Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Beware the Semantic Infiltration of "Values"

The late Pat Moynihan, during his glory days as UN ambassador in the mid-1970s, highlighted the useful phrase "semantic infiltration" (he credited its origin to Fred Ikle), which he described as "the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality." Moynihan noted especially how totalitarian regimes would advertise themselves as "liberation movements," and warned further that "we pay for small concessions at the level of language with large setbacks at the level of practical politics."

Moynihan's observation came back to me as I read through Harvey Mansfield's splendidessay on The Federalist in the latest issue of The New Criterion (subscription required). Writing with his usual subtle clarity, Mansfield notes the problem with the term "values" -- a very popular term with social conservatives:

The Constitution is intended to make and maintain a free people, so it consists mostly of powers and procedures of institutions rather than goals that would tell a free people what it must do. That might seem to allow a people free to live by its "values." I put the word in quotation marks to indicate disdain for a term that Publius, the shared pseudonym of the authors of The Federalist, never used and would have rejected. "Values" is a recent verbal noun indicating that your goals are yours or your group's and exist by virtue of your valuing. They are particular to you and changeable when you change--for no reason you can cite. Having no reason behind them, values make no claim on the attention or agreement of others; one must either bow to them or get out of the way.

Allan Bloom made a similar point vividly in The Closing of the American Mind, noting the contrast between the uproar when Reagan called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" and the lack of any such objection when in a later speech he described the U.S. and the U.S.S.R as two nations with "different values." The point is, "values" is a term derived from philosophical subjectivism (specifically from Nietzschean nihilism), and as such makes a huge rhetorical concession to moral relativism. Conservatives shouldn't use it. (This means, among other things, that the Traditional Values Coalition is wrongly and indeed even unhelpfully named, as is the Values Voters Summit.) 

I know this is an uphill fight that won't get anywhere (ditto for my crusade against the similarly subversive and overused term "paradigm shift" -- some other time perhaps), but "principles" is a better term to use. Mansfield succinctly hints at why in the sequel to the passage above:

The Federalist, however, is avowedly based on political science that has a solid foundation in a permanent and fixed conception of human nature.

(Crossposted at The Corner.)

Discussions - 5 Comments

Talk of "values" is also destructive from a practical point of view (for those in the peanut gallery who may object that this is only "semantics" for the eggheads):

Sorry to self promote, but I think the point I made then still holds. To the extent that either side of the political divide wants to make a claim on the shaky ground of "values" they can probably bet their flag will fall.

Right, Julie, this issue needs to be brought up from time to time, as I did in 2009:

Good post. Thanks.

Julie: Looking at your linked-to post, you can see what the misguided counter to your point is going to be. Only a 'totalitarian' would pretend to hold to anything more than a value!

The other half of the Nietzschean insight is important. Nietzsche, it seems, did not necessarily delight in the fact that God was dead. But he was -- and mankind was headed for the abyss. Is there any turning back?

I don't think any other prominent conservative is more annoying in the profligate use of the word "values" than Dennis Prager- a guy whom I've otherwise always admired. I never call in to talk radio shows, but a few years ago he was going on about "America's founding values." Couldn't take it any longer- called in and politely explained to him the inescapably subjectivist nature of "values talk," also telling him that this isn't merely a semantic issue. He thundered back that, no, it IS just a matter of semantics. To which I retorted "well then the onus is upon you to show that your your preference for the founding isn't just a subjective preference"...and he promptly hung up on me. Uphill battle indeed.

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