Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are wielded more as weapons of rhetoric than as accurate descriptions. This relates to Corey Robin’s analysis of the reactionary mind. One of the most interesting things that distinguishes the reactionary from the traditionalist is how easily the reactionary co-opts from the political left.
This is particularly central to American society. The reactionary mind, like fundamentalism, is the product of modernity. And the American experience was born out of modernity, beginning with post-feudal colonial imperialism. The social order and social identity fell into disarray and so political ideology became ever more primary. The reactionary mind is dynamically adaptive, for it shifts according toward which it is reacting. It thrives in instability and will promote instability, even as it scapegoats its enemies for this very same instability that it requires.
Reactionaries are tough opponents. They feel no moral obligation to fight fairly. Nor will they ever state their true intentions. The mindset and worldview preclude it, at the level of consciousness. The reactionary mind is not just a set of tactics but a way of being in the world, a permanent survival mode of mistrust and deception. Labels in themselves mean nothing to the reactionary. They are like crabs, in camouflaging themselves, that attach things to their shells — pieces of coral, anemones, etc. There is a hodge-podge quality to their stated views, a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no need for principled consistency.
The earliest example of this is the fight over Federalism. The war of rhetoric was won by those fighting for centralized power. They didn’t actually want Federalism. What they were attempting to create, as Corey Robin explains so well, was a new form of hierarchy and ruling elite involving the same old pattern of concentrated wealth and power. They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime (old order) as they were attacking the revolutionary movement. They co-opted from both of their enemies, but over time as traditionalism declined they increasingly focused on co-opting from the political left. This is the reason conservatives today, as reactionary as ever, use rhetoric far to the left of liberals of centuries past.
The first great victory of American reactionaries was in falsely claiming to be Federalists. They did this by co-opting the revolution itself and, by way of the Constitutional Convention, redirecting it toward counter-revolution. This forced their opponents into the position of being called Anti-Federalists, even though their opponents were the strongest defenders of Federalism. The winners not only get to write the history books but also get to do the labeling. The enemies of Federalism defeated Federalism by adopting the word and making it meaningless. It’s a genius subterfuge, a masterful tactic.
This is how a society like ours, founded on liberalism, quickly had its radical liberalism defanged. Thomas Paine, in a short period of time, went from revolutionary hero to social pariah and political outcast. He didn’t fit into the reactionary scheme of the new centralized establishment. Even to this day, the political right goes on trying to co-opt the label of liberalism, despite the absurdity in calling themselves classical liberals. Now a radical progressive and social democrat like Paine was a classical liberal, but he was largely written out of the history books for almost two centuries.
This pattern has repeated throughout Anglo-American history (and I’m sure elsewhere as well). The capitalists originally were strong liberals with a clear progressive bent. Paine, for example, was for free markets. And like Paine, Adam Smith saw high economic inequality as a direct threat to a free society. Yet the reactionaries took over free market rhetoric to promote the inevitable authoritarianism and paternalism of a high inequality society. Because of this, it has become harder and harder to take seriously the rhetoric of free markets — in its being falsely used to defend crony capitalism, plutocratic corporatism, soft fascism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal globalization, market fetishism, and crude (pseudo-)libertarianism. There is nothing free, much less classically liberal, about this capitalist realism.
There are more examples. Consider right-wing libertarians and right-wing anarchists (e.g., anarcho-capitalists). Both varieties of right-wingers typically defend the legacy of inequality and injustice. Their labeling themselves as libertarian and anarchist would have been absurd a century ago. Both libertarians and anarchists arose out of the left-wing workers movement in Europe (Property is Theft: So is the Right’s Use of ‘Libertarian’).
This was admitted by the infamous right-winger Murray Rothbard: One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over.” (The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83). Yet here we are with the political right having successfully co-opted the label of libertarianism and are in the process of co-opting the label of anarchism.
There is nothing they can’t co-opt, once they set their mind to it. This is true even for labels that involve race issues. The theory and label of human biodiversity has become popular among the political right, specifically among alt-righters, the Dark Enlightenment, and other similar types. They use it to promote the cynical worldview of genetic determinism and race realism. The sad part is that the originator of human biodiversity, Jonathan Marks, created the theory specifically to disprove these right-wing claims. The story of this appropriation is told by Angela Saini, in describing Steve Sailer’s email list from the 1990s:
“Others joined in their dozens. By the summer of 1999, Sailer’s roster of members was astounding. Along with prominent anthropologists such as Marks, there was psychologist Steven Pinker, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, and economist Paul Krugman. In hindsight, the large number of economists in the group might have been a warning. There in the mix, too, was the controversial author of The Bell Curve, political scientist Charles Murray. That should have been another red flag. […]
“What intrigued him especially was that Sailer happened to be brandishing Marks’s own neologism, calling his list the Human Biodiversity Discussion Group. […] That school of racism was long dead, he assumed. Yet her on this email list, something strange was happening. Observing the conversations that Sailer steered through the group, Marks noticed the term “human biodiversity” being used differently from the way he had originally intended. Members were using it to refer to deep differences between human population groups. […] When Sailer talked about human biodiversity, he didn’t appear to be using the phrase in a politically neutral way, but as a euphemism. He had spun the language used by liberal antiracists to celebrate human cultural diversity to build a new and ostensibly more acceptable language around racism.
“For those sucked into Sailer’s electronic arena for the intellectual discussion of race, his email list was just a taste of the virulent racism that would later be seen far more often in the shadowy areas of the internet, then more openly on social media and right-wing websites, and finally in mainstream political discourse. Many more soon took hold of the phrase “human biodiversity,” giving it a life of its own online. Today it’s nothing short of a mantra among self-styled race realists. […]
“To be fair, few could have guessed that the email list was a precursor to something bigger. But as the group slowly went defunct, Steve Sailer’s political convictions became increasingly obvious. He and other members of the list went on to become prominent conservative bloggers, writing frequently on race, genetics, and intelligence. […]
“But it all came as a more of a surprise to academics like Jonathan Marks. “I was working on the assumption that these guys were the lunatic fringe. If you had told me twenty years later that they would be part of a political mainstream wave, I would have said you are absolutely crazy. These guys are antiscience. These guys are positioning themselves against the empirical study of human variation and they are clearly ideologues for whom empirical evidence isn’t important,” he says with a laugh. “But I think they were a lot cleverer than us professors” “ (Superior: The Return of Race Science, pp. 88-92).
About his legacy as a scholar, Marks writes: “For me, it increasingly seems as though my lasting contribution will be to have coined the phrase “human biodiversity” in my 1994 book of that name. Unfortunately it has come to mean the opposite of what I meant, due to the distortions of internet racists. In fact, they have even abbreviated “human biodiversity” as a meme for the semi-literate, HBD. […] To have provided racists with a scientific-sounding cover for their odious ideas is not something to be particularly proud of, but I can’t take it back. All I can do is disavow it” (I coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity”. Racists stole it.). That is sad. Yet more of the ideological battleground is ceded to the political right.
With almost fatalistic resignation, the political left accepts defeat too easily. Once again, here we are with the political right having so thoroughly co-opted a label that its very origins is forgotten. It’s a theft not just of a label but the destruction of meaning. It makes genuine debate impossible, and that is the entire point. Reactionaries are constantly seeking to muddy the water. They do everything in their power to control the terms of debate. Their opponents are left in a state of disorientation and constantly on the defense. This is easy for reactionaries to do because they have nothing specific to defend or rather that they keep well hidden what they are defending by way of obfuscation.
The reactionary, by the way, isn’t only limited to the overtly right-wing. The liberal class has a long history of falling under the thrall of the reactionary mind. Jonathan Marks indirectly points out that the New York Times, a few days after declining to publish his above linked essay, “published a column by Bret Stephens on Jewish genius (or, Jewnius©) that actually cited the horrid 2005 paper on that subject by the late biological anthropologist Henry Harpending. Harpending was regarded by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a White Nationalist.“
Think about that. The New York Times is what goes for the far left of the supposedly liberal MSM. This is how the corporate media and corporatist politicians, across the narrow ‘spectrum’ of elite opinion, have managed to push the Overton window so far to the extreme right, beyond the bounds of the radical progressivism of the silenced majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; & American People Keep Going Further Left). The reactionaries aren’t limited to the overtly authoritarian right-wingers and the crazed alt-right. The entire system of concentrated wealth and elite power, including the privileged liberal class, is reactionary. What they are reacting to is not merely the revolutionary left for, more importantly, they are reacting to the threat of the American public.
We on the political left struggle against enforced ignorance and amnesia. This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if these were isolated incidents but that is not the case. The consistent pattern of rhetorical manipulation and ideological game-playing can be seen across the centuries and it has a lasting impact on the entire society, distorting everything and destroying any hope of a free and healthy society. It’s clearly significant in what it says about the modern political right and the consequences it has for the political left. The lesson is this. Never take them at their word. And never fight on their terms. Labels do matter. In language, there is immense power, to be used for good or ill.
34 thoughts on “The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind”
Reactionaries maybe have something akin to a religious impulse. They are destructive without knowing what they want to create, simply wanting to eliminate what they see as broken and failed. They are like fundamentalist terrorists seeking to force God’s hand and so to bring on Apocalypse, which will then bring the New Earth or Second Coming. They support Trump because they see him as being able to keep one and only one promise and that is to destroy the present system. If they can’t fix it, they’ll make sure it is completely broken.
This was just a quick thought. Actually, it was based on something my friend said.
The reactionary mind, when pushed to the extreme, can become religious-like or even prone to overt religiosity. I’ve noted how many right-wing libertarians were raised as religious fundamentalists. Libertarianism becomes their new religious ideology. I’m thinking of people like Robert M. Price but I also have a second cousin that fits the pattern. And then there are religious fundamentalists like Palin and Beck who are drawn to right-wing libertarian rhetoric.
But to be fair, there are also mild forms of the reactionary mind. The average reactionary isn’t at the extreme, at least not under normal conditions. In a society like ours where the reactionary has become so dominant, it’s hard for anyone to avoid the sway of the reactionary mind.
This is how some on the political left, in dealing with reactionaries on their terms, end up playing into the reactionary mindset. The reactionary is kryptonite to the liberal mind. This is how so many liberals become conservative, as so many conservatives become right-wing. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans who are moderately liberal are either ignored or called radical left-wingers.
I have the perfect name for reactionaries. From now on, I’m going to call them the Faceless Men. That is what the assassins are called in Game of Thrones. They are masters of disguise who can take on the appearance of anyone. And they worship the Many-Faced God, which is a perfect description of reactionary’s non-ideological ideology.
By the way, who gets called a reactionary is somewhat subjective. Since the establishment of our society is ruled by reactionaries, it’s not a partisan phenomenon and can be found in many guises.
I’d call Hillary Clinton a reactionary, although she isn’t the most extreme variety. Clinton is able to be many things to many people, changing her face as her audience changes. In impersonating a liberal progressive, she is like Arya Stark impersonating Walder Frey. And the liberal class and other partisan Democrats are like the Frey family drinking the poisoned wine. They never see it coming.
Reactionaries are a dangerous enemy. This is because, as Faceless Men, they can be anywhere in any form and speaking in any voice. You can see this in how the political right has co-opted political correctness and wielded it against the political left, such as denying being racists even as they promote racism and then acting offended by the allegation. The smartest among them know how to say all the right things. They are chameleons. They know how to fit in, when it serves their purpose.
Anyone who follows my blog, immediately would see the connection to my own theory of symbolic conflation. This is one of the reactionary’s most powerful weapons. Dog whistle politics is an obvious example, but most of the time it is much more subtle in its obfuscation. You have to learn to listen beyond the surface level of rhetoric and talking points, of words and labels.
You may have left out the other half of their co-opting. What they can’t use for themselves, they can use against others. Look at how easily they have turned the proud term “Liberal” into a pejorative. To be “Elite” was something to be proud of or look up to, now is a label of being out of touch. What they can’t take, they corrupt.
It is a two-part strategy. Co-opting and denigrating go hand in hand. Either can work. Co-opting is the more powerful tactic. But failing that, denigration can be an effective tool.
The political right has gone back and forth on the label of liberalism. Earlier last century when there was still a strong memory of liberal progressivism, many conservatives like Eisenhower and Nixon felt the need to praise liberalism. But they were never able to claim it as their own and so it became a target of derision instead. Still, some on the political right go on trying to steal it, although their claims of classical liberalism end up being not all that compelling.
It’s not just labels. The political right goes back and forth about lots of things, as they blow with the wind. Political elites loved Thomas Paine during the revolution because he was useful to their agenda. But after independence was won, Paine became a liability to their plutocratic aspirations. So, for two centuries, Paine became mostly forgotten, only to be occasionally remembered in order to be dismissed again. Yet, every now and then, someone on the political right will try to use Paine to prop up their ideology. Glenn Beck attempted to do this, which is a dangerous strategy because it might cause Americans to read Paine’s radical writings for themselves.
Reactionaries don’t mind courting danger, though. It doesn’t really matter if they are able to convince many people. It’s simply throwing out lots of claims and counter-claims, just to create confusion. Reactionaries aren’t interested in winning debates, as long as they make sure their enemies lose. Their only goal is power and influence. It’s a game and what excites them is playing it. Corey Robin explains how easily reactionaries get bored with their games and so move on to some new game. This is why their rhetoric is always shifting and why it’s so hard to pin them down. They have no ideological loyalty, other than their commitment to the reactionary mindset itself.
You make an interesting point about the idea of an ‘elite’. Once that had a connotation of pride and honor, duty and obligation. It was part of a moral order of noblesse oblige, such that with great power comes great responsibility. Now elite has come to mean raw power and crude material wealth. But that is because those who have co-opted the position of elites in our society no longer act according to that traditional worldview. In some ways, reactionaries love to be hated or to rile up divisiveness in general. They flourish in these conditions. Many elites are reactionaries and they relish that the people hate the elite because it simply proves how powerful they are, as they believe they can’t be touched.
Being hated, in their mind, proves that they are right. They require the melodrama of fighting existential battles. Listen to people like Trump, he constantly plays up this idea of division. Trump portrayed himself as an elite who would have no loyalty to the elite, even as his entire life was mired in the establishment elite. It was a jujitsu maneuver to draw support. Words have no inherent meaning. Consistency means nothing. This makes it hard to understand what motivates all of this or why so many fall for it. Corey Robin does the best job of any person I’ve come across to explain the phenomenon.
I actually think it’s worse than the once proud term “Liberal” having been turned into a pejorative. The reactionary mind has become dominant and the reactionary atmosphere pervasive. It’s hard to escape it. Under these conditions, it’s hard to find a genuine liberalism operating anywhere within public view.
The Democratic Party is just another variety of the reactionary, even as those like Clinton pose as liberals. But many were noting the reactionary tendencies among the liberal class long ago, ever since the middle class became a major political force allied with the upper class.
The closest we’ve come to authentic old school liberalism is Sanders. But even he ended up bending the knee to the reactionary establishment controlling the Democratic Party. Sanders had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he blew it. If he had stood strong for liberal principles, we could already have a new third party organizing to challenge the bipartisan stranglehold.
That further strengthened the reactionary right-wingers in their argument that liberals are weak and unwilling to fight. That is the very reason Trump won in the first place, as he promised to fight. It doesn’t matter that Trump was spouting bullshit.
We not only have to be willing to fight. We have to take that fight to the reactionaries and push them back to reclaim the ideological territory that has been lost.
A major thing I left out of the post is the insidious nature of the reactionary worldview. It would be somewhat comforting if the reactionary dynamic was limited to overt reactionaries. But it isn’t. It’s like pollution in the air we breathe. Even as some get the worst of it, no one can fully avoid its effects.
Reactionaries redefine words, whether co-opting them or denigrating them. They distort rhetoric and obfuscate the real issues. The problem for the rest of us is that we live in the same world they are creating. And few realize this.
The average person comes to take the results of this reactionary worldview as normal. It’s all we have known, since it became established long before we were born. The degraded meaning of words becomes the standard usage of those words. Those calling themselves ‘liberals’ or whatever else are almost inevitably falling into the reactionary worldview, because the reactionary framing is so powerful and pervasive.
When I’ve tried to use words like that in a meaningful way, I constantly spend my time trying to redefine them. And still many people get confused. It makes communication feel near impossible or so tiresome that most quit trying. It’s easier to go along with the dominant paradigm. I can write a post like this. But what good does it do? It doesn’t change the state of vast ignorance in our society. We aren’t taught the history of ideologies and labels. And few people are curious enough to learn on their own.
This is why reactionaries are able to have so much influence. They are master game players. And the rules of the game in our society have been written by them. If you enter into public debate and public politics, you are inevitably entering their field of play. They aren’t just the players but also the coaches, referees, and team owners. Reactionaries aren’t just trolls online but also activists, partisans, politicians, pundits, talking heads, talk show hosts, think tank intellectuals, producers of entertainment media, CEOs, etc.
Such things as the gatekeepers and propaganda model of media are fully reactionary. For those of us who would like to reclaim ideological territory, that would mean fighting the entire system.
In some ways the pseudo-liberal reactionaries in the Democratic Party are the greater threat. The Democratic political elite act as representatives of liberalism, which goes a long way in explaining why the label has so easily been denigrated. Yet oddly someone like Obama has never even called himself a liberal. It’s just assumed he is a liberal elite because the reactionaries say so and as part of the reactionary ruling elite he plays along with this perception.
How do we effectively fight against that? Most people so much want to believe the comforting and occasionally inspiring rhetoric of professional politicians and demagogues. To begin questioning and doubting what you are told is to invite in pessimism. It’s not a happy feeling to lose faith in one’s own society. But that is the necessary first step for seeking to create a better one. Still, that is a lot to ask of most people. Few will agree to even this first step, unless conditions become so desperate that they feel they have no other choice.
So, it’s a waiting game requiring much patience in knowing that the benefits of this fight might not come in our lifetimes. It took a long time to create this reactionary society and it will take a long time to replace it and undo the damage. Meanwhile, we should prepare by coming to understand our enemy better than our enemy understands us. When the opportunity is right, that knowledge will become a powerful weapon. But that opportunity is not quite here yet.
In returning to your comment right now, I had a specific example come to mind. Postmodernism, often as part of the Cultural Marxist conspiracy theory, has become a favorite scapegoat of the reactionary alt-right. It really doesn’t make any sense at all, except as a rhetorical tactic. It’s like a terrorist’s bomb tossed into a crowd that makes a lot of noise and light. The innocent casualties of truth and meaning are part of the intended effect.
Any and all perceived enemies can be attacked as ‘postmodernists’ or otherwise with some kind of similar rhetoric about ‘relativism’. It’s irrelevant about whether or not the accused actually identifies as postmodernists or ever uses postmodernist arguments. The purpose is not to make a reasonable and rational argument that makes any sense whatsoever but to incite confusion, chaos, and conflict. Indeed, it is highly effective to this end, in how it makes public debate impossible, yet another monkey wrench thrown into the works.
That is what makes it so depressing. Consider one of their favorite allegations, as mentioned above. The Cultural Marxist conspiracy theory conflates postmodernism with everything leftist, particularly Marxism but also feminism and such. But, in reality, postmodernism was always oppositional and critical of all meta-narratives, including that of leftists. Marxism, in offering a meta-narrative, is modern and most definitely not postmodern. Yet this allegation is treated as an article of faith where any denial further proves guilt, at least in the mind of the reactionary — that is assuming the reactionary really cares at all.
Here is the thing, though. The very people who have most strongly and effectively wielded postmodern-styled rhetoric are the very same people carelessly calling everyone postmodernists. A number of people have observed how many influential figures on the right regularly use postmodernist debating tactics in order to attack any claims of objective truth, scientific consensus, etc. The post-truth world of alternative facts was created by postmodernist right-wingers who dismiss modern values of the Enlightenment project, not from perspective of premodern traditionalism but postmodern radical skepticism. But it ends up just being yet more opportunistic rhetoric.
Here is some context in understanding how quickly the reactionaries established power in the United States. By way of the unconstitutional overturning of the Articles of Confederation, the coup of the Constitutional Convention was just the first step. That made possible the standing army that so many feared and it was quickly used to suppress those demanding democratic reform. Then the first central bank was created in 1791. And the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798.
All of this led to the backlash in the early 1800s. Jackson rode that wave of outrage into the presidency. It was into that world that Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes were born. Both became presidents based on populist demands. Lincoln went so far as to say that labor precedes capital, something he likely learned from the labor value of Marxism (as Marx regularly was published in a newspaper he read and he had a Marxist in his administration). Hayes became president in the decade following Lincoln’s assassination. Here is the conclusion he came to about the young democratic experiment:
“The real difficulty is with the vast wealth and power in the hands of the few and the unscrupulous who represent or control capital. Hundreds of laws of Congress and the state legislatures are in the interest of these men and against the interests of workingmen. These need to be exposed and repealed. All laws on corporations, on taxation, on trusts, wills, descent, and the like, need examination and extensive change. This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.”
Those words still resonate to this day. If anything, they are more true now than they were then. The plutocratic corporatism we now know came to power largely because of the machinations of reactionaries. It’s a re-creation of the rigid hierarchy of concentrated wealth and power that the American Revolutionaries and generations of reformers had fought against. But the memory of this fight, by way of reactionary rhetoric, has been almost completely erased from the public mind. The revolutionary ideals and democratic vision have been co-opted as yet more propaganda in defense of the ruling establishment.
Hi there! I love reading your posts and am still perusing your comments, though I thought that I should stop for the moment to point out a couple of your typos lest I should forget mentioning them to you.
(1) It should be “preclude” in “The mindset and worldview precludes it…”
(2) It should be “ancient” in “They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime…”
I shall reply to at least one of your comments at my post “😱 We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology 🏰🚀” as soon as I can.
As always, editing suggestions are welcome. But about this post, let us defend our language usage. If you still think we are wrong, we’ll further consider. Although far from being overly obsessed, we always appreciate and respect proper and clear use of language.
One typically uses “precludes” in reference to a singular word and “preclude” in reference to a plural word, right? So, a single sword decapitating someone precludes their responding, whereas multiple swords would preclude. In the above case, both mindset and worldview are singular, not plural. So, why do you think it should be “preclude”? Is there a special case usage that I’m overlooking?
Whether or not we’re right in that example, we definitely feel confident about the second issue. We are directly referencing the “ancien régime” from the French language. Among hoity-toity intellectuals, this is often a way of referring to the feudal order prior to the French Revolution, particularly in the late medieval French Kingdom but also applying more generally to the premodern period.
(1) This is not a special case at all, for English grammar requires that the plural verb “preclude” be used because there are two things being referred to, namely, “mindset” and “worldview”.
(2) If you would like to use the French form, then the term “Ancien Régime“, also known as the “Old Regime”, is preferably italicized and/or capitalized.
By the way, English is indeed a fast-evolving language, but not always in a good and unproblematic way, for my following analytical post presents in lucid detail one of the most damning proofs of the linguistic decline and grammatical degeneration increasingly afflicting English:
You are welcome to alert me of other examples that you can think of or have come across by leaving some comment(s) there.
You do appear to be right about the first case. We didn’t know that two singular nouns were treated as plural in relation to a verb. Having been schooled, we will forthrightly correct that and avoid it in the future.
As for the other one, in practice, there is no consistent usage of capitalization or italicization with “ancien régime”. One regularly sees it in that form, about half the time, actually. Even some major dictionaries present it, in examples, as not capitalized and not italicized.
It usually depends on the context in how it’s being used, but there are no hard and fast rules about it. Most often one sees it capitalized or italicized when it’s being used in a very formal fashion, such as in scholarship about the late medieval French Kingdom, but not necessarily even in that case.
This is something we’re familiar with because of our own studies. We’ve read a lot about topics related to the ancien régime. Even in scholarship, it is used in that way without emphasis. That is particularly true when used as a more general term for the pre-modern Europe.
Relying on dictionaries (even the major ones) is not always reliable or advisable, as they are not always compliant or consistent with established guidelines and conventions. In general, the use of foreign words is indicated by italics, and sometimes they are also capitalized, especially if they are proper nouns, and/or have some significance or uniqueness.
About ancien régime, it is true that it’s from a foreign language. But it’s become so widely used in English scholarship that it’s no longer consistently treated as foreign, as English has long borrowed from French. In general, many foreign words are used without emphasis. What emphasis often implies is that the word is being used with particular meaning and significance.
Anyway, we weren’t implying that one should rely upon any single source for determining correct usage. That was part of our point. We’ve seen this term used in many different kinds of writings and in many different contexts; with and without capitalization, with and without italicization.
That said, older literature tends to capitalize Ancien Régime. But then again, it was also common practice in the past to capitalize all kinds of words, often what appears to be in a random fashion. An author just liked a word or deemed it important for idiosyncratic reasons.
Older literary texts, by the way, also loved to use highly convoluted linguistic recursion (multiple levels of embedded phrases) with massive run-on sentences that would sometimes be the length of paragraphs. Modern literary tastes prefer less Baroque ornamentation and ostentation.
Some might see this as part of a decline, while others would take it as an improvement. You might recall that other commenters at your blog complained about your sometimes wordy sentences, but we defended your writing style, as we too can be prone to loquaciousness. That said, we don’t have strong opinions on such matters.
I strongly recommend applying italics (and perhaps also capitalization) to the term “Ancien Régime” for the following reasons:
(1) In general, the use of foreign words in English is indicated by italics, and sometimes they are also capitalized, especially if they are proper nouns, and/or have some significance or uniqueness.
(2) Relying on dictionaries (even the major ones) is not always reliable or advisable, as they are not always compliant or consistent with established guidelines and conventions.
(3) Whilst the term “Ancien Régime” may be familiar to you and certain readers, it is not so for many others.
(4) The term “Ancien Régime” contains the word “Ancien”, which many people may misconstrue as a misspelling of “Ancient”.
One thing to keep in mind is that you are talking to someone with little formal education. Our writing skills, besides some high school English classes, mostly comes from simply reading a lot. We go more by what we personally find appealing in observing how others write.
It’s the reason we switched from two spaces between sentences to one space, even though the latter was how we were taught in our public education. We simply prefer how it looks, no matter what any given professional guideline might say. And, besides, that has become the norm now; although old guys like my father still use two spaces.
The same is true with emphasis. We only use it when we want to emphasize something. So, we would only capitalize ancien régime if were using it formally in specific reference to a more narrow meaning, particularly to reinforce the notion that the French Revolution dramatically changed Western society.
To our mind, good writing is any writing that is clear, effective, and aesthetically pleasing. Our purpose is to communicate. There is formally correct writing that is bad writing and formally incorrect writing that is good writing, in terms of the mastery of communicating well and powerfully. But, admittedly, our earliest writing aspirations were inspired by fiction that promotes more experimentation.
Thank you. I shall reply comprehensively to your comment with my following page:
As a side note, we found it interesting that, in your initial comment, you used highly moralistic language, the kind more often used on the political right, although also common among old school Whiggish liberals: “the most damning proofs of the linguistic decline and grammatical degeneration increasingly afflicting English.” Words like ‘decline’ and ‘degeneration’ are the classic vocabulary of moral panic, often erupting as culture war and right-wing populism. Indeed, like earlier last century, we are amidst moral panic again and the culture wars and right-wing populism have been going strong for quite a while now. Arguably, there is good reason for this state of affairs as we are facing multiple crises, some national and others global. It’s far beyond mere rhetorical flourish, of course. We take such fears, worries, and concerns with utmost seriousness. For that same reason, we likewise refuse to dismiss the underlying anxiety of the reactionary right with it’s bigotry. hatemongering, and conspiracy theory; even as they are part of the problem. In a high inequality inequality society of stress and sickliness, one should expect nothing else.
But your word choice also made us think of linguistic relativity. The seeming implication of your words is that linguistic decline and grammatical degeneration affects not only English but the very moral condition and character, not to mention intellectual quality and merit, of the English speaker and hence the state of the English-speaking world, maybe Western civilization in its entirety as the guiding light of modernity in carrying on the Enlightenment project. There is at least some truth and value to such a damning societal judgment, though its extent and significance could be debated. This view of the centrality of language is an old idea, that language is at the heart of civilization and when the former degrades so does the latter. It fits in with Joseph Henrich’s claim that literacy is the single most important factor in the principled consistency, liberal proceduralism, and egalitarian democracy of WEIRD egoic individualism (The WEIRDest People in the World), related to the longstanding impact of the written word that was first felt in the Axial Age and as expressed through Jaynesian consciousness (spatialized, interiorized, and narratized). Language has long been understood as the heart of culture as an ideological worldview and shared identity, going at least back to Wilhelm Von Humboldt almost two centuries ago:
“Via the latter, qua character of a speech-sound, a pervasive analogy necessarily prevails in the same language; and since a like subjectivity also affects language in the same notion, there resides in every language a characteristic world-view. As the individual sound stands between man and the object, so the entire language steps in between him and the nature that operates, both inwardly and outwardly, upon him. He surrounds himself with a world of sounds, so as to take up and process within himself the world of objects. These expressions in no way outstrip the measure of the simple truth. Man lives primarily with objects, indeed, since feeling and acting in him depend on his presentations, he actually does so exclusively, as language presents them to him. By the same act whereby he spins language out of himself, he spins himself into it, and every language draws about the people that possesses it a circle whence it is possible to exit only by stepping over at once into the circle of another one. To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint in the world-view hitherto possessed, and in fact to a certain extent is so, since every language contains the whole conceptual fabric and mode of presentation of a portion of mankind.”
Also, what stood out to us is that high linguistic standards of writing and communication appears to be the main battleground you have chosen in your aspiration to uphold a particular ideological worldview and to defend a particular moral vision. Based on our observations, you seem more quick to correct someone on your perception of their language misuse and grammatical impropriety (according to the normative demands of linguistic culture and identity) than to correct any other kind of error. In contrast, as you no doubt have noticed, we are instead highly motivated to correct people on the spreading of misinformation and disinformation or general anti-intellectualism and incuriosity, such as unscientific views and anti-scientific claims along with the dismissive attitude toward intellectuality and intellectual institutions (in our own loving defense of the Enlightenment project). But you tend to let those kinds of errors slide on your blog, as you appear to be conflict avoidant and so presumably wary of arguing over science or other issues of facticity and knowledge (beyond correct English), even as you obviously value science, education, and literacy. You often let those other kinds of comments slide by without challenge, even though they are also involved in the decline and degeneration of our society, albeit not directly implicated in the decline and degeneration of language.
This stood out to us in the last comments we shared at your blog. We got pulled into challenging and correcting what we saw as scientific error and wrongheadedness. But we then found ourselves standing as a lone voice in defense of what we deem worthy scientific knowledge and debate. That is dissatisfying and frustrating. It reminded us of why we’ve mostly stopped commenting on other people’s blogs. We have no desire to try to battle alone in maintaining intellectual standards when few others seem bothered to join in to add their support. Even among those who are well meaning in highly valuing intellect and higher education, most have given up on fighting back against the cultural backlash or else they never joined the fray in the first place. The reactionary elements of society end up dominating the public arena and the public imagination because, as Bertrand Russell said about a century ago, “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” It’s not only that the intelligent are full of doubt because, even when they feel confident in their knowledge, most remain reticent in defending that knowledge.
It’s part of the overwhelming demoralization, apathy, fatalism, and cynicism that undermines the sense of real world urgency we are facing; the moral sin nearly all of us falls prey to in these hard times of doubt and uncertainty. This has to do with what Mahatma Gandhi called moral courage, something he judged as more important than even non-violence. We should always confront what is morally wrong, no matter the cost to us personally. Without a doubt, this would involve preserving our inheritance of language and literacy. We share your deep-felt sense of the power and importance of clear communication in having immense respect for language and what it can do, if our preferred emphasis diverges. Without shared language, along with shared standards of language, we are at a tremendous loss as a society. That is even more true in this age of large-scale nations and globalization when effective communication is ever more necessary across large and diverse populations. It’s hard to imagine attempting to defend the Enlightenment project and civilization as we know it without recourse to shared language that is inseparable from shared knowledge and meaning. A large part of the splintering of society is that language has so often become a rhetorical weapon of obfuscation and manipulation, something you’ve written about extensively.
There is the rub. What good does correct grammar and clear communication do when it’s used to express views that are harmful to society? Many Dark Tetrad demagogues and social dominators have had charismatic mastery of language with powerful writings and compelling rhetoric, whereas some moral giants didn’t always write with correct English and in some cases were illiterate. We have to know precisely why language matters and what kind or aspects of language matters. That is what linguistic relativity is about, which would potentially include the study of everything that is built into or involves language: oral culture vs literary culture, animistic-bicameral mind vs Jaynesian consciousness and WEIRD egoic hyper-individualism, rhetoric and everyday speech, linguistic memetics, philology, etc; and how it relates to Lev Vygotsky’s speech development, Julian Jaynes’ understanding of metaphor, Louis Hydes’ thoughts on metonymy, Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation (i.e., being hailed), ideological realism, social constructionism and constructivism, identity formation, the influence of novels on cognitive empathy, the power of literacy in altering neurocognition, debate on recursion (linguistic and otherwise), and on and on.
We should scientifically study language, particularly linguistic relativity. It might not be beneficial or could be directly counterproductive to attempt enforcement of social norms as linguistic standards in order to maintain social control of conformity to a uniform expression of linguistic identity; at least without scientifically understanding the relevance and ramifications of this linguistic practice or another. Language is powerful and, our society, that goes along with literacy and education. There is a reason why mandatory public education with a major focus on literacy became important in the modern period of nation-building and citizen-making, particularly in terms of the modern egoic individual and the propertied self as the worker-consumer-citizen enmeshed in an enclosed world of capitalist realism. On a practical level and as part of scientific inquiry, if a word is capitalized, italicized, plural, etc or not, does it actually have a measurable effect on psychology, personality, identity, neurocognition, behavior, relationships, culture, and social order. Does it increase egalitarianism or authoritarianism, fluidity or rigidity, compassion or exclusion?
We don’t need to speculate. All of that could be determined with scientific research. But first we have to have the conscious intention in asking such questions, interrogating our assumptions and biases, and forming falsifiable hypotheses to be tested in studies as well as through self-experimentation. If it turns out to have no significant impact or negative consequences on what we prioritize as having value, or if it showed greater influence toward individual and social benefits, then we’d have actual evidence from which to base our personal and societal decisions about how to use language, how to teach language, and how to relate to one another with language. We’d also learn about which aspects could be ignored or de-emphasized and which we should promote. For example, there are many ways of using grammar and many kinds of grammar, as can be seen in the vast changes of linguistic practices across the long history of the English language, not to mention the diverse dialects and national standards. Why do we care so much about grammar and such if not to have a specific effect? What effects are we trying to achieve and what evidence do we have that we are achieving that end?
To get back to the original argument underlying your suggestions of corrections, you spoke of “linguistic decline and grammatical degeneration”. Without clear knowledge of what we’re talking about, how are we to judge this deterioration? What exactly are the “damning proofs”? Proper grammar, literacy rates, sentence structure complexity, multiple layers of recursive embedding, or what? Even if focusing on grammar, why are use recent grammar guidelines and standards as the norm of judgement? Why not, instead, use correct English grammar from centuries ago or a millennia ago? Surely, from the perspective of those in the past, they too were complaining about the decline and deterioration of language, as they complained about every new social change and technological innovation with the passing of generations. Those earlier English speakers, if they were here, likely would not approve of and deem an improvement your own idealized English grammar that, in many cases, represents a dramatic change from the past. That has been a major theme of this blog: The more things change, the more they stay the same. If one carefully studies history, one will hear the same basic complaints and observe the same basic moral panics repeat ad infinitum. It’s because of our amnesia that we think present situation is different. Yes, it is always different to some extent, but it’s surprisingly quite similar to what came before. As it’s been said, history may not repeat, but it does rhyme.
We need to get to the fundamentals. What exactly makes ‘good’ English or any other language? Your standards appear to be entirely literary in terms of professional and academic writing. But why is literacy and the literary the standard by which all else is judged? Interestingly, the intellectual heavyweight Socrates judged the emerging literary culture during the Axial Age as a sign that society was worsening. Indeed, many intellectual abilities fell to the wayside, such as mnemonics that was central to human culture probably for millennia, maybe hundreds of millennia. Yet with loss of some abilities there was gain of others. With the perspective of hindsight, we might judge the destruction of oral culture as a net gain. But it mean a certain kind of epic storytelling of Homeric bards would disappear, never to be seen again. We moderns, in many ways, have a crippled capacity for storytelling. It was no minor sacrifice nor was the destruction of the bicameral and animistic minds that were dependent on the oral culture that was the basis of language for most of human existence, including most of civilization. It’s because of that decline that humanity has not since built anything as impressive as the Great Pyramids, since the linguistic culture and mindset that made them possible was eliminated.
Nonetheless, here we are. Growing up in a literate society and a literary culture, it’s hard for us to imagine anything else and so hard for us to see the value of anything else. Maybe that is some of the fear toward the new media. The past two and half millennia have been a slow development of a text-dominated culture where, even when most of the population was still illiterate, there was a ruling intelligentsia that sustained the literate mindset and prepared the way for our post-Enlightenment WEIRD sensibility. The WEIRD egoic individuality has barely been established and primarily among the college-educated; and so it’s not yet fully established. That mindset is dependent on extreme literacy with the modern obsession with grammar, in a way that Shakespeare wasn’t obsessed with correct English. The WEIRD egoic mind requires immense control, both from without and from within (e.g., enclosure of the commons to socially construct and enforce the enclosure of the mind). It’s maybe fine to have such collective projects, if doing so democratically would’ve been preferable, as opposed to an elite that seeks to destroy what came before in order to replace it against the will of the people as happened with the enclosure movement and concomitant social reform.
We’re of a mixed mind on this matter. Language control, land control, mind control, social control. Modern WEIRD humanity is obsessed with control. It makes sense because, otherwise, such large and complex societies would not be possible. We are obsessed with control because the civilizational project we’ve created is ever threatened with going out of control. It’s not a natural state of affairs that formed organically. It took immense effort to create and requires immense effort to maintain. Was it worth all the resources, all of the costs, and all of the loss? That is still to be decided. But, whatever one thinks of it, it is a massive and impressive social experiment. Now that we are in the middle of it, we are stuck in pathway dependency. That is what makes the stakes seem so high. It’s either continue on in the same direction or risk collapse. This is what underlies fears of deterioration. So, what are we getting in this bargain (Devil’s bargain?). What does decline and degeneration mean? That goes back to what are we trying to achieve with this civilizational project and how do we judge if it is faltering or failing.
By the way, one might note that literacy rates are going up. Not only general literacy rates but also levels of literacy. In the past, most of the literate had barely functional literacy, in that they could read simple writing such as magazines and could write their signature. Over this past century, we’ve finally come to have a mass literary culture not limited to an intelligentsia. More books have been published these past couple of decades than ever before in history, combined with more text in general in every aspect of our lives. So, there are more people reading and, with immersion in new media (social media, blogging, etc), more people writing than ever before. Combine that with our finally coming to a generation that will be the first majority college-educated. It’s not clear what language decline could mean in a society where we’ve become so dependent on language, quite the opposite from the past when an illiterate person could do fairly well in society. It would seem highly improbable that there is a general intellectual and educational decline, as more and more of the population fully enters into the literary culture.
But there are changes afoot, no doubt. With the Flynn Effect of rising average IQ, there is an increase of fluid intelligence among the young generation and that involves increased capacity for visual complexity and sophistication. Yet there might be some lessening in certain areas like creative writing in that, according to some experts, the young are more attracted to strict realism. And technological media, of course, mediates experience and shapes the mind with potential changes for voice authorization within self-identity. As always, with neurocognitive changes, there are tradeoffs, if what is being lost and gained is not yet entirely clear.
Let’s add to the thoughts of our last comment. It’s actually a rather interesting topic. We are strongly sympathetic to the sense of something tragically and dangerously amiss in our society. It’s far from only the reactionary right getting their panties in a wad, but once we enter moral panic we are in reactionary terrain. That is why we need to ask ourselves what kind of decline and deterioration we might or might not be talking about. The reactionary right would blame it on gays, single mothers, aborted babies, immigrants, blacks, etc; not to mention liberal elites, technocrats, commies, and cultural Marxists. The scapegoating is endless.
Obviously, you’re talking about something else entirely. But what kind of degradation exactly? How would you define and discern the sense of worsening? How would you show it and prove it with objective and measurable evidence? How would you formulate it as a falsifiable hypothesis that could be tested? And then how would you test it, even if only through self-experimentation, anecdotal observation, cultural criticism, etc; and maybe balanced with whatever data you could gather from other sources. We have to be specific and clear in our thinking, or else we’re no better off than the reactionary.
Why is grammar perceived as so important? It seems clear that grammar is acting as a heuristic, maybe a symbolic proxy, for other things that are harder to pin down, yes? But do you have any sense about what they are? If the symbolic proxy gets taken as the thing itself, then one can be pulled into the reactionary dynamic of what we call symbolic conflation. And down that path of confusion there definitely will be societal decline.
That is the main thought we wanted to add. The theory of symbolic conflation was articulated by us many years ago. We were trying to understand how it is that conservatives will maintain their position of anti-choice with the rationalization of saving lives even when confronted with evidence that abortion bans on average increase the rate of abortions, just making them illegal and dangerous. We realized that the actual fear, as with culture wars in general, never had anything to do with abortions in the first place; as demonstrated by the fact that most American Protestants, including fundamentalist leaders, having supported the practice of abortion along with family planning clinics not that long ago.
That is when we came up with the notion that these kinds of issues are a misdirection and seemingly intentional, not only misdirecting their opponents but also their own minds — a method of social construction and social constructivism of ideological realism by way of a psychological defensive posture. It’s a Burkean obfuscation of both public debate and private consciousness. It shuts down the imagination, both moral and radical imagination, both individual and collective imagination. Also, it ends up hiding and obscuring what really matters, what the reactionary is afraid to be brought into the light. There are always another issue(s) not being stated, the nub of the matter relating to voice authorization and hierarchical authority; as related to Corey Robin’s conjectures of the reactionary’s purpose always being the denial of the agency of the subordinate class.
Then again, the real risk is that this is never limited to the overtly and blatantly reactionary. We all can be pulled into the reactionary mindset, even when we consciously oppose the reactionary identity, agendas, and politics. That is the potential problem of using the reactionary-prone language of moral panic, as we might forget our heuristic is only a heuristic and so lose sight of the real issue, assuming we ever knew what was the real issue. Then, in a state of unclarity, we are vulnerable to further decline into ever greater unclarity. Then we might become obsessed with something like grammar as we forget what originally drew us to thinking it was important. The symbolic conflation takes on a life of its own.
That is the deeper issue. Amidst the complexities of the modern world, there probably is never any single real issue to be concerned with alone. Not even something as broad as language can be thought of in isolation. How do we know we’ve gotten to the causal level or are being distracted by the effects? This is a weakness of modern culture, such as seen with conventional medicine that rarely looks for systemic causes. Systems and mentalities end up defending themselves for no other reason than to maintain their continuance. And that is what distinguishes the reactionary right from the non-reactionary left, the latter seeking to question, doubt, and challenge ruling systems and ideological realism.
So, why focus on a narrow view of language, grammar or otherwise, as being somehow so important? Rather, why not bring our attention to bear upon other, often much larger and more fundamental, issues? There is no end to possible concerns that are threatening our society and harming the public: climate change, environmental destruction, mass extinction, cultural genocide, high inequality, class war, chronic stress, intergenerational trauma, widespread toxins, rising rates of disease, mental health epidemic, malnourished diet, lack of quality healthcare, military imperialism, political corruption, big money in politics, soft fascism, a deep state, the right-wing Shadow Network, etc.
Is correct written English really all that important in the big picture? If someone misuses punctuation, misspells a word, etc, does that actually cause harm to society, corrupt morality, degrade the mind, lower the quality of public debate, or whatever? What is the argument being implied? And how would it be determined to be valid and true, relevant and meaningful? Is there any evidence-based argument that supports the grammar as a major causal factor? If not, what is this concern about language symbolically representing? We need to be absolutely and clearly explicit and in great detail about what we’re actually criticizing and advocating.
There are possible arguments to be made on behalf of this defense of grammatical correctness. What it comes down to is a rule-orientation of language. And that was a core element of Jaynesian consciousness write from the beginning, specifically the earliest appearance of written rules as commandments, laws, and norms. That learning of rules, as part of literacy and literary culture, forms the more rigid egoic boundaries upon which the later WEIRD mind would build and out of which would be made possible such things as principled consistency, liberal proceduralism, scientific method, etc.
Grammar is one of those training tools for enculturating new generations into this rule-obsessed modern mind. If that is why we think grammar is so important, then we should say so. Our societal projects, from a leftist perspective, need to be made out in the open. Then again, there are many tools that serve the same or similar purpose. We have still not proven that grammar is among the most effective tools and among the most important causal factors. For example, general literacy and linguistic recursion might be far more influential to this end of the WEIRDing of Jaynesian consciousness. Grammar, on the other hand, might be relatively insignificant. How would we know one way or the other? And, without knowing this, why would we expend immense effort in demanding good grammar to the point of getting ourselves worked up with moral panic rhetoric?
Also, as we sometimes wonder, how do we even know this present civilizational project was a good idea from the start or, if it once served a useful purpose, if it still does? And how do we know it can actually be fully achieved or sustained? Maybe it’s already reaching the breaking point and so that might explain the ever increasing cultural backlash of the reactionary mind. It is precisely the rigidity of the stable and static egoic mind that elicits the dread about instability and worsening. What if the reactionary mind is built into the egoic mind, such that increase of one is an increase of the other? If so, by pushing it even further, we are ratcheting up each cycle of authoritarianism. After all, rule-orientation does not only make possible egalitarianism but also authoritarianism.
There is one other thing. Language, literature, and learning are old battlegrounds of moral panic, culture war, and the reactionary mind. And, so, they make for great rhetoric for reactionary narratives, such as civilizational decline. Think of the obsession of “The Classics” and the demand for controlling what children are allowed to read, sometimes to the point of banning and burning books. Yet, some of the classics today were not that long ago considered genre trash and dangerous radicalism. John Steinbeck’s work was not always respectable, particularly on the reactionary right; nor was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with his The Sorrows of Young Werther that led to moral panic right before the American Revolution.
The political left can also be pulled into this, as we’re wont to repeat. An example of this is the respectability politics among (pseudo-)liberals, often used as a way of punching left and so forcing the left to go right. Grammar could be used as a weapon in this way, such as part of class war. Working class individuals, some of them radical leftists, might not speak with proper English and so their views would be dismissed. Keep in mind that the majority of Americans are still not college educated. Yet many of our college educated leaders often seem so stupid, even when they can speak correct English. Much of the seeming anti-intellectualism and crisis of authority is simply a response to the class war built into our society.
This is why we have to be careful. It’s not only our conscious intentions that matter for, more importantly, are the implications and consequences that may not be conscious. Something like respectable language, as a possible tool of respectability politics, can be used as a pose of not only class status and intellectual worth but also of self-styled moderation that is used by those to define their position of power as the ‘center’. It also can be a diversion away from serious and uncomfortable issues; an avoidance of confronting moral wrong, challenging corrupt power, questioning undeserved authority, correcting intellectual error, and anything else that is off-limits to respectable culture. So, we have to think not only of what we are promoting, in our minds, but how it might be used; if not by us, then by others.
The WEIRD mind has been part of class war because literacy and education has fallen along class lines. It’s been part of what call the civilizing process, such as manners (i.e., rules of behavior). But we must never forget that this has often been an oppressive and sometimes brutal civilizational project wielded as a weapon by an elite. This is why, for all the benefits and accomplishments of this civilizational project, we must remember the costs that were paid, usually by those without power. That is definitely not to say we shouldn’t aspire to better and more effective communication, be it in terms of grammar or anything else, but we must constantly interrogate what is of value. Why should correcting someone’s grammar be more important than correcting someone’s false statements about science? What does that express about the social order and the values it represents?