About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

Read more ...

Blog Search


(Supports AND)

Google Ads

Feed

Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

See this post for info on full versus truncated feeds.

Quote

Happiness is good health and a bad memory.

— Ingrid Bergman



Navigation





<December 2018>
SMTWTFS
2526272829301
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
303112345

Categories

  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  
  RSS  

Contact

Email me

Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/9/2018

Totals
Posts - 2537
Comments - 2589
Hits - 2,102,467

Averages
Entries/day - 0.45
Comments/entry - 1.02
Hits/day - 372

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 5:31 PM Pacific


  07:39 PM

My colleague Tim raised an interesting point over the weekend, which I can explain best by simply selectively quoting an email he sent me:
I heard another interesting statistic on "This Week", the show hosted by George Stephanopoulos. George Will said (and none of the others challenged this figure, so I assume it's valid) that 75% of Republicans label themselves as conservative, while only 33% of Democrats label themselves as liberal. I thought it interesting that relatively few Democrats accept the liberal label. Several years ago, some leading politician (sorry, the name escapes me, but I really do recall reading this) said he now uses the word liberal only as an adjective. Some conservatives argue that a shift has taken place in the ideological wars, that in some sense they have "won" because now most liberals dodge that label and seek the label of moderate.

[...]

If most Americans in fact view the liberal label negatively (and statistics seem to bear out that they do), then it would make sense for liberals to work very hard at labeling themselves as "moderates" or some other more innocuous sounding label. You can hardly blame them for doing that; I don't see it as fundamental dishonesty, it's just good politics, and doing what's necessary to advance your cause. If the label "conservative" were viewed as negatively as the liberal label, I'm betting conservatives would resort to the same tactics, and would hardly give it a second thought.
It's an interesting development, the abandonment of a particular label by the people who embody it, a kind of PC-ness that avoids certain terms that might offend, but this time out of self-protection.

I have a thought or two on this. First, as I quoted earlier, Louis Menand notes that most people don't particularly understand the political ideology they claim to believe in. By extension, this means they don't understand the ideology they claim to be opposed to. In contemporary discourse, to use a nice word, this clearly manifests itself in the use of the term liberal pejoratively. Conservative yahoos (by which I mean trolls and shriekers on forums, for example) seem to have managed to tar the definition of liberal to be synonymous with everything anti-American. This essay, for example, seems unapologetic to claim "'liberalism' represents more government, more taxes, more give-away 'entitlements' and lots of lies, deception and downright mean-spirited nastiness." Bush was not being neutral during the debate when he said Kerry had been named the "most Liberal senator."

I am guessing (it would be, mmm, interesting research) that if you asked a sampling of virulent (vociferous?) anti-liberals what the term liberalism actually means, that you would not get a lot of cohesive definitions. Moreover, to draw upon the AHD definition at dictionary.com, I wonder what sorts of responses you would get if you were to ask anti-liberals whether they favored:
  • the natural goodness of humans.
  • the autonomy of the individual.
  • civil and political liberties.
  • government by law with the consent of the governed.
  • protection from arbitrary authority.

And these additional points, courtesy of WikiPedia:
  • freedom of speech.
  • freedom of the press.
  • society with very limited interests in the private behavior of its citizens in the areas of private sexual relations, free speech, personal conscience or religious beliefs, and political association.

Thus classic liberalism. As Tim points out elsewhere in his email, we live in a liberal society, as indeed do citizens in most of the world's "Western-style" democracies; the country was founded on essentially liberal principles. So what's the beef? For anti-liberals who actually bother to think about liberalism, the sticking point seems to be the post-war development of Amercian liberalism as focused on economics and the government's interest in social issues -- the Rooseveltian New Deal. The objection has been neatly captured in the poison-pen phrase "the welfare state," which frames the discussion so that to speak up for that viewpoint is to be immediately on the defensive. (Probably the most obvious such terminological framing is in the opposed phrases pro-life and pro-choice.)

Oops, getting off track here. Here's the point: although many anti-liberals probably could not define the liberal ideology, they know that they're against it. So a term that has legitimate and historical use in defining a particular point of view about government and society has become, effectively, a dirty word. So much so that people who one might imagine would be proud to call themselves liberals now shun the label. Anti-liberals have scored the interesting victory of making their opposition ashamed, or at least wary, of the label; they've framed their opposition's own name for themselves out of the picture. A neat trick.

Tim suggests that left-leaning people who want to avoid the term liberal now use the term moderate. I suppose that's true; if liberals are in a roomful of strangers of unknown political persuasion, what do they call themselves? "I'm a moderate" seems to be fairly neutral still. Although on closer examination, it's really more of a qualfier, isn't it? As in "moderate Republican" (not one of those wild-eyed idealogues) or "moderate Democrat" (not one of those knee-jerk tax-and-spend liberals). A term that is sometimes used on the Left is progressive. The WikiPedia article on article Progressivism describes the term this way:
The term progressive creates a contrast between center-left and farther-left politics. For example, John Kerry, Al Gore, and the Democratic Party are more likely to be described as or to describe themselves as liberal, whereas Howard Dean (a Democrat), Ralph Nader and the Green Party are more likely to be described as or to describe themselves as progressive.
The article notes that progressive, too, is a term that frames the discussion in a way that favors self-described progressives:
The intuitive opposite of liberal is conservative, which some people are proud to consider themselves. The intuitive opposite of progressive is regressive, a label with which hardly any person or political ideology would want to be associated. Critics of leftist politics often use the term liberals to describe their opponents, so distancing oneself from that term can be a rhetorical device to distance oneself from that criticism. Progressive connotes progress, a notion which is both positive and intuitively orthogonal to a left-right axis.

Progressive and conservative are also intuitive opposites; the former represents change, the other, tradition. This replaces the distinction between large and small government (especially with regard to government spending) evoked by the pairing of liberal / conservative.
But anyway. The article makes one final point which in effect illustrates why the use of labels is, in any serious discussion, sort of pointless:
These distinctions are, however, controversial and often inaccurate in predicting how either side feels about any given issue.

[categories]   ,

[1] |