The Lingo of the Left
Living in an illusory world, the left can maintain its privileged fiction only by adulterating language.
April 21, 2011 - 12:00 am
In the gated community of the leftist thought-world, no suspicious words, abrasive ideas, or events disturbing to its peace of mind and settled convictions are permitted entry. It lives in an encysted, self-referential domain guarded against unwelcome intrusions. Thus, the expression of doubt, uncertainty. or hypothesis is generally lacking in its world-view. Its core propositions are usually context-free or context-impoverished, in the sense that the left tends to deny the existence of pragmatic referents. Meaning is often mediated through a process of referential exclusion, an avoidance or even willed ignorance of the “facts of the matter.” It can look at what is demonstrably happening before its eyes and decide that it is not happening. It will then mobilize language to posit and describe a counterfeit reality, a knock-off world.
David Jenkins asks, “Could it be that leftism is a mental illness?” It is indeed a disease of the mind of epidemic proportions, rooted in an ablative relation to experience, an orientation “away from.” Its etiology may be difficult to assess — early brainwashing? prolonged infantilism? corrosive resentment? self-hatred? defective chemistry? — but one thing is certain. Its congenial language is both its primary symptom and its chief enabler.
It is as if the left has coarsely misconstrued Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous principle in his Course in General Linguistics of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. Saussure argued that words gain their meaning owing to their differential relation to other words in an autonomous linguistic system, though he did not go so far as to divorce the word from the thing that it ultimately signals. But this is precisely how leftist thought and discourse proceeds, its native lexicon sealed off from reality and referring only to other signs and discourses, or what is even worse, to imaginary entities that are taken as givens. Its world is autotelic, curling back on itself like a Möbius strip. The fundamental dilemma for the left is that it is trapped in its own contracted version of the hermeneutic circle, words signifying only other words or reifying abstractions that have no real existence, and explanations revolving around themselves, an attitude reminiscent of that passage in Catch 22:
–What does the fish remind you of?
–And what do other fish remind you of?
Here we must be careful. Self-reference does not rule out transformation, to the extent that events and objects in the real world can be — and are — re-described as “objects” situated in a parallel and exclusive realm of discourse. A current instance involves the Muslim Brotherhood. In the real world, it is a theocratic jihadist organization whose purpose is to subvert the democratic West; in the parallel universe of the left, it has been transformed into a peaceful and secular organization that wishes only to participate in the democratic process. The term “Muslim Brotherhood” no longer signifies an entity that actually exists but designates instead an internal object that does not connect to anything outside a closed semantic orbit. The same transformation applies to “Islam,” which in defiance of its scriptures and the violence perpetrated in its name, signifies a “religion of peace.” “Conservative” is synonymous with “racist” or “fascist” in complete disregard of conservatism’s principles, texts, and reasoned arguments. The left-wing lobby group J Street, which advocates policies, as Benjamin Kerstein shows, that could well issue in Israel’s destruction, calls itself “pro-Israel,” an in-house translation of “pro-Palestinian.”
This has become common practice, the product of a free-floating mental operation that manipulates names in such a way that they do not designate their presumptive targets but transform them into something else. As a result, fish invariably become other fish, that is, another kind of fish, swimming not in the ocean but in a self-enclosed cognitive aquarium. Words are deliberately re-purposed to present a revisionist construct of the way things are. And it works — until, that is, reality intervenes, as it always does, exposing what is nothing less than a transcript of referential despair.
Transforming, obviously, is also a way of disguising what happens to be the case. It is no accident that the left is the main sponsor and purveyor of politically correct language, which resembles the ladies and gentlemen of the Sun King’s court who drenched themselves in perfume rather than bathe. The natural body of words may be either offensive or innocuous, but the excessive use of anti-odiferous expedients really fools no one except those who wish to be fooled. Regrettably, the class of the fooled is an influential one that has been largely responsible for denaturing the world we live in. It believes that re-naming a thing masks its nature and transforms it into something else.
Put simply, whether as mutation or concealment, re-describing or re-naming, Leftspeak is predicated on lying, on transforming rather than reporting. There are three forms of lying: omission, exaggeration, and misrepresentation. The left has mobilized all three commutations of the actual, leaving out what does not suit, inflating what does, and falsifying what may.
An excellent example of this species of triple mutilation, worth examining at some length, comes from the pen of David Remnick. In a recent article for The New Yorker, “A Man, A Plan,” treating the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, Remnick praises PA leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, “who have shown themselves willing to make the concessions needed for a peace deal.” But he conveniently omits the facts of Palestinian incitement in mosque, media, and school calling for Israeli blood, the naming of public squares and institutions after terrorists and the subsidizing of their families, the refusal to negotiate during the Israeli building freeze, and the unwillingness to budge on non-starter demands like the return of millions of descendent refugees. As for the administration of Barack Obama, we are informed that its reluctance “to put forward a comprehensive peace plan [is] not because it has any difficulty imagining such a plan”; it is because of the “outsized role” played in American politics by various Jewish groups which are able to “swing elections.” If this is not an exaggeration, one which would do Walt and Mearsheimer proud, I don’t know what is. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has told some hard truths about the shameless corruption and bigotry of the United Nations, Palestinian plotting, and fifth column activities among domestic left-wing organizations, is misrepresented as “proto-fascistic.”
Remnick’s entire vessel, from propeller to mermaid, is a tissue of omissions, exaggerations, and misrepresentations, with scarcely a single unoffending paragraph to be found. Everything has been transformed — history, morality, the major personages, the nature of the “occupation,” international law, and the underlying politics of the region. It is only fair to say that Remnick writes well; it is also fair to say that Remnick writes trash. He is a master of the lingo of the left and his screed provides a cardinal illustration of how the left operates.
A clear and honest paradigm of representation is alien to the left’s semantic relation to the world. In The Political Unconscious, Duke University professor and prolific author Fredric Jameson, an unrepentant leftist, exhorts his readers to “liberate [themselves] from the empirical object” — just “liquidate the experiences in question and dissolve them without a trace.” In other words, make the real world disappear, put a simulacrum in its place, and life will somehow improve. Writing and thinking are understood as resistance to the common assumptions of unenlightened mankind and its supposedly warped view of the world. Writing is “writing over.” Thinking is pretending, or even believing, things are otherwise.
In this respect, a manual of actual events, like the 8th century Annals of Saint Gall, would be rejected out of hand since it cannot be ideologized, but remains trunklined to reality. Here is a sample passage:
709: Hard winter. Duke of Gottfried died.
710: Hard year and deficient in crops
712: Flood everywhere.
714: Pippin, Mayor of the Palace, died.
716: Charles devastated the Saxons with great destruction.
721: Theudo drove the Saracens out of Aquitaine.
731: Blessed Bede, the presbyter, died.
732: Charles fought against the Saracens at Poitier on Saturday.
This document does not seek to transform or hide events but to record them. Reductive as it is, it furnishes a model for the proper use of words and a source text for the conscientious and dependable writing of history in its initial phases. Its use of words is deictic, that is, words point directly to the referent without trying to change it into something else, to create an idealistic and partisan version of “what happens,” or to construct by verbal fiat a surrogate and presumably better world than the one we live in. Naturally, the professional historian will attempt to perceive the interconnection of events within a larger context in order to establish a sense of continuity and direction, but this does not confer a license to concoct or reconfigure the world in accordance with a prior ideological conviction.
For leftists, however, scrupulous and candid observation of things as they are is contra-indicated and the words they favor are, essentially, intended to deflect or suppress, not illuminate or reveal. Living in an illusory world, the left can maintain its privileged fiction only by adulterating language, treating it as an instrument that glosses what is as what isn’t, and codifies what isn’t as what is. Words are like smushables, stuffed at the top of a bag, but never unpacked to disclose what lies beneath.
German philosopher Uwe Poerksen calls such words, in his book of that title, “plastic words,” which, appearing in political speeches, government documents, academic seminars, and the media, “blur meaning and disable common language.” Thus they become “the building blocks for plans and solutions that may seem utopian but that end up impoverishing the world.” They represent, in effect, “the tyranny of modular language” which serves as an “instrument of subjugation” rather than a “tool of freedom.” Words employed this way, he says, wander like the bridge supports in Paul Klee’s 1937 painting, The Revolution of the Viaduct. The verbal bridge from mind to world has been rendered uncrossable.
One recalls Jane Austen writing in Northanger Abbey that her readers will see in “the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.” Nothing wrong with that. The trouble is that the real world is not a novel and leftist authors, who treat it as if it were exactly that, ensure only that we are all hastening together to perfect misery. This is only another way of saying that the left does not live in real time but in theoretical time or imaginary time. It has lost what Christopher Lasch calls “the connecting thread” to the real world and to genuine history, leading to our inevitable discomfiture. “Nature,” Lasch writes in The True and Only Heaven, “overrides our designs and imposes a heavy tax on every attempt to surmount or circumvent it.”
In the final analysis, the leftist use of words arises from the need to achieve a position of mastery or domination. But it is subject to a destructive irony, for the world it wishes to control, erected on deception and irreality, as well as on overweening arrogance, inevitably collapses like the Tower of Babel and concludes only in the loss of hope and the decay of culture. A world built on desire at the expense of fact relies on words severed from their proper function of clarification as opposed to dissimulation. They constitute a form of what Orwell in Politics and the English Language called “modern writing at its worst,” which consists not “in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer,” but “in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order…and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
We are all diminished by the betrayal of language, which infects the entire field of discourse as it progressively becomes a standard medium of exchange. The essential gradients of Leftspeak — omitting, exaggerating, misrepresenting, transforming, concealing — in an age of ubiquitous and instantaneous media dissemination, render us both vulnerable to our adversaries and morally and intellectually debased. For as Isaiah Berlin reminds us in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, “the degradation of language is always the surest sign of the degradation of a people.”