Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Origins of "Politicize"

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Ben Alpers offers a preliminary attempt at tracing the roots of the word "politicize," as in "we should refrain from politicizing the tragedy in Connecticut." Apparently the word rarely appeared at all in print until the 1960s.

Though the word was used in a 1950 New York Times book review, it did not really become popular until Richard Nixon used it in 1969.  Here is a taste of Alpers's post:

It's thus fitting that the second appearance of "politicize" in The New York Times involves the second meaning and was published on March 23, 1969. Better yet, it occurs in a statement by President Richard Nixon, that font of the culture wars, concerning the ur-culture war topic of dissent and political violence on campus.  The Times published a long statement by President Nixon on this issue alongside a letter that his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Robert Finch, had sent to university presidents pertaining to a new series of federal laws regarding crime on campus.  Here's the relevant passage from Nixon's statement:

Increasingly, it is clear that this violence is directed to a clearly perceived and altogether too conceivable objective: not only to politicize the student bodies of our education institutions, but to politicize the institution as well. 

Anyone with the least understanding of the history of freedom will know that this has invariably meant not only political disaster to those nations that have submitted to such forces of obfuscation and repression, but cultural calamity as well.

It is not too strong a statement to declare that this is the way civilizations begin to die.
Following Nixon's statement, the word "politicize" appeared over and over again in the pages of the Times. Almost always it appeared as a pejorative and, through 1970, in relation to higher education. 

 An October 20, 1969, editorial entitled "Free Universities--Or Captive?," decrying protests led by Black students at Dartmouth against an appearance by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and infamous eugenicist William Shockley, concludes, "Pressures to politicize the universities--often in the name of high-minded goals--are pernicious because they imply that the institution henceforth will be held responsible for what is said and thought in its classrooms and lecture halls. It is a trend that must be resisted, whether the pressures come from the right or the left, from blacks or whites. What is at stake is not the structure, but the heart and mind of the campus."