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The Lingo of the Left

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.”