It occurs to me that the essay on political language I have been working on intermittently of late is getting long, and might benefit from being published in two parts for regular readers. Then, I have benefited from the comments of others, on previous attempts at depicting the political spectrum; so perhaps allowing for critique of a semi-final draft could make it better in the end. With these goals in mind, here is the first half:
You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down–up to a man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order–or down to the ant heap totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course. –Ronald Regan (1964)
Without language, there could be no rational thought or even human consciousness. Words are symbolic representations of concepts, whether simple or extremely complex, and are the scaffold on which we construct our ideas. The quality and efficiency of our thinking is dependent on our vocabulary, and nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of politics. Whole lifetimes of research and contemplation, which can and does fill volumes, can be expressed in the shorthand of a single word, e.g. Marxism or capitalism. For functional communication, however, one’s correspondent must share the same definition of such words.
When the meaning of a word changes, the thoughts and associations it evokes necessarily change too. This is the power behind the Orwellian technique for muddling the content of our minds, in the deliberate process of “dumbing down” Americans, to create rather thoughtless and compliant “workers” and “consumers.” Because their definitions keep evolving, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have become so meaningless to useful thought for me, that for the past couple of years I have stopped using them altogether in political discourse. I usually simply use “Left” and “Right” to convey what others generally intend to mean, when they still do.
While decidedly less ambiguous, even these terms are hopelessly inadequate for serious political thought; as Reagan had already noticed over forty years ago. They are a false dichotomy perpetrated by Incumbrepublocrat Party politicians, to divide Americans into one of their two allegedly competing camps. Free sovereign individuals, without a common existential enemy, have no need of exalted leaders, and are almost impossible to control. Witness the recent specter of “Joe the Plumber,” not in the least awestruck by the presence of “The One” in his neighborhood. He regarded the charismatic candidate, so mesmerizing to others, as merely another applicant for a civil servant job. He asked him some pertinent probing questions, which the fawning press almost never did, with revealing effect that embarrassed his supporters.
Moreover, the politicians’ Left/Right line is of little real value for illustrating the political spectrum, and plotting the relative positions of the sundry ideologies claiming superiority as organizing principles for society. I have been struggling with confusing political labels and trying to make sense of the political spectrum for almost 50 years now, and this is intended to share whatever wisdom my thoughtful pursuit has garnered. In the process, I hope to elicit your help in freeing Americans from the Left/Right mental trap, and spread the concept of an Up/Down oriented political map that Regan would have endorsed.
When I was a junior in high school, our favorite teacher taught a civics class using a textbook entitled, “World Government.” Years later, I learned that it had been authored by a Marxist for the communist dominated UNESCO, which I and millions of other Americans had innocently collected pennies for on Halloween as a child. The premise of the course was that it was inevitable that the myriad ills of nationalism would eventually fade away, as we evolved to adopt a world government modeled after the UN, and that this was a very good thing. Much admiring of this “cool” teacher, my plastic young mind bought this Utopian notion hook, line, and sinker.
He first introduced me to the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” by explaining that a liberal was “a young dynamic person, who wanted to change the world and make it a better place to live.” On the other hand, a conservative was “an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, like your parents, who either wanted things to remain as they were, or (gasp!) revert to their vision of the (mercifully) bygone ‘good old days’.” Then he asked for a show of hands; and predictably, the entire class chose to self-identify as “liberals.”
What he failed to teach us, if he even knew it, was that the original liberals were revolutionaries like our Founders, bent on Liberty – freedom for the individual from the bondage of landless serfdom, which the medieval establishments of church and state wished to “conserve” for the propertied elites. That the collectivist Utopia dreamed of by the global idealists, would be a regression to serfdom on state owned land, was never mentioned. He was peddling “Hope and Change” – that universal elixir for impatient youthful idealists and mind-numbed victims of true oppression the world over – without much in the way of inconvenient details.
Today, after well over a century of ascendancy, it is an arguable proposition that the Progressives on the Left represent the current “establishment,” and thus are the modern “conservatives.” They haven’t come up with a new idea in generations, and are now rather desperately defending the status quo, and/or pining for the “good old days” of FDR’s “New Deal” or LBJ’s “Great Society.” All of the truly innovative ideas for improving our society are now coming from the Right, and many of them resemble those espoused by the original definition of “liberal” thinkers, influenced by John Locke, et al.
My dad was a union member when I was indoctrinated as a liberal; so, unlike many, I didn’t have to rebel politically against my own two fuddy-duddy Democrats. My family had celebrated the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President earlier that same year. While JFK was a Democrat, and considered the epitome of a young dynamic liberal; he was by no means a Marxist or a pacifist. He was the dashing WWII hero of PT-109, who had already crossed swords with the Soviets in the Bay of Pigs and Berlin. He would soon expand our mission in Vietnam, ostensibly to prevent the Chicoms from conquering all of South East Asia. He also cut taxes to stimulate the economy and increase government revenue, proving “trickle down” economic theory worked a generation before Reagan reintroduced it. There would be no place for Kennedy in today’s Democrat Party, and he would have about as much chance as Zell Miller or Joe Lieberman of winning their Primary these days.
Over time, my essentially conservative parents – both from the South and Dad a WWII veteran himself – didn’t think too much of Jacqueline or Camelot. Royalty didn’t impress these common folks. They also got a little twitchy over the Peace Corps; but they were Democrats to the core, and rallied behind Kennedy again when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in my senior year. I remember announcing that if we went to war, they had better be prepared to sign the waiver (I was 17), because I would be joining up. Patriotic though my family was at the time, I don’t think Mom much liked that idea, but I could tell Dad understood.
In fact, he encouraged me the next summer, when I joined the Army straight out of high school. It was only a couple of weeks before my 18th birthday, so Mom signed the waiver without much protest. The Tonkin Gulf affair was still a year away, and they viewed my three year hitch more as a rather necessary character building exercise for a contumacious juvenile delinquent, than a serious risk to my life.
JFK was assassinated while I was still in advanced training, and to the dismay of almost everyone outside of Texas, LBJ was sworn in. When I deployed to Asia shortly thereafter, I was still superficially a liberal Democrat, off to make the world a better place; leaving behind a couple of conservative Democrat parents, who would soon become disenchanted over Johnson’s “Great Society” programs.
Politics didn’t matter much in the Army. I couldn’t vote until I got out and turned 21, anyway. I do recall that even the Army Times didn’t much care for Goldwater in ’64, and writing my parents to tell them not to vote for him, because he might start a direct war with China. I was way too close to the DMZ to comfortably contemplate the specter of hordes of Chicom regulars pouring across it.
Returning to California as a newly minted civilian again in ’66, the calendar soon conferred upon me some of the privileges of adulthood, which three years in uniform shouldering its responsibilities had not. Being able to legally participate in our society’s nightlife was cool; but I took my new voting franchise seriously. I wanted to understand the issues so I could vote for candidates who best represented my own values. I naturally started my quest from the premise that I was still “a young dynamic person, who wanted to change the world and make it a better place to live.” After all, hadn’t I just spent three years making the world “safe for democracy,” by thwarting the regressive forces of “tyranny” known as “communism?”
Wasn’t the “freedom” enjoyed in America infinitely better than being an impoverished “worker” in the Soviet Union? I was aware that there were Marxists – both “communists” and “fellow travelers” calling themselves “socialists” – in America; but I naturally assumed that this Fifth Column expected to be among the privileged leaders of a Marxist America. Having spent the past three years among warriors instead of in a university, it simply never occurred to me that any real American would willingly accept the status of a mind-numbed robot as one of their serfs.
Still assuming I was a Democrat, I found California’s political world upside down. I had matured into a self-confident young man, and immediately noticed that my contemporaries who had not yet served, had not; but it was more than that. I was even more anti-communist than before, strongly supportive of our SEATO mission, and naturally assumed that a man was expected to take care of himself and his family responsibly; but these had never been illiberal or un-Democratic values. Yet, to my shock, my parents had morphed into Republicans and were planning to vote for “only an actor” for Governor! They had simply had enough of the “Great Society,” with unkempt hippies and peaceniks protesting everywhere, while rapidly taking over the Democrat Party.
This irritated my parents more than I could understand. It seemed to me that the hippies and fuddy-duddies both wanted pretty much the same thing; namely, to be left alone by government so they could live their own lives as they chose to live them. While they couldn’t understand each other’s worldview, neither seemed too inclined to force the other to adopt their own values, they just wanted not to be harassed by each other. I would have thought them natural allies; but the politicians managed to convince them they were on opposite sides.
I ended up also casting my first ever vote for Ronald Reagan for Governor; but it wasn’t my parents who swayed me. That task befell a fellow named Bob Welch. No, not that Robert Welch… Bob was just my boss; but he was in fact an open member of the John Birch Society, which is probably why I even remember his name. We shared a workbench and could freely chat as we repaired and calibrated electronic test equipment for a living.
That a responsible and competent young man, with apparent common sense and impeccable anti-communist credentials, could even consider himself a “liberal,” drove Bob ’round the bend; and he made it a mission to “save” me from my ignorance. Those daily engrossing and thought provoking conversations probably imbued me with my love of political debate, even though I was hopelessly outgunned and lost almost all of our arguments.
To be fair, he cheated. He loaned me a book entitled, “None Dare Call it Treason” and insisted that I read it on my own time. It was written as a campaign book during Goldwater’s contest with Johnson in ’64, with an inflammatory style and full of footnoted “facts” and citations. There was no internet in ’66, much less Google, and in my naïveté, I placed way too much confidence in the numerous references to the Congressional Record. At the time, I did not understand how easy it is for congressmen to enter reams of speculative verbiage therein, and assumed references to it were authoritative.
Still, if a tenth of its content was accurate, it was damning enough. It was so inflammatory to a Cold Warrior that I couldn’t read more than a chapter at a time without throwing it across the room in rage. All along, I had assumed our government’s intent was to ultimately defeat the Soviet Union, and free mankind from communist enslavement; yet here was reference after reference suggesting the opposite.
Why in hell were we selling turbine engines to Czechoslovakia, which were ending up in Soviet MIGs? Examples of such incomprehensible business dealings with the Soviet Bloc were legion. The Communists’ domination of UNESCO was exposed, including mention of my “World Government” textbook! This one really set me off. Then, if an oppressed people will only rise up to overthrow an oppressor when they are hungry, why did we ship Russia wheat every time their miserable feudal system caused Soviet agriculture to fail, and famine loomed? What in the world were our politicians thinking?
Was Washington DC virtually overrun with “fellow travelers” on the Left, who didn’t really want to defeat communism? That was the thrust of the book, and I was too naïve to ask if perhaps it was as much the corporatists on the Right desiring new markets, regardless of national interest. In retrospect, it was probably a measure of both; but the average real American would have supported neither. We don’t fight limited wars for chessboard motives. Most Americans are not easily goaded into preemptive war; but once engaged in one, we insist on winning it.
Bob converted me from a Democrat to a Republican, by convincing me that the tyranny of Marxism beckoned on the Left, with freedom and capitalism increasingly only championed by the Right; but he failed to make a “conservative” out of me, by the generally accepted meaning of the term. Although I wouldn’t admit it in polite company at the time, I was as godless as the Commies, and still as uninterested as the hippies in having bible-thumping fuddy-duddies regulating my moral behavior. After all, as a single young man, this new “free love” thing was rather hormonally appealing.
I recall my early efforts to explain my new political viewpoint as, “Politically conservative and morally liberal.” In today’s lexicon, I was trying to say, “Fiscally conservative and socially progressive.” It would be another ten years before I got around to reading Ayn Rand and finding a compatible rational worldview; but already I was becoming a libertarian before I ever heard the word. To me at the time, politics was the realm of competing economic systems, and tyranny vs. Liberty, not morality.
I had been taught that our forefathers had fled religious intolerance in Europe, to a land where individual Liberty permitted one to believe, or not, whatever one wished; and to belong, or not, to any church of one’s choosing. I didn’t think trying to use government to impose a religious moral code on everyone, was any more legitimate than Marxists trying to impose a Utopian economic model on free people. I still don’t.
Thinking back, Bob also made a rather cynical political junkie out of me. I loved our eye-opening political discussions; but soon learned to distrust the motives and agendas of all politicians, and how to ferret them out of the noisy pandering, preaching, and demagoguery. Politics is a great spectator sport, if one doesn’t drink any Kool-Aid and can keep an open mind. The trick is to admire the skill and finesse of the players, whichever team they are playing for. When one is rooting for a team, it is hard to be objective.
Since libertarians are not permitted to field a team in the big leagues, this is not difficult for me. It is the process of American politics that I relish, not the end result, which I rarely find satisfactory. Because of my love of language, I particularly enjoy observing the clever spinmeisters at work. Their skill at manipulating mindless sheeple is a wonder to behold, whatever one thinks of their agenda. Sometimes I agree, most often I don’t; but a connoisseur of the art can appreciate competent technique in either case.
Clinton and some of his protégés were extemporaneous masters. Bush’s greatest failing as a politician, is that he hopelessly is not. Yet, even Bush bests Obama’s pathetic stammering when deprived of a script and a teleprompter. Bush can trip over an unexpected question at a news conference; Obama sounds like all the questions were unexpected.
I listen very carefully and critically to political spin, noting the words that work, and those that don’t. Focus group tested talking points, and Orwellian redefinitions, leap out at me within hours of their being introduced as budding memes into our culture; and it is fascinating to notice how soon they are being parroted by the media and even oblivious politicians among their opposition.
No one wishes to admit that they don’t understand a slick new word being used by all the insiders, nor even bother to look it up; so they just carelessly accept the connotation presented and add it to their lexicon. It is astounding how almost immediately effective spin is. It can become conventional wisdom overnight.
The relative ease, with which such elegant manipulation of our national mindset is accomplished, bespeaks the awesome power of language over us all. The pen truly is mightier than the sword… Then again, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. We shall see.
[At this point would come the new diagram already shared and commented on over here. Following that will be the explanation of its components, which will be part two. Critique and comments are encouraged and will be much appreciated. For any readers who may have not commented before because this blog was configured to require registration, it no longer is; so please do.] ◄Dave►