“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 just a few words.
Words have power. They can be perverted, subverted, convoluted, or forbidden. They can imbue power merely by sounding like other words. All one must do today is check out social media sites to find that ignorance has become the word sadly descriptive of a growing number of people with impoverished vocabularies.
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.
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 was that people should be free to worship as they please and the state could neither mandate nor prohibit religion.
In the modern usage of the term, liberal means pretty much the opposite. Today, 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, more government, more government!
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.
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.”
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. As early as 2011, in a Pew Poll, 49% percent of Americans in the 18-29-age bracket said they had a positive view of socialism vs. 43% who have a negative view. The other 8%? Well they just didn’t care one way or the other. 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 years of progressive demonization of “the rich” and relentless emphasis on, in President Obama’s own words to Joe the Plumber, the need to “spread the wealth around,” a concept fully embraced by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Socialist Bernie Sanders.
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.
Source: Martin and Marcia at What Would The Founders Think