“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)