Our language controls our political thought

"Modern English . . . is full of bad habits which spread by imitation . . . If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."–George Orwell, 1946 Had George Orwell, author of those dystopian classics 1984 and Animal Farm, lived long enough to notice the gradual academic takeover of the English language I do not doubt that he would be highly critical. The questionable academic terms now used by practically everyone, whatever their politics, are Culture, Values and Ideology. These terms not only mischaracterize those basic American principles and institutions which are most near and dear to us but actually undermine them.

Let us begin with culture. Today this term, the contribution of 19th century German philosophy, is used as a synonym for society (or any group of people), which makes little sense. Originally culture meant deliberate cultivation of plants, as in agriculture. But if agriculture were understood in the same way as, say, gang culture, then agriculture could be the growing of weeds with perhaps a few whiskey bottles strewn about. Political philosopher Leo Strauss had this insight many years ago.

Not long ago culture referred to the realm of good taste, especially the fine arts. A cultured person could appreciate the best products of human art--e.g., music, painting, sculpture, plays, operas-- whereas an uncultured person did not. Of course, this is inconsistent with the popular idea that all tastes are equally legitimate, one man’s art somehow being another man’s vulgarity. This cheapens what is truly excellent.

This leads us to values. The term cannot be understood without reference to its supposed opposite, namely facts. The German social scientist, Max Weber, taught what he called the "fact-value distinction," which holds that facts are irreducible realities, while values are merely subjective tastes.

Only a boorish person would insist that what he likes is what everyone else should like, but value is a very broad term that includes not only taste but moral and political principles. We may prefer republican forms of government over despotic ones, but other peoples may feel otherwise. "Who are we," it is so often said, "to impose our values on others?"

If this is so, then not only do we not have a right to impose our political system on others; our preference for rule by the people is intrinsically no better than any other. Thus, it is unsurprising that many Americans' attachment to our Constitution is now lukewarm at best.

Finally, we come to ideology. This too is a contribution of German thought, particularly Karl Marx, who understood ideology as the rationalization of the ruling class for its dominance. He is famous for describing politics as nothing more than the organized oppression of one class by another. The real force in human life, he argued, was control of the means of production. With the Communist revolution, supposedly no one would control production and the state could be reduced to mere administration with no more politics.

What a cruel joke that turned out to be! The fact that Marx was wrong in his analysis did not stop his followers from imposing tyrannical regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere which never led to a "withering away of the state." Nor did it stop a lot of non-Communists from adopting his understanding of ideology for their own purposes.

Whenever someone influenced by the alleged insights of Marxism seeks to discredit an opposing viewpoint, he will call it an ideology. The object may be similar to Marx’s, viz., that the opposing view rationalizes a class interest, or that the viewpoint is unrealistic or at variance with the facts.

Ideology is surely not with difficulties, but it is often applied unfairly to political philosophies which are not only not rationalizations, unrealistic or at variance with the facts, but which are grounded in human nature. The best known to us is found in the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men by the consent of the governed . . . "

The terms, Culture, Values and Ideology, are inconsistent with and subversive of free republican government. Free society is not any old culture but one which is in accordance with human nature. Liberty is not merely a value but the right of every human being. And the political philosophy of the Declaration is not an ideology but based on "the laws of nature and of nature’s God."

If we would perpetuate our precious heritage, we need to watch our language. Academic weasel words won’t cut it.