The Dialect of Deception
The primary medium of political discourse in the US is not English. It is Political English. This dialect of deception has contaminated thought and action that would otherwise challenge illegitimate power — both political and economic. As linguist Ian Roberts puts it simply in The Wonders of Language, language is the “ability to invent, store and transmit new thoughts.” Conversely, Political English is deployed to eradicate our ability to invent, store and transmit new thoughts. This suppresses ideas despised by prevailing state or corporate powers and amplifies establishment opinion.
Doublespeak: The Anti-Language
Political English relies on euphemisms to a great extent. A few glaring examples include:
When a state conducts brutal and inhumane acts of torture, such as rectal feeding, waterboarding, and sleep deprivation while projecting its moral superiority, it is called enhanced interrogation.
When the measurable geophysical phenomenon of global warming needs to be stripped of its potency to enact change, in part by challenging energy profiteers, it is blunted to climate change.
When organized propaganda agencies, committed to the distortion of truth, engineering of consent, and suppression of dissent want to invent a respectable profession for their work, it is called public relations.
When investor rights need to be protected across the globe, stripping states of their sovereignty in favor of global capital while undermining markets, it is celebrated as free trade.
When the Chamber of Commerce wants to present profiteers and wealth extractors as benevolent masters of society, they are called job creators.
When war crimes and other acts of imperialism need to be justified, they are presented as defense.
Where corporations round up people for virtually free labor (also known as slavery) in cages, it is called a corrections facility.
Perhaps circularly, the word euphemism is itself a euphemism. The term weasel word should suffice.
Political Identities: Libertarianism, Liberalism and Conservatism
Every day, the creative destruction of the English language breeds new linguistic abominations, with the principal goal of justifying illegal actions and glorifying otherwise shameful acts. Apart from euphemisms, there is another mutation of Political English that is just as lethal to political activation and muckraking. This is a slower corruption of words that occurs over decades and centuries. It is the shift in the definitions of political identities themselves — a key part of people’s sense of self.
What is libertarian, liberal, or conservative? What masquerades as libertarian, liberal, or conservative? Concerned with origins, English says these groups actually have much to agree on. Political English says they must be condemned to a cacophony of perpetual arguments — spawning cynical internet commentators and dejected communities unable to mount a coordinated challenge to authority. This is by design. Once propaganda succeeds in deforming political identities, it creates a negative feedback loop — the people themselves begin to spread myths about their respective identities.
Motives for distortion
Much has been written about the political origins of libertarianism, liberalism and conservatism. Unfortunately, much is manipulated to fit evolving economic motives, such as consolidation of capital, monopolization of resources and reliance on an imperialist foreign policy. English cannot be used to justify these motives, lest intellectual, moral and legal bankruptcy be exposed. English actually undermines corporations, major political parties, the media, education and so on. Hence, Political English is summoned to lick boots.
Let us peer into the petri dish of contaminated definitions of political identities. It is left as an exercise of vigilance for the reader to practice linguistic microscopy in her daily life.
According to the libertarian party’s 2018 platform,
“Individuals own their bodies and have rights over them that other individuals, groups, and governments may not violate. Individuals have the freedom and responsibility to decide what they knowingly and voluntarily consume, and what risks they accept to their own health, finances, safety, or life.”
The platform continues,
“Employment and compensation agreements between private employers and employees are outside the scope of government, and these contracts should not be encumbered by government-mandated benefits or social engineering. We support the right of private employers and employees to choose whether or not to bargain with each other through a labor union. Bargaining should be free of government interference, such as compulsory arbitration or imposing an obligation to bargain.”
If we trace back to the early libertarian tradition of John Locke and Adam Smith, both would agree with the first principle of self-ownership. Yet, the party goes on to describe private employer-employee relationships as legitimate, wherein wage-slaves are hired to generate wealth for corporate owners, who pursue the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind” as Smith put it. As Loyola University Professor of Political Science Claudio Katz has studied, libertarian Thomas Jefferson found it unacceptable to give up ownership of one’s own labor to an employer — a capitalist, or institutionally a corporation (although he owned slaves).
Today, libertarians routinely fight for the freedoms of corporations to exploit labor and communal resources. Under the guise of liberty and the free market, they are militant statists. During the Trump tax cuts debates, libertarian Rand Paul proudly accelerated capitalist wealth extraction to a tiny number of people by means of tax breaks for the wealthy, increasing the burden on ordinary citizens. This is done by using the state. Moreover, we do not find today’s libertarians clamoring for worker cooperatives and communal economies found in some parts of the country. These are actual mechanisms of self-ownership of labor and wealth, as covered by Political Economist and Historian Gar Alperovitz in his 2013 book What Then Must We Do?
In another violation of English, today’s libertarians ignore the abuse of one’s mental and creative freedoms under corporate wage-slavery. Perhaps they should heed the words of Smith again, who they worship without understanding. In Wealth of Nations Book V, Smith says,
“In the progress of the division of labor, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labor, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
In other words, cultivation of human liberties — including that of body, mind, labor and creativity, is a far more nuanced problem, that early libertarians understood. Shockingly, liberties cannot be championed by fighting for corporate freedom to monopolize, freedom of management to not pay workers a living wage or artificially suppress wages, freedom to not pay for labor at all, freedom to use prison labor, and freedom to externalize environmental costs of their single-minded pursuit of wealth. All of these ‘freedoms’ preserve existing class structures and actually violate individual rights.
In this sense, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ is Political English, and a libertarian is simply a statist using the power of the state to serve concentrated wealth. It is rape of the English language.
The classical libertarian tradition walks hand in hand with the classical liberal tradition of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and so on. Starting with the axiomatic fundamental rights to property and personal security, the tradition continues the long exercise of developing liberal governmental approaches to organize and serve citizens.
Hillary Clinton, a supposed liberal, heavily supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before it became political poison for good reason. The failed but floundering agreement condemns domestic populations to the whims of global capital — labor must sway to the gusts of investor movements. In addition, investor rights are enforced at the expense of state sovereignty. Governments acting at the behest of their peoples can be sued for undermining profits and causing financial harm to companies. This is antithetical to classical liberalism. Incidentally, libertarian Gary Johnson and his VP nominee, Bill Weld were also for the TPP. As Weld described during the 2016 campaign, “We’re the only free trade ticket in the race.” A reminder that “free trade” here is Political English, not English.
Further, if we follow the prescriptions of Locke and Rousseau, states exist to execute the will of the people. Yet, ‘liberal’ Democrats actually undermine policies supported by a majority of Americans. A library’s worth of polls show that Americans generally support policies that favor them, their communities and fellow citizens. These include single-payer health-care, renewable energy climate action, gun control and publicly-funded elections. Other issues that garner attention include education, workers’ rights, inequality and so on. Yet, in the face of overwhelming popular support, the liberals of the day show rank disregard for such preferences, protecting the elite by direct action or inaction. Thomas Frank roundly covers liberal failures in his 2016 book, Listen, Liberal.
The conservative tradition is born out of a desire for limited government, and a society concerned with the thoughtful and responsible cultivation of its citizenry. Not to be outdone in the Doublethink Derby, today’s conservatives also support statist intervention to protect power, just like libertarians. Warrantless spying of the domestic population, openly advocating for war crimes, racist dog-whistling to win elections, and hollowing educational institutions is not remotely conservative as far as English is concerned. In fact, it is the complete opposite. Even Noam Chomsky has said, “I am one of the few conservatives around.” Contrast him with Ted Cruz. We can only dream of a Republican Party populated with traditional conservatives.
It is a conservative ideal to treat everyone as equal in front of the law. However, today’s conservatives have no interest in principle. As Glenn Greenwald writes in With Liberty and Justice for Some,
“It is difficult to overstate the extent to which congressionally bestowed retroactive immunity represents a profound departure from basic norms of justice. Ordinary Americans are sued every day and forced to endure the severe hardships and sometimes ruinous costs of litigation. When that happens, it is the role of the courts alone to determine who is at fault and whether liability should be imposed. The Constitution vests “the judicial Power of the United States” in courts, not Congress. And when it comes to lawsuits brought against ordinary Americans, that is how such suits are always resolved: by courts issuing rulings on the merits. The very idea that Congress would intervene in such proceedings and act to protect ordinary Americans from lawsuits is too outlandish even to entertain.”
“But when the wealthiest, most powerful, and most well-connected financial elites are caught red-handed violating the privacy rights of their customers and committing clear felonies, their lobbyists call for a new law that has no purpose other than to declare that the old laws do not apply to them. That is the living, breathing embodiment of our two-tiered justice system — a lawless Wild West for elites in which anything goes. Examining how the telecoms pursued the amazing feat of getting full immunity for their systematic lawbreaking highlights how and why the rule of law is so easily discarded in the United States.”
Opposition: Revenge of the Dictionary
Liberals, conservatives and libertarians are anything but that. Should they be liberals, conservatives and libertarians as defined by English, we would see many points of convergence — worker cooperatives and public ownership of wealth, conservation of our natural resources, heavy emphasis on explorative education, respecting state sovereignty, ending mindless and illegal invasions, protecting individual freedoms and so on.
A corruption of language further degrades the media and education systems, which in turn accelerates the corruption of language. Political English is primarily concerned with “defending against the indefensible,” as George Orwell put it in Politics and the English Language in 1968. We can add to the goals of Political English by noting its dedication to sow discord amongst peoples in otherwise salient agreement with each other.
The tyrannical capture of language has reduced discourse, ideation and collaboration amongst people. Moreover, people themselves have aided in the demise of sensibility and cooperation by recklessly using Political English.Unless we reverse this trend, there is little hope to mount challenges to power systems that plague the lives of individuals and communities alike. I usually end my articles with some alternative directions to pursue. In this case, it is simple: watch your tongue.