Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Obama’s Lexicographer

The New York Times ran an interesting article on June 4, “Obama Names a Republican to Lead the Humanities Endowment.” The nominee, Jim Leach, is a former representative for Iowa who endorsed Barack Obama for president. “He founded and was co-chairman of the Congressional Humanities Caucus, which advocates on behalf of the humanities in the House and seeks to raise the profile of humanities nationwide.” Leach is currently a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His appointment must be confirmed by Congress.

There is no Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) School of Individualism and Laissez-Faire Studies at any university, so where else is a retired congressman to go? To The Woodrow Wilson School, named after the president who, more than any of his predecessors in office, set the United States on its course to the welfare state and fascism by signing the income tax act, the federal reserve act, and a host of other government interventionist legislation, and got the country into a European war whose issues and terms were beyond his power to set. As president, he was an unqualified failure. As a humanitarian, he was a great success. Americans owe him a debt of boundless ingratitude.

“The endowment is a federal agency with a budget of $155 million that gives grants to support research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities.”


Leach is one of those men who wishes to see America organized and collectively committed to furthering a more “humane” society. According to the Times article, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, vice chairman of the Century Foundation, and has been a board member of the Social Sciences Research Council and of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Like Wilson, who spent much of his life in “public service,” Leach “served” the public for thirty years in Congress, and of course, expects everyone else to serve with the same ardor, as well. And if Americans won’t voluntarily serve, he wants to ensure that they involuntarily serve by having the NEH direct their taxes to causes and programs they may or may not approve or even have heard of. A satirist could not have invented a more copasetic surname for the nominee. It is almost as good as Ayn Rand’s Wesley Mouch, the economic dictator in Atlas Shrugged, or Sheridan’s Mr. Puff or Mrs. Malaprop in The Critic and The Rivals.

What is interesting about the article, however, besides the presumptuous assertions by both Leach and the article’s author that the nation needs a humanities czar to promote and exercise federal powers not anywhere enumerated in the Constitution, are some of Leach’s statements about words. These statements underscore just how disconnected he and the political leadership are from reality.

When Leach was interviewed for the article, he revealed a clue to that disconnection:

“He suggested that the National Endowment for the Humanities could depoliticize terms that have been co-opted by interest groups. ‘There are words bandied about that are being misused -- words like socialism, words like communism, words like fascism,’ he said.” [Italics mine.]


Perhaps those “interest groups” do not want to be looted and enslaved by communism, socialism, or fascism. Those “words” mean what they stand for. They cannot be “depoliticized.” They did not just pop into existence without any referents or any attached definitions and then were arbitrarily “co-opted” by those interest groups, who appended their own portentous meanings to them. Why would Leach think that they could have other than their established and recognized political meanings? The answer is in the paragraph that follows his charge of “misuse”:

“I think America is going to have to think through whether it wants to uplift the political dialogue or advance an approach that divides and, frankly, can lead to violence. I think this is a time to reflect vibrant differentnesses with greater decency. And that is an enormous challenge.” [Italics mine; “differentnesses“ is Leach’s neologism, not a misspelling, and may be his genteel euphemism for “diversity.”]


The imposition on a country of communism, socialism or fascism has always been accompanied by violence between the imposers and men opposed to those political systems. The approach that “divides” and leads to violence has always been the one adopted by the initiators of force. Does Leach believe that if those terms are defanged or stripped of their concrete, political denotations, that is, of their definitions, they can be used safely without concern that the populace will begin to riot or rebel, if someone perchance names or identifies the system? Given the dumbing down of Americans over the course of several generations, he may be justified in thinking that it is possible. Witness how the liberals have gotten away with dropping the label “liberals” and prefer now to be identified as “progressives,” confident that no one will be curious enough to read the political and educational history of the country from the end of the 19th century through the first decade of the 20th. What the term “Progressivism” meant was a program of incremental socialism.

But the terms communism, socialism, and fascism still retain their denotative powers among those whose minds have not been turned into mush by their education.

Note that Leach’s disparaging reference to “interest groups” presumably excludes his own interest groups, that is, the ones that wish the government to “uplift the political dialogue” by reflecting “differentnesses with greater decency.” Earlier he referred to the current administration as a “unique, uplifting presidency.” These favored “interest groups” will not turn “violent,” except to spend money coerced from taxpayers on what they deem to be “uplifting” and “different.”

Note also that Leach did not say he wants to see these terms abolished or banished as politically incorrect speech. Rather, he wants them to connote “positive” things. Since he does not have the power to discard the terms or erase them from men‘s minds, he seeks to subject them to a cosmetic makeover.

Announcing his pick to head the NEH, Obama stated:

“I am confident that with Jim as its head, the National Endowment for the Humanities will continue on its vital mission of supporting the humanities and giving the American public access to the rich resources of our culture.”


However, a far more culturally significant individual wrote about definitions, words and their proper usage over forty years ago, Ayn Rand.

“A definition is a statement that identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept.

“It is often said that definitions state the meaning of words. This is true, but it is not exact. A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; a word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its units. It is not words, but concepts that man defines -- by specifying their referents.

“The purpose of a definition is to distinguish a concept from all other concepts and thus to keep its units differentiated from all other existents.”*


So, according to Leach, the units subsumed under the concepts of communism, socialism and fascism should be toyed with like the letters on Scrabble tiles to mean anything the chairman of the moment of the NEH wishes them to mean. Imagine the possibilities: Communism could mean “a universal system of joyous penury,” socialism “a design for responsible frugality,” and fascism “to follow my leader to glorious pauperism.”**

The implications in Leach’s statement invite the obvious parallels to George Orwell’s three inverted, totalitarian maxims in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

One is naturally tempted to wonder who or what prompted Leach to make such a bizarre statement. Obama and his staff cannot help but know that, all over the Internet, but certainly not in the mainstream media, he and his cohorts are being linked to or associated with communism, socialism and fascism. It may be coincidence, or happenstance.

Or it may be, as the villain in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger remarked, “enemy action” in the most unlikely of battlefields: the dictionary.


*From Introduction of Objectivist Epistemology, by Ayn Rand (1966-1967). New York: Meridian-Penguin, 1990, eds. Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. P. 40.
**With thanks to the title of Terence Rattigan’s unproduced 1938 play, Follow My Leader, a satire on Hitler and Nazi Germany, which he co-wrote with Tony Goldschmidt. “As the Munich crisis loomed and the British government shilly-shallied about standing up to Hitler, Rattigan and Goldschmidt wanted to rush their play into immediate production. However, their script got no further than the Lord Chamberlain’s office. He banned it outright as likely to give offence to a friendly country.” From Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work, by Michael Darlow and Gillian Hodson. London: Quartet Books, 1979. P. 97.

5 comments:

Andrew E. said...

I feel somewhat foolish yet unsurprised that we have something as hilariously unnecessary as a National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Humanities in general: art, art history, literature, architecture, philosophy, drama, music, and music history are near and dear to my heart. Truly this is the stuff that makes us human, not animals or insects.
The desire to learn, to create, to appreciate, to enjoy, to understand, to give our lives purpose and happiness is not icing on the cake, it IS the cake.

That an office of the NEH even exists in the corrupting black hole of the Federal Government truly breaks my heart.
That such a snake would be in charge of it is both typical and disgusting.

Whatever is coming cannot come soon enough.

Anonymous said...

His name is "Leach"? That is almost as good as "Mouch".

Rob said...

"Frédéric Bastiat School of Individualism and Laissez-Faire Studies"

Sounds terrific! Sign me up!

Andrew E. said...

""Frédéric Bastiat School of Individualism and Laissez-Faire Studies"

Sounds terrific! Sign me up!"

One can dream. I did get accepted into Founders College when it was operational for a fleeting moment.
My search continues for my ideal school, preferably "The Frederic Bastiat School of Individualism and Laissez-Faire."

pomponazzi said...

The islamic world has Osama bin laden.America has Obama bin Biden.