why the vocabulary of our tradition matters

semanticsI’ve been blogging recently (An Idiot Abroad, the Economist, Sp!ked) about "Little Englander," a term that I would argue is a contranym, something that means both one thing and its opposite.

So what are we to make of these opposed connotations of nationalist bigotry on the one hand and peaceful internationalism on the other, both wrapped up in a single term?

For one thing, the contrast is no accident — no more than it is an accident that the term liberal can mean left- or right-wing, pro-or anti-market, an advocate of hard capitalism or soft socialism, depending on the context and the speaker.

At the time of the Manchester School, when the slur "Little Englander" was being coined, the term liberal unambiguously meant a reformer who wanted to dismantle the conservative status quo. Liberals were unequivocally in favor of individual freedom, open borders, free trade, and international capitalism in its anti-Mercantilist and anti-Marxist sense. They opposed big government, high taxes, tariffs, political privileges, and all but the most limited and purely defensive war.

It was this final value, a principled preference for peace over war, that led the interventionists to coin the term Little Englander. Liberalism, as a term and as an ideology, was too popular for the conservatives and socialists to attack it directly. Socialists therefore connived to appropriate the term through redefinition. Conservatives, in contrast, attacked the liberals’ patriotism with the dichotomy of Great Britain and Little England.

There is a division within libertarianism over the question of vocabulary and the importance of semantic positioning. While some debate the definition of, for example, capitalism or patriotism, others argue that it is folly to get stuck in struggles over terminology. Explain what you mean, the latter contend, and don’t worry over the words.

I understand why the semantic quibbling can seem both endless and pointless, but the lesson I take from the linguistic history of our movement, broadly defined, is that the words do matter. The slurs work, and their effects can still be felt over a century later, when the specific debates have long been forgotten. Language banditry has been a thorough success for the opponents of individual freedom.

I don’t know Stephen Merchant’s politics. He and Ricky Gervais have been deliberately quiet on the subject, other than to oppose the humor-killing strictures of political correctness. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb, however, to guess that they are not sorry to say goodbye to the British Empire and would oppose any sudden resurgence of imperialism. I don’t take Merchant’s casual slur as an attack on the proponents of peace and a humble foreign policy.

So why should we care if an entertainer uses Little Englander to signal his friend’s parochialism? What was lost in the imperialists’ semantic victory over the term? What does it mean for the future of freedom when we have reached the point where even the Economist, without any apparent irony, uses a term of derision that was originally aimed at the magazine’s founders — and uses it without historical context and completely in keeping with the worldview of the political interventionists the magazine was founded to oppose?

When we lost the semantic battles over liberalism, isolationism, and Little Englander, what was also lost was the connection in the public mind between the philosophy of freedom and a policy of peace. To be pro-capitalism and anti-poverty strikes our contemporaries as perverse. A philosophy that is pro-market and anti-war creates cognitive dissonance in today’s mainstream, and yet these values were assumed to go together at the height of our movement’s popularity and effectiveness. In letting our opponents, both on the left and the right, redefine the terms of the debate, we have allowed ourselves to descend to the position where we constantly have to explain what we don’t mean.

This is not to say that we should let ourselves be derailed by terminological disputes. But neither should we let go of our history — or the language of that history.

The principled advocates of liberty can even reclaim, I hope, some of the terms used against us — anarchism, capitalism, isolationism, among others. That these terms can cause misunderstanding is not sufficient reason to abandon them. Everything about our philosophy can cause misunderstanding among the uninitiated. I contend that the vocabulary is an important part of the package.

I look forward to the day when we can join Spiked in proclaiming ourselves proud Little Englanders (whether we have any personal connection to England or not) and be understood to stand for cosmopolitan openmindedness, individual liberty, and a policy of peace.

Does Sp!ked online know our tradition better than the Economist does?

SpikedIn contrast to the Economist‘s insulting conflation of anti-interventionism and xenophobia, Spiked — which according to Wikipedia "is a British Internet magazine focusing on politics, culture and society from a humanist and libertarian viewpoint" — ran a piece last fall by Patrick West called "A ‘Little Englander’ and proud."

Unlike Stephen Merchant or the Economist, our Spiked author does address the history: "The term ‘Little Englander’ was coined in the late-nineteenth century, an imperialist slur directed at members of the Liberal Party who were opposed to the Second Boer War (1899-1902)."

And the article’s subtitle highlights the irony of the ahistorical colloquialism: "Ignore the jibes of the pro-intervention crew: it’s the Little Englanders and ‘isolationists’ who are the true internationalists."

An Idiot’s Guide to Little Englanders

An Idiot AbroadI keep learning about movies and TV shows long after they’re past current — when the Netflix app on my iPad suddenly puts them in front of me. So I’ve just watched the first episode of An Idiot Abroad, the latest attempt by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the UK creators of the BBC’s The Office, to find humor in humiliating and ridiculing their friend Karl Pilkington — this time by sending him around the world to "experience" other cultures.

Merchant is clearly the better-educated half of the duo. "I’ve been to many exotic places," he says in the show’s opening. "I genuinely believe that travel broadens the mind."

Whether or not he’s sincere in that conviction, Gervais’s candor better represents the feeling of the series: "I want him to hate every minute of it."

Why? "Nothing is funnier than Karl in a corner, being poked by a stick," Gervais explains, adding, "I am that stick."

So why is Pilkington their victim of choice for this ongoing series of orchestrated culture shocks?

"He is a round, empty-headed, chimp-like manque moron, buffoon idiot. And he’s a friend," Gervais says.

But Stephen Merchant’s less blunt explanation is what caught me off guard and sent me to Google and Wikipedia to research current British terminology:

"He is a typical Little Englander and he doesn’t like going out of his comfort zone."

I could judge from context what he meant, but I had never heard the term Little Englander used that way. If you’re an American, the chances are you’ve never heard it used at all. I knew it from the history of classical liberalism, where the British war party of the 19th century used it as a smear against the anti-imperialists of the Manchester School. The British hawks called the anti-interventionist opponents of the British Empire "Little Englanders" to distinguish them, I assume, from the true patriots of Great Britain.

It wasn’t Britain the Little Englanders opposed, of course; it was empire.

The 20th-century equivalent smear, used both in the United Kingdom and the United States is "isolationist" — implying that the opponents of an expansive interventionist foreign policy are trying to shut out the rest of the world, bury our heads in the sand, and attempt to wish away the impositions of an ever more global culture. In other words, we are narrow-minded, myopic, and reflexively against everything foreign. By implication, it is the interventionists who are cosmopolitan and internationalist.

Here is Gregory Bresiger’s description of the Manchester School, from his JLS article "Laissez Faire and Little Englanderism":

The Manchester School [was] a radical group of parliamentary members in Victorian England. They were also known as the Little Englanders, or the Peace Men. Generally, they weren’t pacifists, but they proclaimed themselves as followers of Adam Smith, who saw peace, a reduction in government expenditures, and free trade as vital characteristics of prosperous, free societies. They fought the same battles as Taft and those consistent friends of liberty who today call for the dismantling of the American imperial state both at home and abroad.

Manchesterism, like libertarianism today, was a philosophy ridiculed by nationalists and jingoists in Victorian England, who called it hopelessly utopian and isolationist.Download PDF

Is that what Stephen Merchant is accusing Karl Pilkington of? No, of course not. Merchant means that Pilkington doesn’t like Chinese food and thinks that foreign cultures have taken normal things from the English and made them weirder.

The result is a perverse travel show that is both very funny and oddly informative. Merchant’s use of the "Little Englander" epithet is a tiny, throwaway line, not at all the emphasis of the show — although it does get repeated in every episode of the first season, since it’s part of the opening.

So why do I find it significant? Isn’t this just another example of how language changes over time with shifts in political and historical context?

(I argue against this general line of thought — using a different example — in my most recent Freeman article, "Check Your History.")

If "Little Englander" were just a case of shifts in meaning, we should expect the more political and historically minded definition to have passed out of current usage, replaced by the insulting cultural definition.

But a quick Internet search suggests that while both meanings are current, the political meaning is still primary. See Wikipedia and Wiktionary for example, where the primary definition is anti-imperialist, followed by the "colloquial" usage that means xenophobic.

So why do the British still conflate opposition to empire with opposition to foreigners?

Is it the same reason Americans insist on the same conflation when talking about "isolationism"?

the return of the eggcorn

eggcornWiktionary’s word of the day today, March 19, 2014, is the same as it was on this day last year:

vaguery

Not vaguary, but vaguery. The latter is apparently an “eggcorn” of the former.

For an explanation of all three terms — vaguary, vaguery, and eggcorn — see my blog post from last year:

the vagaries of eggcorns

My latest Freeman article: “Check Your History”

FreemanCheckYourHistory

Feature

Check Your History

MARCH 11, 2014

Those who use the word “privilege” as a bludgeon don’t understand the word’s history any better than they do the complexity of power dynamics. [FULL ARTICLE]

What is a coercive offer?

My father told me this joke when I was a kid.

I don’t know why it’s a Jewish joke. I figure that’s just the way dad heard it.

Read more of this post

My Statue of Liberty article is featured today at The Freeman

FEE_LadyLiberty

Feature

Lady Liberty: An Unauthorized Biography

The Story of America’s Most Famous Statue Is More Than a Little Libertarian

AUGUST 20, 2013 by B.K. MARCUS

We hear that the Statue of Liberty was the gift of “the French people” to “the American people.” Grammar-school civics aside, though, individuals from all walks of life wound up funding the statue voluntarily, without State funding or coercion.