Telling Sly Fables with Forked Tongues

“I know you well, a sycophant, a cheat,
Come hither with your jargon to deceive us—
A crawling serpent with your forked tongue . . .”

Maccius Plautus, Poenulus (c. 190 B.C.)

Lenin introduced the phrase “Aesopian language” in the introduction his political tract Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), where he used it to denote revolutionary propaganda that is disguised by allegory, euphemism and what we today called “dog whistles.”  Like the fables of Aesop, communist propaganda had two meanings: an emollient exoteric meaning for the suckers and an electrifying esoteric meaning for the communists.  “Doubletalk” is another name for Lenin’s Aesopian language, and the essence of communist doubletalk is to make beligerent threats in fair and flowery words.

As one anti-communist writer explained to American readers in 1960,

“As Communist semanticists attained virtuoso skills, they discovered that, in many instances, communication can be made to serve a dual purpose—to say one thing to Communists while simultaneously conveying quite a different message to non-Communists.  To the party followers the usual communication is an instruction to revolutionary action.  But this very same communication must present a soothing, attractive, and paralyzing idea to the outside world.”*

Subversive movements use doubletalk to communicate through public media without alarming the public or breaking the law.  As Lenin explained, the Aesopian language of his day was a ruse “to which tsarism compelled all revolutionaries to have recourse whenever they took up their pens to write a ‘legal’ work.”  Government censors no doubt understood the esoteric meaning of Bolshevik propaganda, but they could not prove this esoteric meaning was the intended meaning in a court of law.

Indeed, they could not prove that Aesop wrote anything but animal stories.

Aesopian language is also a means to weaken public support for resistance to a subversive movement, since the suckers taken in by the emollient exoteric meaning will think that anyone objecting to the electrifying esoteric meaning is a nut.  This was a great problem for the old anti-communists, since staunch anti-communism appeared to many suckers as opposition to (Aesopian) “peace,” “liberation,” “democracy,” and “reform.”

The anti-communist writer just quoted explained:

“The Communists are trying to entrap us by the words we like best.”

* * * * *

The slogan Black Lives Matter is an Aesopian phrase with an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, the one emollient and the other electrifying.  To suckers the slogan expresses a sentiment with which no decent person could disagree; to fanatics it declares war on society.  The public is not alarmed, the laws are not broken, and everyone who objects to the electrifying esoteric meaning sounds like a nut.

The same can be said for the Aesopian doubletalk of “diversity,” “inclusion” and “equity,” emollient slogans all.  Diversity is a flowery euphemism with the esoteric meaning of racial preference. Inclusion is a flowery euphemism with the esoteric meaning of racial deference.  Equity is a flowery euphemism with the esoteric meaning of performance-blind reward. Opposing this Aesopian doubletalk is, today, no easier than it was to oppose the communist doubletalk of  “peace,” “liberation,” “democracy,” and “reform.”

“The Woke are trying to entrap us by the words we like best.”

* * * * *

The Aesopian phrase “critical race theory” is not at the moment so emollient as its advocates may wish, but its immediate predecessor, “critical theory,” successfully bamboozled suckers for a very long time.  “Critical” and “theory” are, after all, a couple of the “words we like best.”  Their exoteric and emollient meanings make suckers suppose that critical theory involves dispassionate judgment; but their esoteric and electrifying meanings are almost directly opposite to what suckers suppose.

Critical theory is “critical” because it criticizes (i.e. rejects) the theory of theory, which is to say the theory that there can be dispassionate judgement, scholarly detachment, or a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  Critical theory scoffs at the idea that there are—that there even could be—disinterested descriptions of the world.  Critical theory instead proposes that every description is necessarily a tendentious rationalization of power and privilege.

In other words, critical theory maintains that “truth” is never really truth, but is always a mask of power and an instrument of domination.  It therefore agrees with Hobbes, who

“put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”**

It more nearly agrees with Nietzsche when he wrote,

“All people who do not understand some kind of trade in weapons—tongue and pen included as weapons—become servile . . .”***

Critical race theory therefore invites us to understand every utterance and institution as a tendentious rationalization of power and privilege.  But by its own logic, this invitation must itself be a sly gambit in the perpetual and restless struggle for power and privilege.  Its language is Aesopian because the theory is itself a tendentious rationalization of privilege and power, albeit aspirational, which covers its esoteric meaning and presents a “soothing, attractive, and paralyzing idea to the outside world.”

*) Stefan T. Possony, “Words that Divide the World,” Saturday Evening Post (Sep. 9, 1960)
**) Leviathan (1651),
***) Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human (1878)

8 thoughts on “Telling Sly Fables with Forked Tongues

  1. Apparently there’s more than one born every minute. Apparently you can fool all of the people some of the time and on the basis of “there’s more than one born every minute” and “some of the time” you can win your way democratically to power. Apparently the U.S.A. is now a “democracy,” the very thing the Founding Fathers loathed and wrote the Constitution to circumvent.

    That a demented elder and an illiterate strumpet now sit in the “highest offices in the country” is a sign of the times.

  2. I have a lot of sympathy for suckers, being myself of a fairly forthright and trusting nature. Some suckers get sucked in by appeals to their vices, but most are simple people without guile. They are not duplicitous themselves, and therefore do not suspect duplicity in others. I wish that we lived in a world that was safe for suckers, but suppose that is like wishing that we lived in a world where babes were safe in the woods.

    As far as I can tell, “democracy” now means that which is good for Democrats. I haven’t succumbed to Biden derangement syndrome, but our present POTUS does arouse a unique sort of disgust. Also fear. I’ve mentioned before that I was living in D.C. in the early 1980s, and was then dating a staffer in the office of a very liberal congressman from Massachusetts. So I spent a lot of time with lefty politicos and knew their jokes. Joe Biden was one of them. Now the nerd is taking his revenge on us.

  3. I believe Kristor once made the argument that democracy is a sham because there is really only power and any attempt to subvert this natural royal order of things is a subversion of reality. I apologize in advance if I have misstated his view. But if accurate, is this not what the woke are arguing? This line of reasoning and the aggrieved victim status often lamented on this blog as well as scorn for any who see the world differently seem to be interesting points of similarity between “traditionalists” and the woke.

    • I won’t speak for Kristor, but do think it is reasonable to suppose that, whatever their ostensible constitution says, all governments are oligarchical. A monarch must delegate power and take advice, and so must a mob of democrats. My sense is that the Woke have constructed a narrative that justifies more power for themselves, and that weakens their opponents with very strong imputations of moral guilt. Their aim is the same as every other social movement: to bring about a world in which people like themselves enjoy higher status.

      If we had no grievances, we would soon run out of things to write about, complaint being the most natural form of human speech. I would say that we tend to be very polite to benighted souls who have yet to come round to our way of seeing things, but understand it may feel different to a victim of our politeness. But I also have vast experience in failing to persuade other people to adopt my opinions, and so know what scorn feels like.

  4. You might add the once common and splendid word/idea “gay” to the list of vocabulary early conscripted into the Doubletalk language.

    “Oh you poor miserable creature! You couldn’t possibly object to something bright and gay, now, could you?”

    That old use, and with it, perhaps, that very concept, has long since been completely obliterated, replaced with its sordid opposite – and one is *still* restrained from objecting to it. There are very archaic forces involved in the battle over signs; since the foundation of all human culture, men have been divided, between those who obey signs and those who prey upon signs – and these sign-obeying others – in order that they themselves be obeyed. It is none other than the archaic dynamic of sacred myth, whose dual function is to hide a crime behind a lie, and to transform the lie into a truth by prevailing upon all men to swear it were so, destroying those who will not or do not.

    I believe Tom B has made similar observations in one or more of his articles.

    • It is interesting that the adjective gay now seems to mean “lame” or bogus as often as it means homosexual. This is in the youth slang, of course. I don’t know anything about the origin of the new slang usage, but first heard it ten or fifteen years ago. I’d guess that it reflects youth mockery of their parents’ cheesy euphemisms, although my impression is that they continue to use the euphemism themselves. I’d suggest that there are predatory sign twisters, but that there are also men who alter the meaning of signs in a good way. Of course it can be difficult to draw the line between poetry and prevarication.

      • It’s slang usage goes back at least to the 80s of my childhood in Australia, which suggests it probably dates at least to the 70s in the US. My analysis is that it means “lame” indeed, but not in the sense of “bogus” but in the sense of “weak” or “soft” or “girly”, a use that is therefore not unrelated to an old idea of homosexuality, although perhaps the association with “lame” is also a marker of a sacrificial victim (women, children, the lame, foreigners), meaning something that is best avoided or kept apart from. Interestingly, it seems to be a word that children, almost exclusively, used.

        Is this evidence of the healthy mechanism of social re-appropriation of a word that had been twisted by ideologues? Perhaps. Something for the linguists to inquire into. It’s quite possible that the original euphemism was no Bernaysian PR product paid for by the LGBT lobby but came into being naturally, in the polite society chatter of women, and then as you’ve guessed, the children took this euphemism but retrieved what it actually signified.

        In any case, this use has been consigned to the dustbin by the language police, and is rarely, if ever heard, outside of the sandbox.

      • Leigh @ I don’t hear enough casual conversation by young people to say for certain, but when I hear “gay” used to mean bogus or inauthentic, it’s from twenty somethings. It is often coupled with the word “fake” and seems to qualify that word in a way that is hard to specify. We live in times that demand a richer vocabulary of imposture.

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