In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.
—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946
Language is at the core of everything we perceive, know, think, and express. We use words as a tool, to communicate and navigate life in a social context. We use them at every stage of cognition, from our earliest babbling at infancy to our most abstract or demanding intellectual pursuit as adults. But words also shape our worldview in ways we may not fully appreciate. As the great Spanish economist Jesús Huerta de Soto explains, language is an institution in society.
So it should not surprise us to see language attacked and corrupted, as so many of our institutions have been. This is the topic of my new essay in the Italian journal Etica & politica, reprinted here with permission. I examine the idea of linguistic corruption—i.e., consciously imposed changes in language engineered by elites for political reasons—and contrast this with natural and organic evolution of language.
The conclusions are not pretty: self-appointed cultural czars, from academics to woke CEOs and central bankers to the Associated Press and Merriam-Webster, have positioned themselves to control language from the top down. The goal, of course, is not merely to control our words but our actions as well. Thus, equal treatment under the law yields to “equity” and equal outcomes; transgenderism starts with pronouns but proceeds to create an ever-evolving lexicon; and corporations stray from serving shareholders to satisfying ESG buzzwords.
None of this is new. Kings, clergy, and intellectual elites have always sought to control speech among common people, just as common people have always changed their various vernaculars from the bottom up. But in a digital age of instant communication, with English as the dominant language of business around the globe, linguistic changes happen much faster. A tiny group of ideologues can dream up “Latinx” and see it almost immediately adopted by credulous journalists, professors, and politicians across multiple countries. This is linguistic vandalism.
All of us have an obligation to resist the new political language. What Ken Smith termed “junk English” in his 2001 book of that name seems quaint now. Political correctness has been replaced by far more grim and unyielding demands of a new orthodoxy, broadly termed “woke.” Woke is nothing less than a totalizing worldview which applies critical theory (a broad social critique of history, society, and culture) to every facet of human life. It demands rigid adherence to a growing list of left-wing cultural, social, political, and economic precepts regarding inequality, race, sex, sexuality, and climate. Language is at the fore of this adherence, and the new coded words contain their own admonitions and exhortations. “Systemic” comes to mean irrefutable and inescapable, “inclusive” connotes the exclusion of certain undesirable viewpoints, and “democracy” becomes a euphemism for “when our politics prevail.”
Like it or not, language is now another battleground in the culture wars.
This issue also features David Gordon’s review of Willmoore Kendall’s The Conservative Affirmation, first published in 1963 and recently reissued by Regnery with an introduction by our friend Daniel McCarthy. Kendall never attained the fame or influence of William F. Buckley or certain other of his National Review colleagues, but his midcentury writings on populism have new life in the Trumpian, “postliberal” Right.
These times call for strange bedfellows, and as progressives veer further toward the abyss, our time for potential alliances grows short. Kendall, antiegalitarian and clear eyed, should inform any such alliance. He is not overly intellectual or ideological, and refreshingly never fell for the Lincoln myth. He shares Murray Rothbard’s antipathy for elite dominance, and sees the Left’s phony push for equality as nothing more than an attempt to install themselves as leaders of a revolutionary social order. He questions the “open society” for the same reason, as a euphemism for corporate, media, and state collusion toward (supposedly) egalitarian goals. Kendall also recognized the rising “deep state” and the growing power of the elitist bureaucratic stronghold in Washington even in the 1960s.
While the book looks promising, at his core Kendall is not for “liberty” as a political abstraction or for natural law as the basis for rights. He is, like most conservatives of his age, far too comfortable with military empire (and all its associated domestic costs) if required to defeat the Soviets. He is willing to use nuclear weapons and intervene anywhere to support American interests. But unlike the tired conservatism of Buckley and his few remaining acolytes, Kendall is interesting and vital.
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