, and so the destruction of reason requires the destruction of language. An underlying notion of conservative politics is that words and phrases of language are like territory in warfare: owned and controlled by one side or the other. One of the central goals of conservatism, as for example with Newt Gingrich's lists of words, is to take control of every word and phrase in the English language.

George Bush, likewise, owes his election in great measure to a new language that his people engineered for him. His favorite word, for example, is "heart". This type of linguistic engineering is highly evolved in the business milieu from which conservative public relations derives, and it is the day-to-day work of countless conservative think tanks. Bush's people, and the concentric circles of punditry around them, are worlds away from John Kerry deciding on a moment's notice that he is going to start the word "values". They do not use a word unless they have an integrated communications strategy for taking control of that word throughout the whole of society.

Bush's personal vocabulary is only a small part of conservative language warfare as a whole. Since around 1990, conservative rhetors have been systematically turning language into a weapon against liberals. Words are used in twisted and exaggerated ways, or with the opposite of their customary meanings. This affects the whole of the language. The goal of this distorted language is not simply to defeat an enemy but to destroy the minds of the people who believe themselves to be conservatives and who constantly challenge themselves to ever greater extremity in using it.

A simple example of turning language into a weapon might be the word "predictable", which has become a synonym for "liberal". There is no rational argument in this usage. Every such use of "predictable" can be refuted simply by substituting the word "consistent". It is simply invective.

More importantly, conservative rhetors have been systematically mapping the language that has historically been used to describe the aristocracy and the traditional authorities that serve it, and have twisted those words into terms for liberals. This tactic has the dual advantage of both attacking the aristocracies' opponents and depriving them of the words that they have used to attack aristocracy.

A simple example is the term "race-baiting". In the Nexis database, uses of "race-baiting" undergo a sudden switch in the early 1990's. Before then, "race-baiting" referred to racists. Afterward, it referred in twisted way to people who oppose racism. What happened is simple: conservative rhetors, tired of the political advantage that liberals had been getting from their use of that word, took it away from them.

A more complicated example is the word "racist". Conservative rhetors have tried to take this word away as well by constantly coming up with new ways to stick the word onto liberals and their policies. For example they have referred to affirmative action as "racist". This is false; it is an attempt to destroy language. Racism is the notion that one race is intrinsically better than another. Affirmative action is arguably discriminatory, as a means of partially offsetting discrimination in other places and times, but it is not racist. Many conservative rhetors have even stuck the word "racist" on people just because they oppose racism. The notion seems to be that these people addressed themselves to the topic of race, and the word "racist" is sort of an adjective relating somehow to race. In any event this too is an attack on language.

A recent example is the word "hate". The civil rights movement had used the word "hate" to refer to terrorism and stereotyping against black people, and during the 1990's some in the press had identified as "Clinton-haters" people who had made vast numbers of bizarre claims that the Clintons had participated in murder and drug-dealing. Beginning around 2003, conservative rhetors took control of this word as well by labeling a variety of perfectly ordinary types of democratic opposition to George Bush as "hate". In addition, they have constructed a large number of messages of the form "liberals hate X" (e.g., X=America) and established within their media apparatus a sophistical pipeline of "facts" to support each one. This is also an example of the systematic breaking of associations.

The word "partisan" entered into its current political circulation in the early 1990's when some liberals identified people like Newt Gingrich as "partisan" for doing things like the memo on language that I mentioned earlier. To the conservative way of politics, there is nothing either true or false about the liberal claim. It is simply that liberals had taken control of some rhetorical territory: the word "partisan". Conservative rhetors then set about taking control of the word themselves. They did this in a way that has become mechanical. They first claimed, falsely, that liberals were identifying as "partisan" any views other than their own. They thus inflated the word while projecting this inflation onto the liberals and disconnecting the word from the particular facts that the liberals had associated with it. Next, they started using the word "partisan" in the inflated, dishonest way that they had ascribed to their opponents. This is, very importantly, a way of attacking people simply for having a different opinion. In twisting language this way, conservatives tell themselves that they are simply turning liberal unfairness back against the liberals. This too is projection.

Another common theme of conservative strategy is that liberals are themselves an aristocracy. (For those who are really keeping score, the sophisticated version of this is called the "new class strategy", the message being that liberals are the American version of the Soviet nomenklatura.) Thus, for example, the constant pelting of liberals as "elites", sticking this word and a mass of others semantically related to it onto liberals on every possible occasion. A pipeline of "facts" has been established to underwrite this message as well. Thus, for example, constant false conservative claims that the rich vote Democratic. When Al Franken recently referred to his new radio network as "the media elite and proud of it", he demonstrated his oblivion to the workings of the conservative discourse that he claims to contest.

Further examples of this are endless. When a Republican senator referred to "the few liberals", hardly any liberals gave any sign of getting what he meant: as all conservatives got just fine, he was appropriating the phrase "the few", referring to the aristocracy as opposed to "the many", and sticking this phrase in a false and mechanical way onto liberals. Rush Limbaugh asserts that "they [liberals] think they are better than you", this of course being a phrase that had historically been applied (and applied correctly) to the aristocracy. Conservative rhetors constantly make false or exaggerated claims that liberals are engaged in stereotyping -- the criticism of stereotyping having been one of history's most important rhetorical devices of democrats. And so on. The goal here is to make it impossible to criticize aristocracy.

For an especially sorry example of this pattern, consider the word "hierarchy". Conservatism is a hierarchical social system: a system of ranked orders and classes. Yet in recent years conservatives have managed to stick this word onto liberals, the notion being that "government" (which liberals supposedly endorse and conservatives supposedly oppose) is hierarchical (whereas corporations, the military, and the church are somehow vaguely not). Liberals are losing because it does not even occur to them to refute this kind of mechanical antireason.

It is often claimed in the media that snooty elitists on the coasts refer to states in the middle of the country as "flyover country". Yet I, who have lived in liberal areas of the coasts for most of my life, have never once heard this usage. In fact, as far as I can tell, the Nexis database does not contain a single example of anyone using the phrase "flyover country" to disparage the non-coastal areas of the United States. Instead, it contains hundreds of examples of people disparaging residents of the coasts by claiming that they use the phrase to describe the interior. The phrase is a special favorite of newspapers in Minneapolis and Denver. This is projection. Likewise, I have never heard the phrase "political correctness" used except to disparage the people who supposedly use it.

Conservative remapping of the language of aristocracy and democracy has been incredibly thorough. Consider, for example, the terms "entitlement" and "dependency". The term "entitlement" originally referred to aristocrats. Aristocrats had titles, and they thought that they were thereby entitled to various things, particularly the deference of the common people. Everyone else, by contrast, was dependent on the aristocrats. This is conservatism. Yet in the 1990's, conservative rhetors decided that the people who actually claim entitlement are people on welfare. They furthermore created an empirically false association between welfare and dependency. But, as I have mentioned, welfare is precisely a way of eliminating dependency on the aristocracy and the cultural authorities that serve it. I do not recall anyone ever noting this inversion of meaning.

Conservative strategists have also been remapping the language that has historically been applied to conservative religious authorities, sticking words such as "orthodoxy", "pious", "dogma", and "sanctimonious" to liberals at every turn.


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