Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com specializes in quantitative modeling of political trends, but yesterday he posted a terminological discussion of political philosophy, "The Two Progressivisms", distinguishing what he calls Rational Progessivism from what he calls Radical Progressivism. This reminded me of something that I noticed recently in reading Mark Halpern's book Language and Human Nature, namely Halpern's surprising level of interest in the word progressive and its derivatives, discussed on 15 different pages.
Mark Halpern was known to me previously as the author of a pro-prescriptivism essay "The War that Never Ends", published in The Atlantic in 1997. He isn't Mark Halperin the political analyst; and neither of them is Mark Helprin the novelist. Obviously, none of these diverse Mark H's is me, either, though we share first names and a few phonetic features of our surnames, which apparently makes us similar enough that a couple of years ago, someone that I admire revealed her belief that I was both the author of Winter's Tale and a columnist for Time. I was simultaneously flattered and depressed.
On his web site, the Mark Halpern we're talking about further distinguishes himself from a professor of physics and a San Francisco restaurant consultant. As for his positive features, in a recent comment on LL, Kevin S. closed with an invitation to "Read the writings of Mark Halpern, if you dare. He guts descriptive linguists the way a fisherman guts a perch!"
And it's certainly true that Halpern has a particular animus towards linguists. In Language and Human Nature, Noam Chomsky is mentioned on 30 pages; Geoff Nunberg is also mentioned on 30 pages; Steve Pinker on 24; Geoff Pullum on 12; John McWhorter on 10 — and the discussions are not generally positive. In fact, the book perhaps should have been titled Linguists and Human Nature, since these page counts for Halpern's prominent linguistic enemies far exceed the number of references to words involved in analyzing language. Thus the term verb occurs eight times; adjective occurs three times; clause and subjunctive occur once each; adverb, participle, morpheme, phoneme not at all. Even the imply/infer issue only rates mention on 11 pages
But forms of the word progressive occur on 15 pages — "progressive" 11 times, "progressives" 3, and "progressivism" once — and needless to say, none of these are referring to the grammatical concept of "progressive aspect".
Usually Halpern uses forms of progressive to take a swipe at (a broad range of) political views that he dislikes, e.g. on p. 209:
…[Postmodern] spokesmen try to convince us not merely that no one has such absolute knowledge, or can have such knowledge, but even that there is no such knowledge to be had. They apparently believe that if we give up our absolute beliefs and our belief in the absolute, what will remain is sweet reason. Rorty usually […] seems to think that if we give up our belief in objective reality, we will become liberals or progressives or whatever Utopian socialists are called these days. [emphasis added]
Or on p. 19 (emphasis added again, and in subsequent quotes):
Discrimination, once the name of an admired intellectual faculty and practice, has been used so often as short for racial discrimination or bigotry that its use in its own right is imperiled; here is a typical modern and 'progressive' use:
It is wrong for the police to pull a car over just because its black occupants are driving in a rich white neighborhood. It is discrimination.
(The corruption of discrimination is especially dangerous, because it fosters the notion that the very act of distinguishing between one person or practice and another, no matter on what basis for for what purpose, is reprehensible.)
Or on p. 198-199:
Language, originally meant to refer to a preexisting world, now more and more is used to build imaginary worlds… The poet tells us that the poem "should not mean, but be"; he has prevailed beyond his fondest wish — more and more of our written words are now used "creatively," an the symbol of our age is framing quotation marks, used to proclaim "art at work here." So Communism (with all its isotopes and Lite versions — socialism, progressivism, left-liberalism, radicalism, Utopianism, "activism," and so on), as despotism packaged for the word-intoxicated, gets a free ride on the literacy wagon: it prevails with those who write and read books, while poor old down-market Fascism and Nazism have to court the unlettered, trying to sell despotism by rousing the rabble with long hypnotic speeches, heavily rhythmic music, mass-formation marching, and street fighting.
But Halpern's dislike of the term progressive is deeper than his dislike for the ideas of political progressives (with or without scare quotes). On pp. 245-6, he explains that under his preferred linguistic régime,
[t]o begin with, we should see an end to the use of the "living, growing language" fallacy as an excuse for misuse of the language — meaning not just the solecisms that can create trouble by causing ambiguity and obscurity but that truly abusive practice, the building of prejudices into the language so as to shut down criticism before it can even raise its voice. A good example of this stratagem, as I noted at the outset of this book, is the term progressive, which is now generally accepted, even by conservatives, as the proper name of a loosely-defined cluster of controversial views, and tacitly awards those views the twin crowns of virtue and inevitability.
Thus it'll do Halpern's blood pressure no good at all to read Nate Silver's explanation of what he means by rational progressivism:
The first type of progressivism has its philosophical underpinnings in 18th Century, Enlightement-era thought. It believes that politics is a battle of ideas. It further believes that through the use of reason and the exchange of ideas, human society will tend to improve itself through scientific and technological innovation. Hence, it believes in progress, and for this reason lays claim to the term “progressive”. Because of its belief and optimism in the faculties of human reason, I refer to this philosophy as rational progressivism. [emphasis original]
Talk about "virtue and inevitability"…
But seriously, can we really expect people to name their political philosophies things like "irrational regressionism", "excessive regulationism", "rampant cronyism", "naive over-simplificationism", or whatever?
It's true that there's the Two-axis Stupid/Evil chart, where any movement away from [0, 0] represents a decrease in intelligence and/or morality, with political stupidity available in both positive and negative versions (not enough government vs. too much government), and political evil likewise (moral rigidity vs. moral relativism. But the opposition of Bureaucialism-vs.-Aynarchism and Diablorthodoxy-vs.-Beelzapologism is a cynical (and morphologically questionable) joke, not a basis for self-identification. I think we can count on the partisans of political philosophies, from progressivism to objectivism, to choose brand-names that present their ideas in a favorable light.