What’s in a name (“rightwing” “fundamentalist”)

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

In public policy, one the major sources of error is taxonomy.

Taxonomy (or systematics): Classification into categories based on presumed relationships

But how valid are the presumptions?

In biology, we could classify living things into “things that fly” (bats and birds and bumblebees) and “things that don’t” (elephants and dolphins and apple trees).

It’s a perfectly logical system of classification… and scientifically worthless.

But in the world of public policy, nonsensical classification systems are used all the time.  The meaning of many classifications is simply changed whenever needed in order to achieve a particular result.

“Addictive,” “race,” “species,” “carcinogen,” “disabled,” “poor” – These words have no fixed meaning, yet are constantly used as the basis for public policy, often with disastrous consequences.

Consider the terms “rightwing” and “leftwing.”

Dean Russell of the Foundation for Economic Education wrote:

The first Leftists were a group of newly elected representatives to the National Constituent Assembly at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. They were labeled ‘Leftists’ merely because they happened to sit on the left side in the French Assembly.

The legislators who sat on the right side were referred to as the Party of the Right, or Rightists. The Rightists or ‘reactionaries’ stood for a highly centralized national government, special laws and privileges for unions and various other groups and classes, government economic monopolies in various necessities of life, and government controls over prices, production and distribution.

By that system of classification, Thomas Jefferson, Rand Paul, and the Libertarian Party would be classified as on the political left. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would be rightwingers.

Obviously, the original right-left classification system has nothing to do with the way we use those terms today.  Today, “leftwing” and related terms such as “liberal” and “progressive” usually refer to people who are pro-union, anti-business, in favor of more government services and higher taxes, opposed to many forms of new technology, opposed to traditionalist religious groups, and opposed to U.S. foreign policy.

Yes, that’s a generalization–which is my point.

Anyway, the terms are always changing meaning.  Just since I got involved in politics, the two sides have switched on a number of issues: abortion, toleration of anti-Semitism, support for Israel, support for human rights in other countries, whether taxes should be raised if there’s a deficit, whether the government should be “colorblind” to race and ethnicity.  What’s “rightwing” today may be “leftwing” tomorrow. The Kennedys ran as “family values” candidates; today, liberals and the Left use the term “family values” only as a sarcastic shot at conservatives. George W. Bush ran in 2000 against Bill Clinton’s liberal policy of interventionism; Barack Obama ran in 2008 against George W. Bush’s conservative policy of interventionism; Rand Paul today is running against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s liberal policy of interventionism.

As for the term “rightwing,” that’s usually pejorative.  Here’s why that happens:

People who consider themselves “liberal” or “progressive” or “leftwing” tend to dominate the media and academia, and they naturally use those terms to apply to people and policies they like. Oh, some of them may be using extreme tactics but at least their goals are laudable. There’s an old expression that a communist is just “a liberal in a hurry.” That comes from this identification of liberal/leftwing/progressive with having one’s heart in the proper place.

Thus, the term “rightwing” came to be used to describe anyone who was unpopular with liberals/progressives.

Thus, you’ll see the term “conservative” or some variant like “ultraconservative” applied to libertarians like the economist Milton Friedman, religious traditionalists like Pat Robertson, socialist mass-murders like Adolph Hitler, kleptocrats like Ferdinand Marcos, Islamofascists like the Talban, Trotskyite communists like Lyndon LaRouche, and even the Communists who staged a coup during the last days of the Soviet Union. All of them, “conservatives.”

In 2003, the American Psychological Association published a study, by professors from Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Maryland College Park. It was an analysis of 88 other studies–the expression “Garbage In Garbage Out” comes to mind–and it proved that prominent conservatives have included Ronald Reagan, Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, Rush Limbaugh, and… Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, and Joseph Stalin.

In an “elegant and unifying explanation” for political conservatism, the meta-study found that psychological factors included “fear and aggression,” “dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity,” and “tolerance of inequality.”

Another ideological classification is “fundamentalist”—ideological because most of the people who use the term mean it as a political pejorative.

In fact, a fundamentalist is someone who supports—

The 14-point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878.

The five-point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910.

The principles espoused in 12 volumes of essays by 64 British and American ministers and theologians in 1910-1915 – essays called “The Fundamentals.”

A fundamentalist believes:

The Bible (in its original language) is 100% correct.

The virgin birth, Jesus’s miracles, and resurrection and ascent into Heaven all happened.

Jesus suffered punishment in our place for our sins (“substitutionary atonement”).

A fundamentalist is not defined as someone whose religious views you don’t like. And yet that’s how the term is used by many people.  When John Ashcroft was selected as George W. Bush’s attorney general, he was savagely attacked by the Left as a fundamentalist, when he’s really a Pentecostal, which is quite a different thing. Same with Pat Robertson. In fact, a fundamentalist leader once referred to Pentecostals as “the last vomit of Satan.”

(By the way, one reason many people didn’t like Pentecostals was that they were opposed to racism. That’s a topic for another column.)

The term “fundamentalist Muslim” or some variation in common usage is relatively new; it was used in only a few published instances until roughly 1977. Shortly thereafter, around 1980, the expression “religious right”—which had been used to describe theocratic Muslims—began to be applied to Christian groups that were switching their allegiance from the Democrats to the Republicans.

In my view, the major push for the use of “fundamentalist Muslim” came from the desire to associate fundamentalist Christians with evil.  Jerry Falwell, the Southern Baptists, al Qaeda—all a bunch of fundamentalists. Timothy McVeigh, the agnostic—heck, he was a fundamentalist Christian, too, according to some on the Left.

Psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton has even referred to strong supporters of the military as “military fundamentalists.”  He also talked about “fundamentalist Jews,” and said President Bush tends toward “political fundamentalism.”  The term “market fundamentalist” or “free-market fundamentalist” has its own Wikipedia entry, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_fundamentalism . So the term is expanding.  Anybody you don’t like.

The whole point of such labels is demonization.

In the world of language, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using the term “fundamentalist” to mean, say, a person taking a “back to the basics” approach, akin to the word “retro.” Or using it to mean someone who believes in the literal truth of the founding documents of a system of belief. Or even using it as an insult, meaning “idiotic” or “prone to violence” or “inferior to members of my own group.” (Yes, it’s OK, in some circumstances, to see another group of people as inferior to your own. For example, it’s fine for me to believe that my friends, as a group, are superior to human traffickers and members of the Russian Mafia.)

The problem arises when you mix the meanings in a deceptive way to stigmatize a group you don’t like. Calling terrorists “fundamentalist Muslims” so as to link them to “fundamentalist Christians” is bigotry and a smear.

Hmmm. Osama bin Laden expressed great concern about Global Warming. Perhaps we should start calling Muslim terrorists “environmentalist Muslims” and see how the environmentalists like it.


Share this post!