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When Did "Liberal" Become a Dirty Word?
November 23, 2002
By F. Johnson

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Liberal: adj. 1. relating to or having social and political views that favor progress and reform. 2. relating to or having policies or views advocating individual freedom. 3. giving and generous in temperament or behavior. 4. tolerant of other people. (Collins Concise English Dictionary)

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." So goes the youthful nursery rhyme, but as we grew older we discovered that it really wasn't true, that names indeed can be hurtful. Flex your memory and remember the times you heard (or used) someone use a racial or ethnic slur, and remember the pain they inflicted and the anger they provoked.

Which brings us to the question of this essay. How did the term "liberal" become a dirty word in modern American political rhetoric? In so many Letters to the Editor, on radio talk shows, etc.?

Initiating such a discussion as this may seem a little too academic or pedagogical, but semantics, i.e., labels, are important. Labels are too often used as weapons, used to smear another whose views we disagree with. But it seems self-evident that terms such as "commie pinko" or "femi-nazi" are applied to people only to discredit them and their viewpoints which may be quite legitimately held.

The terms "left" and "right" are useful words to paint and understand the political spectrum of viewpoints. But not all "leftists" are liberals and not all "rightists" are conservatives - far from it. Complicating the use or misuse of these terms is the reality that most people lean "right" on one subject, but "left" on another.

For example, in my view it is incorrect and irrational to label leftist anarchists and militants (for any cause) as "liberals." True liberalism tolerates all viewpoints. True liberalism tries to understand all viewpoints. Liberals do not threaten and/or maim people of differing views. Liberals do not bomb abortion clinics. Liberals do not shoot abortion doctors. Liberals do not send Anthrax threats to abortion clinic doctors and their staffs. Liberals do not blow up mosques, synagogues, churches, or Federal Buildings. Liberals do not kill Sikhs because they look like Afghan terrorists. Liberals do not mail anthrax to liberal U.S. Senators.

Quite the contrary. Progressive liberals have pressed for most of the accepted social advances we enjoy in modern America today including the 40-hour week, Child Labor laws, Minimum Wage laws, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Civil Rights legislation, Worker Safety laws, Antitrust legislation, Clean Water laws, Food & Drug laws - you name it. Meanwhile, conservatives and business lobbies have historically fought all of these programs at their inception as too costly (read "higher taxes") or unnecessary. In recent decades, in fact, money has talked louder than voters and liberals have lost on more issues than they won. Now conservative business lobbies are fighting increased spending for prescription drugs for seniors, a rise in the minimum wage - anything that might cost money or diminish profits.

Now a "new patriotism" is afoot. Political debate on important issues is drying up leaving the microphones to self-styled "new patriots" - Rush Limbaugh, Cal Thomas, Don Imus, and many, many "hate-talk" radio hosts. Liberals are not getting equal time because of the popular misconception (purveyed by hate talk radio) that the press represents only the liberal eastern establishment. Liberals expressing views differing from those of the right are being labeled un-American and unpatriotic by right wing conservatives. It is a dangerous trend - a trend that some might argue parallels the right wing movement in Germany during the Thirties when the Fascists excoriated socialists and other liberals, burned books, and murdered opponents to gain complete and dictatorial control of the government.

Originally the term "liberal" was used to describe a scholar well studied in the liberal arts, someone who was broadly educated in the arts and sciences - history, literature, humanities, languages, mathematics, economics, all the sciences, and the peoples and cultures of many lands. A liberal is a person who grew to understand that we are all members of the human race, unique in our own cultures, and each uniquely gifted to contribute to the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately, these are the very people that fans of Rush Limbaugh call "communists." (See Rush Limbaugh's website where complaints about the "liberal" press have graduated to calling CNN the "Communist News Network") Slightly more politely, more sophisticated conservatives choose to denigrate well educated people by referring to them as "eastern establishment elitists." This writer prefers the term "well educated."

From this writer's aging perspective, it seems that most liberals I have met are by definition very interested in equality and fairness, the welfare of all Americans, health care for all Americans, a free public higher education for all Americans, protecting the environment and our wilderness areas, tolerance and respect for individual freedoms (including women's), and more equitable income distribution in America.

Meanwhile, many conservatives I have met usually espouse one or more programs and policies that are mainly self serving - including the reduction or elimination of taxes, protection of the status quo and states rights irrespective of societal inequities, "my" religious convictions - not yours, prosperity at any cost, business interests - not the public's, the right to own assault weapons, a powerful military rather than universal public health and education, or finally America first - the U.N. never! In a more vernacular sense, "I've got mine, Jack, to hell with you."

In the early 1900s strikers and union organizers were called communists and rabble-rousers. Perhaps they were, but many of us now take for granted the fruits of their trials and tribulations - the 40 hour week, safe and decent working conditions, child labor laws, regular vacations, etc. In the sixties Martin Luther King and other racial equality activists were called communists and trouble-makers. Perhaps they were, but today we are finally making progress in eliminating racial inequalities that have existed for more than 300 years. During the Viet Nam war, those opposed to the war were called communists and traitors, but now we understand how we were misled by our government into fighting that war in the first place. Yes, liberals have always been with us and they have often led the way to genuine reform of conservative traditions that were unfair and sometimes unjust.

Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the U.S.S.R., it seems that some conservatives regret not having "Commies" to kick around anymore. Thus, they have turned to the next political philosophy advocating societal change to denigrate and blame for social unrest. "Bleeding Heart Liberal" is a familiar and favorite right wing slander, but many conservatives still believe deep in their hearts that liberals are really communists bent upon taking something away from them personally. But this writer believes that given the results of the last election, it serves an ill wind for conservative writers and talk show hosts to suggest that liberals are stupid or evil or misguided fools. When liberalism dies, the heart and soul of this nation and its future must die.

Finally, this writer believes that certain radio talk shows are really "hate talk" shows that are extremely dangerous to the free exchange of differing points of view. That certain radio hosts use mean-spirited and hateful language in a way that incites their listeners. Language that might inflame and motivate those who would shoot a President Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King, or even blow up a Federal Building in Oklahoma. Why must such political disagreement be aired in such a rude and insulting way? Clearly, some conservatives feel their way of life is threatened. We must all learn to moderate the tone of our convictions and allow for civilized disagreement. Certitude in any belief leads to conflict. Absolute certitude can lead to violence. Pragmatic tolerance allows each of us to accept that there are other viewpoints and ultimately to discussion and compromise and therefore progress.

If we as human beings must judge others, it is important that we clearly understand what others are trying to say and accurately label those viewpoints and not slander the speaker. The word "civil" is the root of the word "civilization." We must all become more civil to one another if collectively we are to become a civilized nation.

The answer, the author believes, is a better and broader education of our young people. In a process often called the "Dumbing Down of America," our institutions of higher learning no longer require the study of languages, the reading of the classics, the humanities, and the study of philosophy - logic and ethics. Elementary and high schools have virtually abandoned the teaching of English grammar and sentence construction. More and more schools seem to emphasize athletic programs to the marginalization of academic programs. The long-term result has been greater illiteracy and ignorance - illiteracy and ignorance that breeds more envy, bitterness, resentment, intolerance, bigotry and hatred.

Many American parents would love to send their children to Groton, Exeter, Andover, or any one of the other fine preparatory schools back east, but they cannot afford to do so. In such preparatory schools young people receive an excellent and classic liberal arts education that in many cases includes readings in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. It is to these schools that the very rich send their children on their way to the Ivy League and fast track success. The author believes that all parents should demand that their local public schools offer similarly demanding academic programs to provide similar solid foundations for higher education and life.

To provide such better education we will need more and better educated teachers and more and smaller classrooms. More classrooms, smaller classes, and higher salaries for teachers will cost money, and therein lies the rub for most bedrock conservatives.

Income disparity in our country is painful to many and bad enough. But educational disparity can only lead to greater polarization and friction in our country and the world. It is dangerous. We must bring back "liberal education" curricula and expose our young people to a wider world of knowledge. As a nation, we tend to behave like a strapping but ungainly young man invited to tea with a bunch of dowager old nations who have centuries of tradition and learning in their backgrounds. We barge into this tearoom with the strength and arrogance of youth and insist we know better than our elders - our parent nations. As a nation, we must all learn that being rich and powerful does not make us great or civilized. Only education of our young people can make our nation great and civilized - as well as powerful and strong.

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