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Kearneysville, WV. The publication of Sarah Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue, provides an opportunity to discuss contemporary political rhetoric, especially the use of certain words that have the effect of shutting down discussion rather than stimulating further thought. Palin’s rhetoric is only a case in point of what has become a national habit. Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reily, and other “conservative leaders” traffic in this with equal facility. And while I will focus on three terms carelessly used by those on the right, lefties have their own lexicons of conversation stoppers.

Main-stream media. Abbreviated by some as the MSM, this is a way of discounting the reporting and commentary of anyone whose ideas do not reflect the party line. Now of course studies have shown that a significant majority of journalists tend to vote democratic and tend to hold political and social views that are to the left of center. And this may, in fact, create a bias in reporting even if the reporters seek to be even-handed. One’s personal views dictate, to a certain extent, the kinds of stories one will find interesting, so if nothing else, story selection might be influenced. But even if all this is true, to blame a miserable interview performance, for example, on the biases of the MSM, is a handy way of denying one’s own shortcomings. If I can blame Katie Couric for trying to make me look bad, I don’t have to ask myself if, perhaps, I really did look bad and then set about doing the hard work to remedy the situation. Scapegoats are a means of deflecting responsibility.

Furthermore, with the rise of Fox News along with AM radio, it becomes harder to speak coherently of the MSM. There is media that tends to slant things to the left, and media that tends to slant things to the right. There are, as well, outlets that are completely open about their political views and make no pretense to neutrality. This being the case, the term main-stream media becomes a shorthand for “those people who disagree with me.” Suggesting that such a group represents a monolithic entity that is out to get me is really just another way to play the victim.

Socialist/Marxist/communist/fascist, etc. These words have been bandied about a lot since Obama took office. They have come to be used almost interchangeably to describe the programs and aspirations of the President. There is only one problem: these words have specific meanings of their own and to collapse them into a mush and sling them about as weapons of derision is to make a hash of the English language. But even more, ignoring definitions and carelessly using words is to hinder our ability to speak well and accurately of reality itself. To abuse words is to slowly participate in the denigration of language, and when the damage is done, we will find we no longer have a vocabulary adequate to the task of representing the world.

Take “Marxist” for instance. Karl Marx spent a lifetime developing a philosophy of man and history. He argued that human history is the history of class struggle. He argued that progress in history is achieved through what he called “dialectical materialism.” Marx taught that the revolution of the masses would bring about the withering away of the state and usher in a new age of equality, peace, and plenty. While certain points on Marx’s agenda may find agreement with Obama’s agenda, Obama doesn’t seem to be interested in the withering away of the state. In fact, he seems interested in aggrandizing the state. To assert he’s a Marxist pure and simple is careless or at least requires significantly more argument.

What about socialism? A socialist society is, in simplest terms, one in which the means of production (capital) are publically owned. Those who disparage Obama for being a socialist call themselves “capitalists” and cherish individual liberty. Now the government takeover of certain industries does smack of socialism. But at the same time, government involvement in economics is nothing new. Modern liberalism (as opposed to classical liberalism) may in fact open the door to some forms of socialism, but we do a disservice to the language to suggest they are one and the same.

Often any undesired government involvement is thumped with the socialism club, but government involvement is not socialist merely because we happen to disagree with the particulars. Are highways socialist? Are city water systems? If so, then the question is much more difficult than socialism or no socialism. We must do the hard work of working out the best means of achieving a just system. Prudence is necessary.

The problem we face today is not socialism or Marxism per se but the continual expansion of the nationalized bureaucratic state. It is a kind of democratically elected and popularly sustained system of complex rules, offices, regulations, and bureaus that continually restricts freedom all in the name of security, fairness, and efficiency. Because it is democratic it is all the more insidious, for it operates with the imprimatur of popular consent. This modern democratic Leviathan did not originate with Obama. He has merely taken the reins of a creature that has been continually growing for most of the 20th century and shows no sign of abatement in this first decade of the 21st.

Elitist. The epithet “elitist” has become a popular form of abuse. If I disagree with you and can call you an elitist then, rather than debating the issues, you will have to defend yourself. Of course, no one wants to be tagged an elitist, but that fact only highlights the success of those who misuse the word. The Palins and the Limbaughs love to hurl this word around. It is often conjoined with modifiers such as “east coast” or “university” and it indicates scorn for those who are educated and with whom one happens to disagree. So the populist rhetoric disparages education and extols “the common sense of the people” as if the people have an extra helping of this good thing while education necessarily sucks it away. Curiously, “elitist” is used only against the educated people who with whom one disagrees. Bill Kristol (PhD Harvard), George Will (PhD Princeton), Bill Bennett (PhD University of Texas), Thomas Sowell (PhD University of Chicago) are rarely called elitists by those on the right. Why? They gore certain oxen and leave others alone.

Furthermore, any coherent political system, even populism, requires some form of elites. Are there some people who are more qualified to hold office than others? If so, they are elites. The fact that we have elections is tacit testimony to the belief we all hold despite the rhetoric. The alternative would be selecting leaders by randomly pulling names out of hats, and despite jokes to the contrary, I suspect that few would be willing to put that to the test.

The founders of our country made it clear that they did not want an hereditary aristocracy, yet they also realized that a “natural aristocracy” must emerge, one based on natural ability and virtue. From this pool leaders should be elected. Popular elections of the best require that the populace is a) capable of recognizing the best and b) willing to elect them. Thus, while an elite is necessary, a certain kind of population is required as well. To employ the word “elite” as a universal term of opprobrium is to tacitly suggest that egalitarianism is the actual or desired reality. It undermines the prospects of a meritocracy and effectively denies legitimate merit.

Of course, there are elites who have gained positions of cultural and political power and who have done great harm. But they have not caused harm simply because they are elites. They have caused harm because they are wrong on important issues and exercise influence due to their status. As such, the problem is not elites per se but errant elites. To fail in making that distinction is to fail in representing reality accurately. Words matter. If we do not use them well, all that is left is political power and words become merely clubs.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Propaganda serves a purpose. I believe that was the point of a recent fond-ish review of Glen Beck’s show by Charles Murray. Your reference to goring oxen is apropos. In the context of political power, it comes down to the basic Nockian question of who-whom: “Who benefits, and at the expense of whom?”

    When people deride elites or socialists or the MSM, they are really pushing a form of the argument: which elites? which media? which society? Which boiled down even further is a form of “who whom?”

  2. I was going to comment on this, but then I realized that the author is probably just an elitist, Marxist-wannabe member of the MSM.

    Laugh. That was a joke. 🙂

  3. Mark,

    God gave us the ability to name things. I remember a live TV play in the 1950s when Keenan Wynn played God in the Genesis story, and a handsome but not very smart Adam named a Holstein (that was pooping on the floor, live) a “cow” and God chuckled, but let it go. We shouldn’t mind too much that about nine-tenths of the newsreaders believe in abortion “rights,” I guess, but that doesn’t mean that some ordinary guy like me should not recognize President Obama as a socialist. He sure is. And that doesn’t make me a “capitalist.” It just makes him a socialist.

    Let’s not shy away from naming names. About a hundred years ago the London newspapers did a survey asking what was the “Greatest Problem in the World.” G.K. Chesterton wrote in and said, “I am.” He was, he said and admitted, a sinner, and that’s the biggest problem in the world.

    I’m not here disagreeing with your intention. But you know what? President Obama IS a socialist, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill Bennett are NOT conservatives. Naming is not defining. If it walks like a duck….

    Elitists, by the way, by any what other name are always in control. One of the most powerful and neglected concepts of the last couple of hundred years is Robert Michel’s “The Iron Law of Oligarchy.”
    Our present oligarchs are not very admirable.

    Best, John

  4. Agree with Willson. We shouldn’t shy away from describing things. The real problem is that modern American political discourse has no dictionary and too few words. Really only two words, conservative and liberal, and each means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.

    It wasn’t always like this. If you listen to newscasts from the ’30s and ’40s, you’ll hear congressmen and presidents described with a wide variety of specific and meaningful labels.

  5. I’m not opposed to defining. And John, I will agree with you that our current president is misguided. But I’m just not sure that “socialist” is adequate to describe him and it is surely inadequate to describe the troubles we are in or heading toward. Perhaps a description is better than a definition. Here are some famous lines from Tocqueville that, in my opinion, hit close to home, and while it may include elements of socialism, there is much more.

    “I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest…He exists in and for himself, and though he may still have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland. Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it only tries to keep its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tried to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?…It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”

  6. Interesting and something that has been ruminating in my mind for the last year regarding the labeling of “Socialism” and “Marxism” to the current regime. I have a problem with the label, and can echo the sentiment expressed here, because it seems that when tossed into conversations the images that the word is intended to bring to mind are of Stalin’s Russia, or Castro’s Cuba, or Tse-Tung’s China. None of these do justice to the present situation. I have considered for some time that whatever is happening in our country, if it carry the label of Socialism, or Marxism, that the result will look like nothing which has previously transpired in our world’s history. If we are intellectually honest, than we should admit in the same breath that although Obama and his party’s sentiments may lean towards socialism, that ultimately the outworking of their philosophies into the public sphere will not look like anything which has happened before, when other regimes have carried the flag of the dogma which our leader’s are accused of adhering (and which I readily agree, they most likely do). That is not to say that the outworking are good or bad for us citizens, it is merely to say that it is different than before – even though their actions may not be desirable, there is no need to fear-monger by conjuring images of Tiananmen Square or The Gulag.

    Being a direct descendant of a Cuban family who escaped Castro’s takeover, and having a grandfather who fought for 7 months with the underground resistance fighters before barely escaping to Florida, I have no love for communism or Marxism in any form. Nor do I shy away from confrontation (my other half is Arab…so take that for what it’s worth), but I feel there should be honest discourse, which I believe is one of the points of Mr. Mitchell’s essay.

    As a side-bar, I read this morning that Fox News is continually on top of the ratings for Cable news…would that not make it part of the “MSM”?

  7. Mark,

    I agree with your overall point about the mushiness of labels, but there are often reasons why the labels stick. Take “MSM.” Yes, the world of news media is considerably more varied than it was 20 years ago, but the reality is that the audience for “MSM” publications (i.e. those that ostensibly purport to be “objective” but seem in practice to skew leftish) is far, far larger than the niche media. The audiences of the leading Fox talk shows, for example, are measured in hundreds of thousands. The audience for the three network news broadcasts is measured in tens of millions. From that perspective, it does make sense to speak of a “mainstream media.”

    Or consider “socialist.” I think many people consider the historical record of socialist/Communist governments and see totalitarianism. That’s what they’re worried about when they see in our time and place, as you so nicely put it, “the continual expansion of the nationalized bureaucratic state.”

    Les

  8. Justin Isaac said: “As a side-bar, I read this morning that Fox News is continually on top of the ratings for Cable news…would that not make it part of the “MSM”?”

    Not according to the White House…

    Fox ‘not really news,’ says Axelrod

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1009/28417.html

    You see, the left LOVES “democracy”, except when the market speaks and the “MSM” loses – it’s propaganda, and they need a “fairness” doctrine to set the record straight. How’s that for hypocrisy ?

    The bottom line is in my view they cancel each other out. ALL the major networks are corporate mouthpieces with their own “left-right” axe to grind, which is why I don’t watch any of them.

    As for “Elites” – I’d say the modern day Scrooge’s – the rich Malthusian disciples who think the rest of us should die so as to “decrease the surplus population” qualify…

    World’s Elite Make Population Control #1 Priority

    http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2009/may/09052511.html

    Notice these folks never lead by example and step up and volunteer to be first in line. They have too much “philanthropy” left to do. I’d call that elitist.

    • Les,
      Fair enough, but it seems to me that crying “it’s the MSM” can just be a way to blame a perceived or imagined enemy. For isn’t it true that the so-called MSM, despite its shortcomings, gets plenty right? If so, then critics must do more than simply playing the MSM card. They must give a coherent argument.

      JB
      Yes, the Malthusian disciples are elites. So was George Washington. If we want to argue that the former are bad and the latter is good, then we need to distinguish between good elites and bad elites. In other words, we can’t simply use the word “elite” to end a conversation. We need to distinguish.

  9. The populists love to throw the old “elitist” briar patch about. It is such a nebulous term and one always loves the great show of some alarmingly dense babbler whipping up the inchoate resentments of folks who think education is subversive. Come to think of it, maybe it is, its kind of the point of it aint it?

    But, as to the picking candidates out of a hat gambit, sign me up…..what could be worse than what we have now anyhow? Really, what could possibly be worse? Well, ok, there is always the next election. Actually there is a pack of semi-feral dogs running around the seaside village of Yelapa, Mexico that would, I humbly guarantee, run things more smoothly than the current feral mountebanks running their tawdry schemes in Foggy Bottom now. They have a smooth organization, are economic in their efforts and the hierarchy is such that nobody ruffles any feathers whatsoever because the leader of the group, Spotty, rumored to be a bit of a beach pederast and this annoys the tourists a tad but, anyway, he has the Shakes and makes everyone nervous, thus demonstrating a firm grasp of realpolitik. Watching these Dogs run their daily scams makes Tammany Hall look like a bunch of witless amateurs.

    Spotty The Mexican Dog, Now More Than Ever.

  10. Excellent points! One reason our politics are so muddled right now is that Obama is so afraid of being tagged a socialist that he caves in to capitalists, whom the enraged populist impulses of the people want to see punished. It would have been pure free market capitalism to let AIG and a few big banks fail, no matter how big they are, because they got themselves into their mess and they can pay the price. Unfortunately, they “too big to fail” in the sense that they would have taken millions of us down with them, setting off another Great Depression. But, assuming we need the government to intervene, the government should have just taken them over, lock stock and barrel — if the taxpayers are going to foot the bill, we own you, you are a failed company, a ward of the state, of us, the people. Then break them up into pieces small enough they won’t be “too big to fail,” and sell them off to get our money back. Actually, that would have been a step toward a bit more of a free market, but oh no, we couldn’t do that with Rush and Ken shouting “socialist.”

    As far as I can tell, Fox is the “mainstream media” at this point. Even the more liberal press are defining themselves in relation to Fox, and giving Fox the credibility of speaking for “what the people want.” Actually, Fox speaks for what its plutocratic owner, Rupert Murdoch, wants, nobody else.

    Are highways socialist? John Quincy Adams pushed the idea that government should take a hand in developing this kind of infrastructure to build the country. Abraham Lincoln saw it as a way for farmers to escape the poverty his own father experienced, having to roads to get crops to market and develop any cash income. It was capitalist long before it was socialist.

    Most important, capitalists are not champions of individual liberty. They are champions of conformity, and subordination to the needs of the company. Before socialists developed the kind of tactical discipline that led to communism, socialists were the advocates of personal liberty. I’m all for treating large corporate enterprises in a socialist manner, because they are too big and bad to trust with free enterprise. We just need to leave more flexibility and running room for new enterprises to develop. Culturally conservative, politically libertarian, econonmically socialist toward large corporations that have approached monopoly status, and free enterprise for individual initiatives, but subject to strong labor protection laws, is about where I’m at right now.

  11. […] 9, 2009 in Culture | Tags: Language | by Brian Brown George Orwell, Mark Falcoff, and Mark Mitchell are (or were) all of the opinion that when a person wields words cheaply or disingenuously, he has […]

  12. Mark,

    I appreciate your work. We certainly find ourselves in a war being waged using questionable rhetorical tactics. The rhetoric can be both disingenuous and unhelpful to longterm reconstruction. Yet it does appear that some of these tactics have proved successful for taking away ground from the enemy on the short term.

    In our world of sound-bites and lazy-mindedness it is important that, on one front, we use words like “Socialist” to describe the current Administration (and the preceding Administration for that matter). And although it is true, there may be nuances of thought and action which are not easily summed up by the word “Socialist”, it still does not make the word inapplicable.

    When describing a Cortland Apple, it is convenient to call it red. Yet it may be truer that the apple is Carnelian, Venetian or Scarlet. Referring to it as red is quick and pretty accurate. And for most people these days that is all they care to know. Indeed, it is a hindrance to accuracy and a denigration of language, but it is also important that we fight on all fronts.

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