It's the Language, Stupid

If truth in labeling laws were applied to politics, the American left would have headed for the hills by now.  Once "liberal" became a dirty word, they looked back over a century for guidance on how to redefine themselves. Yesterday's liberal Democrats morphed into today's "progressives."  Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the first in American politics to be described as progressive, and true to form both sought to expand the scope of executive power.  But "progress" had a far broader connotation at the time, even being tinged with a hint of optimism, a trait utterly lacking from contemporary liberalism.

Back then, people thought of progress as the evolution of society from the preindustrial age toward modernity.  They attributed the remarkable changes they witnessed to both science and invention.   One of the most publicized examples of this was Einstein's theory of general relativity, which was tested and validated in 1919.  Einstein demonstrated that gravity is not a force like magnetism, but instead the warping of space by massive objects.  Few people understood the significance of this at the time, but Einstein nevertheless became the pop star of his era.  General relativity had displaced one of Newton's seminal explanations for the  little-understood phenomena that made the existence of the universe possible, and its confirmation signaled the possibility  that many more fundamental truths would one day be uncovered.

Of course, modernity also had its dark side.  New weaponry enabled warring nations to slaughter each other's soldiers on an industrial scale, and the harnessing of electromagnetic waves made it easier to disseminate pernicious propaganda.  Nevertheless, Americans viewed the future with their typical optimism, seeing the glass as half full, rather than as half empty.

At about the same time, the "soft sciences" were delving into the secrets of the mind.  Most notably, psychology and one of its sub-disciplines, the precursor to behaviorism, offered a glimpse into how external stimuli can affect thought and behavior.  Ivan Pavlov and a fellow Russian, Vladimir Bekhterev, employed scientific methodology to study what Pavlov called "conditioned reflex".  Stalin must have been familiar with their work, not only because they were both Russian, but also because on at least one occasion, he sought medical advice from Bekhterev.

It is self-evident that language can play a seminal role in influencing and "guiding" how entire populations see the world and think about their place in it.  Both Stalin and Hitler effectively manipulated language to serve their ends.  Their propaganda was used to condition people to react viscerally to whatever version of reality they elected to convey at any given moment.  And the constant repetition of their themes and warnings ensured that those subjected to them could not help but absorb their lies, especially since the populace was denied access to dissenting points of view. Over time, and given that indoctrination began at childhood, fiction became fact and fact fiction.  Reality itself was turned upside down.  In Nazi Germany, so many ordinary citizens were persuaded that the Jews were subhuman, in fact little better than vermin, that mass extermination became a viable "final solution."

While behaviorism was acquiring adherents, a new branch of philosophy was also attracting a following.  What became known as ordinary language philosophy offered its own insights into thought and behavior, by deconstructing language to reveal logical flaws in how people evaluate what they know, or think they know, and then describe that " knowledge" using common linguistic conventions.   General relativity itself offers a useful example of how linguistic analysis works. To this day, people still use the phrase "gravitational force" in referring to gravity's impact on objects.  Thus, though Einstein displaced over 300 years of learning framed around Newton's postulation of gravity as a force created by the Earth, it is still spoken of as a force and, in all likelihood, always will be.  Needless to say, how ordinary language can shape people's understanding of reality did not go unnoticed by Stalin, Hitler and others of their ilk.

Those who follow politics and government know that progressivism is just warmed-over Marxism.  But because Marxism never became a big seller in the United States, its proponents have had to sugarcoat the language they use to promote their ideological bent.  As it turns out, they for a second time turned to the past for help and, knowingly or unknowingly, borrowed the phrase "social justice," which was coined in 1840.  Oddly enough, it was a Jesuit priest who came up with the term, although his intent was  to convey his concern that the individuality and the inherent self-worth of every member of society was being overwhelmed by competing ideologies springing into being because of the quickening pace of  industrialization.    Be that as it may, the progressives' pairing of "justice" with the word "social" was a stroke of genius.   The American conception of justice is the bedrock upon which the nation is built and therefore the word itself has positive connotations.  Justice entails, among other things, due process, i.e. the fair and impartial adjustment of disputes between individuals, and between individuals and government.  It is valued so highly because it is associated with individual liberty.

Progressives, of course, conceive of justice far differently.  They believe that, with the exception of those they, in their wisdom, choose to except, Americans, past and present, share a "collective guilt" for the nation's past sins, real or imagined.  One of the "atonements" they prescribe to address those sins is the transfer of wealth from the sinners to the "chosen", i.e. those progressives deem worthy of receiving their "fair share" of whatever is due them. Since only government, through compulsion, can redistribute what the governed possess, and because justice, in the eyes of progressives, can be realized only when societal assets are shared more or less equally, "social justice" requires the diminution in the protections afforded individual citizens by the Bill of Rights. Only in this way can the collective product of individual initiative best serve the interests of the state.

The lesson in all this is that the power of linguistic contrivances should never be underestimated.  If repeated often enough over a long enough period of time, they can shape how people think about the message specific language is intended to convey.  And once an ersatz term worms its way into every day  conversation, it can become almost impossible to remove.  People often hear things without giving them a second thought.  In most instances, this is harmless.  In policy debate it is not.  This is why it is so important that each time what sounds like an artificial or shorthand way of expressing a thought is inserted into political discourse,  it must be examined, dissected and, where necessary, expunged.

Unfortunately, most people are not good listeners.  Americans presume that, for the most part, politicians and interests group share their own basic values, including their belief in the Foundering Fathers' notion of justice. The left knows this, of course, which explains why they so often resort to platitudes, "fair share" being among those.  Why explain themselves if no one is paying attention or asking them to come clean.  Progressives are masters of political chicanery and will continue in that vein until called out and put on the spot.  The benign veneer under which they hide their real intentions has to be stripped away, so that what lies underneath can be exposed to the sunlight and over time fade away.  Attacking linguistic corruption and abuse requires perpetual vigilance.  But progress is made each time an attack is successful and reality presented as what it really is.

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