Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Indeed that is the question.  Words are wonderful tools; they give us the ability to express concepts that cannot be communicated any other way.  The meaning and knowledge behind a thousand years of experience can be embedded in a few words.

Words have power.  They may be perverted, subverted, convoluted, or forbidden.

Ignorance is a word sadly descriptive of a growing number of people with impoverished vocabularies. Words can imbue power merely by sounding like other words. People have been known to lose employment because of using the innocent word niggardly.  Safer not to use that word we suppose, since one never knows how ignorant a listener may be.

Safer?  Really?  Hmmm.  One is reminded of George Orwell’s 1984,  in which each successive version of the dictionary had fewer words. Words are dangerous.  They may be used to express ideas that make us uncomfortable. They may be banned as politically incorrect, and condemned as hate speech – an Orwellian term if there ever was one.

When it comes to words we are now living in a world similar to Orwell’s dystopian 1984.  To be sure Orwell’s world of words was exaggerated. It was a novel, after all.  But today we have evidence of the same kind of thinking that Orwell depicted in his Ministry of Love.

Really, you say?  Well, let’s look at some examples of words, their use, and their meaning.

Liberal is the first word we will examine. The Founders of the United States were liberals, before the meaning of the word was perverted. In its political context liberal means one who favors maximum individual liberty. Classical liberals rejected big government. They sought freedom from tyranny but not anarchy. They believed human beings had worth and dignity apart from the state or the autocrat. The Founders prohibited  government from involving itself in religion. The liberal view is that people should be free to worship as they please and the state can neither mandate nor prohibit religion.

In the modern usage of the term, liberal means pretty much the opposite of what it did. To be liberal implies that one favors government involvement in nearly all aspects of our lives. The government must dictate morality – you are free to worship as long as your religion does not contradict the secularism enforced by the state – if it does then you are not free to exercise your beliefs – just ask the Catholic Church.  A liberal believes that it is the government’s duty to coerce people to do what the government decrees is best.   The modern liberal’s answer to nearly every problem is more government; if people are too fat – ban large sodas.

The conservative knows that every time you pass a law, you lose a freedom; or as Dennis Prager frequently says, “the bigger the government, the smaller the individual.”

So, what about conservatives?  Well, the true liberals had to go somewhere.  A conservative at the time of the Founding sought to preserve the status quo. They were loyalists. In this sense the meaning hasn’t changed so much. Conservatives strive to preserve the values of what was once known as liberalism in America.

But, we’re not done with the word liberal just yet.  The word became so tainted with its new meaning, implying big government, regulatory interference, and bureaucracy that it became a liability.  After Reagan, especially, it became inconvenient to be labeled a liberal. People were starting to understand its new meaning.    So, having despoiled the word, the left abandoned it and went in search of a different one. They resurrected an old word that had fallen into general disuse, one that most people had forgotten. Now the statists who called themselves liberals became progressives: same old meaning, new positive sounding term. Progressives adhere to the philosophy of Hegel championed by Woodrow Wilson – people are unfit and incapable of making decisions for themselves – the state is all. It is

… the eternal, natural embodiment and expression of a higher form of life than the individual, namely, that common life which gives leave to individual life, and opportunity for completeness, – makes individual life possible and makes it full and complete.

Progressives despise the concept of individuality.  In Wilson’s words,

No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.  The rights of man are easy to discourse of … but they are infinitely hard to translate into practice.  Such theories are never “law” … Only that is “law” which can be executed and the abstract rights of man are singularly difficult to execute.

That’s pretty much the antithesis of the original meaning of liberalism.

There are other words that the left has been steadily working to reconstruct.  For example, there was a time when calling someone a communist or a socialist had a negative connotation, never as negative as Nazi or Fascist but negative nonetheless.  Even the least educated once knew enough about the ravages of communist systems  to be wary of political philosophies bearing those labels.

The left has now successfully rehabilitated those labels. According to a Pew Poll conducted in December of 2011, forty-nine percent of Americans in the 18-29-age bracket say they have a positive view of socialism vs. forty-three percent who have a negative view. As for communism, although there is no poll to gauge its acceptance, the most visible face of the Occupy Wall Street movement was a communist one, albeit an almost laughably ignorant one. But there is nothing funny about four years of progressive demonization of “the rich” and relentless emphasis on, in President Obama’s words to Joe the Plumber, the need to “spread the wealth around.”

If American prosperity was based on the principles of natural law and individual liberty articulated by John Locke, Adam Smith, and later philosophers like Bastiat, then the countries adhering to the statist philosophies of Marx, Engels and Hegel achieved exactly the results described in 1984: hundreds of millions of people enslaved or judged deficient and slaughtered by their governments.

But the left is not only rehabilitating words like socialism and communism, it is controlling the vocabulary of its critics. George Orwell said that if thought corrupts language, language could also corrupt thought. Orwell wrote that politicians deliberately use words in dishonest ways to obscure reality and to condition people to associate certain words with negative or positive perceptions.

That this technique is transparent does not make it ineffective. By stigmatizing the words within a discourse because they have been assigned new meanings, the substance of criticism can be avoided or ignored.


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”


1 Bob Mack { 11.23.12 at 11:14 am }

From my last post: “… when a national magazine like The Atlantic ranks a first class nanny state politico like New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a “brave thinker”, you can be absolutely sure that “brave” and “thinker” no longer mean much of anything at all, at least in those regions of thin air where dwelleth the oxygen-starved progressive.”


2 Liam { 11.23.12 at 12:10 pm }

This entire essay, although containing an extensive amount of critical information regarding the destruction of words, falls short in two different ways. First the author makes no allusion to the fact that words can evolve, change, and morph over time not from simply government control, mandate, or even propaganda; they change naturally due to the populace. The other area where the author misses the mark is citing Orwell, a self avowed democratic socialist in an article supporting individual liberty. Even if his concepts in 1984 are relevant, which they certainly are, citing someone who disagrees with the principles of what your essay is about is an idiotic choice. Collectivism is alive and well not from large mandates or the Democratic Party; but from an increasing dissatisfaction among young people with the current system in which corporations hold immense power.


Martin & Marcia Reply:

Thanks for commenting Liam. We will try to respond to your criticisms. You are correct; we did not mention that words evolve. That words evolve is a given. New words are coined, often as a result of technology; some fall into disuse; meanings change over time, and other words migrate into English usage from other languages. But it is irrelevant to the point we were trying to make. Our post concerns the political abuse of words. Orwell was a vociferous critic of political efforts to corrupt language as a means of thought control, ”to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Orwell despised Stalinism and Fascism and he honored truth. That’s why we citied him. When he wrote, “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around,” he was not only referring to good writing. He was objecting to the deliberate debasement of thought.

As for his being a Democratic Socialist, we cannot know how Orwell defined it, but in general terms it means a post-capitalist system that evolves from the working class, not imposed by government. Nor can we know whether 60 years later, he would still endorse it. What we do know is that at best socialism fails, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “when it runs out of other people’s money” and at worst it ends in enslavement and death. As Samuel Johnson’s once said about second marriages: it is the triumph of hope over experience.


3 George Archibald { 11.23.12 at 6:26 pm }

Quite apart from historical review and this good essay on liberalism, today’s so-called left-liberals represent intolerance of ideas except their own, which is principally one stifling idea that has great consequences (their words): “My way or the highway.” I consider myself a right-liberal who wants open discussion and tolerance of all ideas and “Let the chips fall where they may” as to what advances liberty and helps improve the good of the order. What say you?


4 Marcia { 11.24.12 at 12:01 pm }

That doesn’t work for progressives. Their relentless efforts to silence opposing points of view or distort critics’ words betray intolerance for dissent. The President’s attempts to discredit Fox News and his administration’s on-going efforts to control the Internet reveal that freedom of speech is not a revered concept. It is tragic that the MSM is not vigilant about First Amendment protections, but engage in self-censorship to avoid reporting that reflects adversely on Obama and his policies. Perhaps if that censorship becomes mandatory instead of voluntary the MSM will object, but by then it will be too late. If that seems a radical conjecture so was the notion that freedom of religion would be curtailed by Obamacare.


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