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
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
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.