Reader: I wasn’t quoting you. I was characterizing your analysis as such.
Me: You were mischaracterizing my analysis. What I have written, I have written. What you have written, I did not.
Reader: Says you.
Words have meaning. We live our lives, for the most part, in a world in which, on a clear spring day, one can say, “The sky is blue,” and everyone else will cheerfully agree (or wonder why you’re bothering to state the obvious). When we make plans to meet at five o’clock at the Rusty Dog for a drink, no one thinks that means a slice of pumpkin pie at Nick’s Kitchen at 7:30. We routinely travel at our own pace on the highway, but we all understand how fast we’re supposed to be going when we see the words SPEED LIMIT 70.
Community depends on our ability to communicate. Language barriers don’t make community impossible, but they do make it much harder to achieve. If you don’t know a word of French, you’re not likely to feel at home in the streets of Paris, much less in a village in Bretagne. And if you don’t know that the cheese toastie listed on the menu is localspeak for a grilled-cheese sandwich or understand why the waitress is asking you if you’d like a sack for your leftovers, you might feel a bit out of sorts when you first move to Northeast Indiana.
As daunting as it is for most of us to learn a foreign language, we can do so if necessary, and coming to understand and eventually adopt regionalisms is a sign that you’re taking root in a community. Stubbornly insisting on speaking only English in a café in Brest or asking a waitress in Fort Wayne to put the remains of your child’s grilled-cheese sandwich in a bag is a sign that, at best, you’re an outsider who wishes to remain that way, and more likely that you’re an ass. We expect people to try to make themselves understood, and when they do, most of us, most of the time, will make an effort to try to understand them.
Or at least, once upon a time, we did. Today, when discussing any subject that is in the least bit controversial, more and more Americans not only are unwilling to make any effort to understand others but seem to consider such willingness a weakness. It is not necessary to understand what another person is saying; it is only necessary to decide where he stands in relation to you. Once you have made that determination—rightly or wrongly—you can judge everything he says without actually hearing or reading, much less understanding, a word.
As late as 30 years ago, self-identified conservatives still prided themselves on their embrace of logic and reason and evidence. By then, fewer and fewer of them were studying philosophy or reading history, but they continued to acknowledge the value of both. Against the rise of an illiberal left that was increasingly embracing the irrationalism of deconstructionism and postmodernism, they continued to defend clarity of thought and expression.
Those days are long gone. Today, when it comes to his attitudes toward the importance of language and logic and clarity of thought and expression, the average political conservative is just as much in thrall to deconstructionism and postmodernism as the average political liberal. He would vociferously deny it, of course. Conservatives don’t believe in such things, just as they didn’t use to believe in divorce or abortion or gay marriage—until, of course they did. We are all good liberals now.
It may be tempting to blame this change in attitudes among conservatives on the rise of Donald Trump, but his inability to separate what is true from what he wishes to be true is more a symptom of this malady than a cause.
The true cause was what Russell Kirk called “the conservative rout” (the original title of what became The Conservative Mind). The essence of the revolt of modernity against the classical and Christian world consisted in the subjugation of more and more of human life to politics. The conservative counterrevolution, from Burke to Kirk, fought to contain politics within its proper—and limited—sphere, and to reassert the primacy of religion and culture.
The left’s Long March Through the Institutions didn’t begin with Antonio Gramsci and his disciples; they simply put a name, and brought a clear sense of purpose, to a movement that began in the Renaissance, achieved full force in the French Revolution, and reached its nadir when conservatives decided that President Reagan had it wrong in his First Inaugural Address: Government was the solution to the problem after all. The triumph of politics over religion and culture was complete; everything since then has been nothing more than the logic of the revolution playing itself out.
And that includes the rise of scorn for clarity of thought and expression, both in one’s own utterances and in the words of others. The lines that I quoted at the beginning of this column are repeated incessantly (though usually not quite so succinctly) by self-proclaimed conservatives on conservative (in this case, conservative Catholic) websites, and of course on social media. We no longer take others’ words seriously, because we are no longer serious in the choice of our own words. Language was once a tool for expressing truth; now, it is merely a weapon for winning arguments. The ends justify the means, and the truth be damned.
First published in the December 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.