December 18, 2002
By Ernest Partridge, The
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium
of expression for the [Party's] world-view and mental
habits ..., but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once
and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought
- that is, a thought diverging from the principles of
[the Party] - should be literally unthinkable, at least
so far as thought is dependent on words. 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 meanings
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
by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings....
Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the
range of thought...
George Orwell, "The Principles of Newspeak," in
the novel, 1984
Liberals who are wondering just what hit them in the past
twenty years, will find much of the answer to their bewilderment
in George Orwell's 1984. That classic presents an accurate
description of the tactics that Right-Wing political operatives
have employed in their successful anathematization of the
once-honorific word, "liberalism," and in their inappropriate
adoption of the word "conservative."
In the political strife of the past generation, it is the
liberals who have been the authentic "conservatives" as they
have treated the received political vocabulary with respect
and restraint, regarding the clarity afforded by ordinary
language as a necessary and valuable medium of civil and reasoned
In contrast, the so-called "conservatives," unconstrained
by such qualms, have treated language as a political weapon.
Because these antics have provoked little if any protest from
their opponents, the Right-Wing word-meisters have utilized
their semantic weapons with great skill and effect, and thus
(Terminological note: Because the essential purpose of this
essay is to examine the use of the terms "liberal" and "conservative"
in current political rhetoric, we must use these words with
great care and circumspection. Accordingly, we will use instead,
the terms "the Right" and "the Left," mindful that these words
are also charged with emotive and ideological connotations.
Indeed, it seems impossible to avoid such connotations when
referring to a political faction).
The Assault on (the word) "Liberal."
The rhetoric of contemporary politics has not infected the
pages of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, which thus defines
the political sense of "liberal:" "Favoring reform or progress,
as in religion, education, etc.; specifically, favoring political
reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for
the individual..." Webster's also notes the that the derivation
of the word "liberal" is from the latin liberalis: "of or
pertaining to a freeman."
To this, we might add that modern liberals regard popularly
elected government, constrained by the rule of law, as a positive
force for ensuring the welfare, equality and rights of the
citizens. Far from being "anti-conservative," this notion
is enshrined in the Declaration of our political Independence
("to secure these rights, governments are instituted among
men") and in the Preamble to our Constitution, which proclaims
that it is the legitimate function of governments "to form
a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,
provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare,
and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
Somehow these authentically conservative principles of liberalism
have been obscured by the word-meisters of the Right, as they
have associated the word "liberal" with "tax-and-spend big
government," naive ("bleeding heart") benevolence toward the
unworthy (e.g., "welfare cheats"), and bumbling, bureaucratic
interference in enlightened private enterprise.
This semantic coup has been so successful that in political
rhetoric "liberal" has become an abusive "hot button." Just
consider the recent election. In TV spot advertisements (now
the dominant arena of political "debate,") the word "liberal"
is splashed and shouted, like a witch's curse, over the name
of the (generally Democratic) target candidates. "Liberal!"
Nancy Pelosi, "Liberal!" Barbara Boxer, "Liberal!" Paul Wellstone.
No elaboration is offered of just what the word is supposed
to mean. No need for that, since the cognitive content of
the term has long since been drained away, leaving a shell
of invective. Thus the transformed word, "liberal," becomes
a political weapon - like a piece of rotten fruit, to hurl
at the candidate.
And so, in tune with the principles of Newspeak, in current
political discourse the political faction which advocates
"reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for
the individual" (Webster's), formerly designated as "liberalism,"
has now been deprived of its traditional name. And thus, lacking
a name, it has become far more difficult to articulate and
thus even think of and defend the "liberal" principles of
such political giants as FDR, LaGuardia, Stevenson and Javitts.
How did it come to this? In retrospect, it is difficult to
determine whether the assault upon the word "liberalism" was
calculated, or merely directed without design at a conspicuous
target of opportunity. It really doesn't matter; it is the
methodology and the consequences of this attack that should
The success of the attack upon "liberalism," and the failure
of the liberals to defend their political label, can be attributed
in part to the respective vocations and traditions of "the
offense" (the Right) and "the defense" (the Left). Prominent
defenders of "the Left" come from the academic world, where
language is prized for its precision and clarity, and where
the purpose of political discourse is to persuade by force
of confirmable evidence and valid argument. In contrast, "the
Right," drawing from the practical experience of commerce,
seeks, not to prove, but to sell. Any psychological device
that promises to "close the sale" (i.e., persuade the "prospect"
to buy the product or to vote for "our" candidate) is fair
game. And if those devices involve the distortion of language,
the pollution of plain meaning, and the subversion of free
political institutions, then so be it. George Orwell vividly
described such semantic shenanigans, called it "Newspeak,"
and gave us fair warning. The Right, unconstrained by a "conservative"
respect for the acquired wealth of meaning in our language,
follows (by design or, more likely, by independent invention)
the Principles of Newspeak: "provide a medium of expression
for the [Party's] world-view and mental habits ..., [and]
make all other modes of thought impossible."
The Right's effective use of language as a political weapon
should not have come as a surprise. There was fair warning
- In the early 60's, Robert Welch, the founder of the John
Birch Society, coined a term "ComSymp" to mean, of course,
"communist sympathizer." I recall that he said at that time
that this was a "beautiful word," in that it didn't convey
just how much the individual so designated was a "communist,"
and how much just a "sympathizer." Thus vagueness, regarded
by academics as a semantic weakness, was openly praised
as a rhetorical virtue by Mr. Welch.
- In a similar vein, Vice President Spiro Agnew (more precisely,
one of his writers) introduced the term "Radical-Liberal,"
soon thereafter abbreviated as "radiclib." Thus the long-honored
term "liberal" was automatically tarred with the undeserved
connotation of "radical" (i.e., "subversive"). This was
a masterful stroke of political gamesmanship, at the cost
of devaluing the coin of intelligent political discourse.
- Finally, there was the abortion debate which followed
closely upon the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. The anti-abortion
forces quickly adopted the semantically powerful label,
"pro-life." Then a savvy advocate noted that if you combine
the words "baby" and "killing" you will have a no-lose political
issue. Thus fetuses and embryos, back to the moment of conception
(an invisibly tiny cluster of cells) were called "babies"
and endowed with a moral significance more precious than
that of a fully-formed adult woman. Opposition to the so-called
"pro-life" and "anti-abortion" platform automatically carried
heavy and undeserved moral burdens, due to the simple (yet
false) implication that the defenders of Roe v. Wade were
ipso facto "anti-life" and "pro-abortion." These
"liberals" paid a heavy price for their unwillingness to
engage in "merely semantic" debates. Late in the debate,
the Left finally wised-up and adopted the term "Pro-Choice,"
but by then considerable damage had been done. (For more
on the topic of the semantics of abortion, see "The
Right to Life and the Right to Love").
In sum: "The left," poor saps, constrained by their genteel
"rules of (verbal) fair play," chose not to stoop to the tactical
level of their opposition. And thus, of course, they were
clobbered in the political arena, as an over-the-hill actor
was "cast" in the role of Presidential Candidate, and prevailed
over an authentic scholar and Christian gentleman. The poor,
hapless, left forgot the advice of one of their own: "Tip"
O'Neill, who observed "Politics ain't beanbag."
The Capture of (the word) "Conservative."
The political Right, which calls itself "conservative," is
nothing of the kind. As I have noted elsewhere (see "Kill
the Umpire!"), they might better be called "radical anarchists."
To these so-called "conservatives," popularly elected government
- which tells them that they cannot poison the common air
and water, sell unsafe and ineffective food and drugs, cheat
their customers, or abuse their employees -- is some sort
of occupying foreign power.
"Government," writes the Libertarian philosopher, John Hospers,
"is the most dangerous institution known to man." The libertarians
can at least be credited for having a consistency and courage
of their unfortunate beliefs, as they advocate the abolition
of all laws regulating private and "victimless" behavior.
Liberty for Some,"). Self-described "conservatives," on
the contrary, are not constrained by consistency. It is quite
acceptable, they tell us, for government to interfere with
doctor-patient and lawyer-client relationships, to establish
a religion ("This is a Christian Nation!"), to incarcerate
indefinitely without charge or access to counsel, and to criminalize
sexual relations between consenting adults. (As one wit has
said, "the Right has taken government off our backs and put
it into our bedrooms"). And finally, as we know so well, the
Right has no qualms about disenfranchising citizens, over-riding
state law, and conducting a coup d'etat under the guise
of "law," in order to install their candidate into the office
of the President of the United States.
Yet these anarchist have the unmitigated gall to call themselves
"conservatives." Still worse, the press and public have consented,
without protest, to this violation of our language - to this
exercise in "Newspeak."
Semantic Conservatism and the Liberation of the English
The Rectification of Names consists in making real relationships
and duties and institutions conform as far as possible
to their ideal meanings.... When this intellectual reorganization
is at last effected, the ideal social order will come
as night follows day - a social order where, just as a
circle is a circle and a square a square, so every prince
is princely [and] every official is faithful...
Confucius (as described by Hu Shih)
What, then, is the remedy?
First and foremost, the Left must become aware of
just what has been done to them and to their language. And
then, with this awareness, they must act - alerting the public
to the subversion of our common language, and then piercing
the screen of concocted labels to deal with the reality of
public issues and moral principles beyond. They must, to use
the old slogans of "General Semantics," direct public attention
away from words to things and ideas - from maps to territories.
Second, the Left must acknowledge that the assault
on the word "liberal" has left that once-honored word in critical
condition. Accordingly, "liberal" must be given a prolonged
rest, and perhaps even retired permanently. In the 1988 Presidential
campaign, Michael Dukakis sensed the wisdom of this move,
as he avoided the word "liberal" (along with all the unjust
rightist baggage attached thereto), and adopted the word "progressive"
to describe his program. Though it didn't "take" at the time,
this "semantic handoff" should be tried again. If the word
"progressive" can be attached to the meaning that Webster's
assigned to "liberal," then the Left must proudly proclaim
that meaning and relentlessly defend it from the attempt at
semantic subversion that is sure to follow. Hopefully, with
the sad fate of "liberalism" fresh in their minds, the new
"progressives" will be more successful this time.
Third, the Left must rescue the word "conservative"
from the radical-anarchists who have captured it. In place
of "conservative," another label should be adopted to designate
the Right wing, and used repeatedly until it "sticks." "Regressive"
seems an appropriate choice, and it pairs nicely with "progressive."
Finally, as an antidote to the opportunistic subversion
of political discourse (i.e., "Newspeak"), political "progressives"
must steadfastly support the teaching of Critical Thinking,
both formally and informally. Such a program has been in effect
in the California State Universities for some twenty-four
years. It should be extended, both geographically and "vertically,"
throughout all age-groups. "Critical thinking," like virtue,
is universally endorsed, while it is universally violated.
Almost everyone believes that he is a "straight thinker,"
and resents any suggestion that his thought processes might
be systematically improved. Thus attempts to institute programs
in the teaching of critical thinking are likely to face considerable
In one of his final works, Brave New World Revisited,
Aldous Huxley recounted the sad fate in the late thirties
of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis:
Certain educators... disapproved of the teaching of propaganda
analysis on the grounds that it would make adolescents unduly
cynical. Nor was it welcomed by the military authorities,
who were afraid that recruits might start to analyze the utterances
of drill sergeants. And then there were the clergymen and
the advertisers. The clergymen were against propaganda analysis
as tending to undermine belief and diminish churchgoing; the
advertisers objected on the grounds that it might undermine
brand loyalty and reduce sales.
And yet, as political philosophers have reiterated, from
Aristotle through Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, and
on through John Dewey and the late John Rawls in our own day:
the cultivation of critical intelligence is the foundation
of moral autonomy in the individual, and of liberty and justice
in the body politic.
In sum, and above all: "Progressives" (formerly "liberals")
had better wake up and smell the brew: those who control
the language, control the agenda - they control, that
is to say, what can and will be said in public discourse.
Orwell's inquisitor "O-Brien" saw this clearly, when he explained:
"... the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of
thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible,
because there will be no words in which to express it. . ."
We must take back our language, lest others decide for us
what is to be "thinkable."
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer
in the field s of Environmental Ethics and Moral philosophy.
He publishes the website, "The
Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website "The