The Politics of Symbolism

American society became either Confucian or anti-Confucian last week, depending on your point of view. The ancient Chinese sage put great store on the use of the right name. Called the Rectification of Names, his doctrine asserted that “social disorder can stem from the failure to call things by their proper names, and his solution to this was the rectification of names.” Names, said Confucius, had to convey the truth.


If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. … Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

Modern politicians appear to believe the opposite: social disorder can result from telling the truth. Better the lie.  In consequence the American Left has spent the last two weeks renaming things. The University of Tennessee, at which Glenn (Instapundit) Reynolds teaches, has prescribed a slew of pronouns designed to replace the traditional sexist ones.   “The University of Tennessee has told its staff and students to stop calling each other ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘him’ and ‘her’ – and to start referring to one another with terms like ‘xe’, ‘zir’ and ‘xyr’ instead.”  They are to be used instead of the old forms, which are now believed to cause offense.

The Knoxville branch of the public university, which has 27,400 students, sent a memo round to its members filled with unusual new parts of speech to avoid referring to anybody’s gender.

According to a gay rights official at the university, the new language regime will make the university ‘welcoming and inclusive’ and stop people feeling ‘marginalized’.

This followed an attempt last week to ban the term “anchor baby” from the vocabulary of civil discourse. Josh Barro of the New York Times says “candidates have come under criticism because of the term’s dehumanizing implication of instrumentality, in either sense of its use: that immigrants have babies to serve as “anchors” that ward off deportation and make it easier to get citizenship for themselves in the future, unlike Americans, who have babies for all the normal reasons.” Jorge Ramos, in his exchange with Donald Trump, objected to the word “illegal alien” as well.


“When you call U.S. citizens anchor babies, is that not spreading hate?” Ramos continued. “When you call 11 million people in this country illegals–and no human being is illegal–isn’t that spreading hate?”

The last few days have seen another headline emerge around the subject of names. President Obama decided to officially rename the peak formerly known as Mt. McKinley as Denali. Jim Acosta of CNN reports that the president traveled to Alaska to engage in some potent symbolism.

To hear the White House describe Alaska, the state has become the canary in the climate change coal mine, complete with raging wildfires, accelerating ice melt in the arctic, vanishing glaciers and whole villages forced to relocate away from rising seas.

President Barack Obama will carry that urgent message to Alaska this week in the hopes his long journey away from his busy agenda in Washington will begin to change the national conversation on global warming.

His first step while he’s there: officially renaming the country’s tallest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali, an historic nod to the region’s native population, which the White House says is under threat from the already-present threat of climate change.

Names it turns out, are pretty important. If employed in a sufficiently forceful manner, names can replace the objects they name. Nearly 25 centuries after Confucius, the British writer George Orwell advanced his own ideas about the importance of names. In his theory of Newspeak, Orwell argued that by controlling the notation of a logical system or the words in a language, one could make certain concepts literally inexpressible with the given symbol set.  By manipulating the symbol table, you could make things unquestionable and dissent unthinkable.


The goal of Orwell’s theory of Newspeak to reduce vocabulary to achieve the exact opposite of Confucius’ “Rectification of Names”. Rather than making words correspond to the truth, Newspeak would make every grammatical sentence state an automatic lie.

According to Orwell, “the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”

What Orwell did not completely understand is that Newspeak required the creation of a simulated universe.  To understand this, note this common programming expression

var rightNow = new Date();

Most programmers don’t care much about the variable name.  The string “rightNow” is essentially unimportant. One could have used “thisMinuteor” or “thisVerySecond”.  What’s important is the what the variable points to, in this case a new Date object. In normal human language the same concept applies. The words “God”, “Dios” or “Deus” are merely alternative ways of pointing to the same underlying concept that exists independently of the word.

But in politics things are different. In politics words are reality. The variable name “rightNow” may actually point to nothing.  But that is no matter, because everything’s fake.  The fake code compiles in the bogus compiler.  Even the runtime is simulated.  One’s code doesn’t execute.  It only appears to execute.  In a complete Newspeak universe fake words produce fake events and the world celebrates fake achievements.


As such they create a substitute universe that replaces the real one. For example,  North Korea recently opened a park in Damascus, Syria which as an objective act can hardly be more ridiculous. It makes no realistic sense for a repressive, bankrupt Asian dictatorship to inaugurate a park in the war-torn capital of a dying autocracy in the Middle East. It is totally absurd. But the entire inaugural ceremony, like the replacement of pronouns or the renaming of Alaskan rocks, serves an entirely synthetic purpose.  It has no real purpose, only one with respect to the simulation.

The ceremony to mark the opening of Kim Il-sung Park in the Kafar Sussa District on Monday was attended by a range of high-ranking government officials, who declared that Syria-North Korea relations were strong.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister Fayssal Mikdad said in a statement that North Korea represented an example for Syria in its own civil war, Yonhap news agency reported.

In the actual world Syria is a mess.  Of the 22.4 million prewar populaton, 7.6 million are now living in refugee camps, 4 million are living with relatives in neighboring countries and 250,000 are dead. The actual Syria is destroyed.  But in the simulated Syria, everything is just fine and nothing is more important than Assad commemorating the burgeoning friendship of the North Korean and Syrian peoples.

The same dynamic obtains, but to a lesser degree, in the West.  The Obama administration might have failed at everything it tried, but it has achieved a whole series of “firsts”.  We have the First Latina to head OPM, the first trangender official in the White House, the first renamed peak in Alaska, etc. Simulated reality, a replacement of real events by their symbolic counterparts, is such an important part of political life in the 21st century that  Assad will inaugurate a ludicrous amusement facility in Damascus or cause the president of the United States to rename rocks.


But not everyone is aware of the absurdity of the situation. Many people actually live in this fantastic world; laughing on cue, clapping with the laughtrack and buying into the narrative.  They don’t realize they’re living in a political Matrix. One would think that living in a lie for any extent of time is impossible. In fact, it is quite possible to live inside an unchallenged fantasy for a long time unless we deliberately challenge it.

Names have the power of being prima facie. How do we know the “Affordable Care Act” is affordable? How can one know whether to agree or disagree with Bill Clinton’s assertion about Hillary that “I have never known a person with a stronger sense of right and wrong in my life — ever.”   We don’t. Without a sound logical test, a clever narrative is surprisingly difficult to debunk.

Most go with the flow, with the result that they live without awareness inside this synthetic narrative world.  The better the simulation, the harder to challenge. One popular test proposed by computer scientists to determine whether our universe is simulated reality is to “overload” the narrative machine to see if it displays inconsistencies when examined.  Using sophisticated tests it might just be possible to catch God simulating reality.

Fortunately it is far easier to catch politicians at deceit.  The key event for most is what might be called a burn-through distance, the moment when the return signal from the authentic world begins to be detected despite the jamming of the narrative.  In terms of the Confucian paradigm, “burn-through” is the instant when the Rectification of Names begins.  It’s the moment when we see through the hype and recognize the reality.


At that instant the renaming of peaks in Alaska is called a “stunt” and inaugurating a North Korean park in Damascus is called “madness”.  The burn-through instant is the rectification of names.  Xe what I mean?

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