Episode 20: The Word Assassins
With this our twentieth episode, we reach a milestone of sorts here at The Last Chance Democracy Café, making this an auspicious time to announce a slight change in the focus of our upcoming episodes. But first, a brief recap.
As long-term guests and readers know, our story begins as a young college student, Zach, comes to the café for the first time on a lark. To his surprise, he finds himself being pulled into a lengthy discussion with three elderly (and somewhat tipsy) partisans on the subject of economic inequality and its impact on American democracy (and other related topics). Surprisingly, given his previously apolitical nature, he finds that he enjoys it and he becomes a regular. In the weeks that follow, The Three Wise Men, as we call them, discuss with Zach the growing economic polarization of our country, the horrific impact this has had on our political process and the growing specter of plutocracy.
But I didn’t open The Last Chance Democracy Café just to bellyache about what’s gone wrong: I opened it because I believe there exists today a great opportunity for the rebirth of a strong liberal political movement in this nation. So beginning with today’s episode, we’ll be changing our focus a little. Don’t worry, we’ll still talk about what’s wrong with conservatism, in general, and George W. Bush, in particular. But we’re going to start spending more of our time talking about what’s right with liberalism. And to that end, just this once, I’m giving Zach and the wise men the week off, so that I speak directly to you about the most basic of all aspects of this subject — the word liberal itself.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 20: The Word Assassins
by Steven C. Day
I’ll let you in on a little secret: None of the hardcore regulars at The Last Chance Democracy Café, including me, the proprietor, consider ourselves to be progressives, populists, moderates or New Democrats. We’re all liberals. That’s right — a bunch of bleeding heart, tax and spend, big government loving, church hating, teen sex and drug use encouraging, communist sympathizing, criminal coddling, common man ridiculing, pacifist leaning, pornography spreading, child spoiling, anti-American L*I*B*E*R*A*L*S! May Jerry Falwell have mercy on our souls.
So don’t waste a second, ‘cause, “The liberals are coming! The liberals are coming!” Time to send the kids to bed, lock up the womenfolk and place a call to Homeland Security.
. . . But while you’re busy looking up Tom Ridge’s phone number (here’s a hint — try checking the yellow pages under I, for ineffectual), I’ll let you in on another little secret: We really aren’t any of those things. Well, okay, sometimes our hearts do bleed a little when, for instance, we hear about children and elderly Americans having to go to bed hungry in the richest nation the world has ever known. No defense: We’re as guilty as sin on that one. We humbly tip our hats to those “compassionate conservatives” who plainly suffer from no such defect.
But as for the rest of it — bullshit, pure and simple. “Tax and spend” liberals? Get real: Given the astronomical deficits run up by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, it’s actually a wonder that at least one conservative politician or pundit isn’t struck dead by lightning every day of the year for mouthing such nonsense. “Big government loving” liberals? I’ve got to tell you, I’m repeatedly amazed by how often the conservative movement reminds me of that line from the movie “Bull Durham” (1988): “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” You really want to know which recent presidents have presided over large increases in the size of the federal government? Try Bush I and Bush II. You really want to know which recent president significantly reduced its size? Try Bill Clinton.
Where’s that bolt of lightning when you need it?
“Church hating” liberals? Not in a million Sundays. In fact, notwithstanding the shameful way Bush uses his religiosity as a political weapon, there’s absolutely nothing to indicate his faith is any stronger than John Kerry’s, also a very religious man (as though that would be a proper test for choosing a president anyway). In fairness, however, there is one striking difference between the two on the subject of religion: Kerry doesn’t claim that God has personally picked him to be president. So if that’s what your looking for, Bush is definitely your man.
“Teen sex and drug use encouraging” liberals? Gawd, what a bunch of dither heads. Read my lips: Pursuing solutions that actually work (traditional sex education and drug treatment) isn’t being “soft headed.” Mindlessly following failed, but ideologically pure, approaches like “Just Say No” campaigns and brutally long prison sentences is.
“Communist sympathizing” liberals? Ah, guys, you may not have noticed, but the Cold War’s over. We won.
About the only person I can think of who arguably still meets the definition of a communist is Alexander Cockburn, a man George Will apparently once described as “The Last Stalinist” (if I ever quote George Will as an authority again, please poke my eyes out with a flaming pointed stick). Indeed, one of my two clearest memories of Cockburn’s writings is of his remarkably charitable view of Joseph Stalin. The other is of his painfully redundant pro-Nader rants during election 2000 — published in The Nation, of all places, where he repeatedly insisted that Al Gore was no better than George W. Bush and that a Bush victory wouldn’t be all that bad a thing (check out his latest Nation column, if you have a strong stomach — he’s doing the same thing this year). Needless to say, this is one liberal who isn’t a “Cockburn sympathizer.” In any case, if the grumpy and self consumed Mr. Cockburn is the best the revolutionary proletariat has to offer these days, our current crop of all too fat and comfortable bourgeoisie have little to fear.
“Criminal coddling” liberals? Where do they get this stuff? Right now, the United States has a greater percentage of its population in prison than any other nation in the world. In fact, our rate of incarceration, with its overrepresentation of blacks and other minority groups, may fairly be described as a national scandal. Coddling? What exactly do these people want — a return to the days of public whipping for adultery and capital punishment for larceny? Actually, let me withdraw the question: I’m a little afraid to know what the answer would be.
And so on and so on and so on.
So given what a transparently bogus collection of monkey-stool-tinged-malarkey the right wing’s attacks against liberalism are, surely the public sees right through them, right? Yeah, I know you know better. When asked to identify their own political philosophy, nearly twice as many respondents describe themselves as conservatives than as liberals, according to an annual Harris poll. And this has held true for more than 30 years.
But here’s the funny thing: When the subject turns to actual issues, as opposed to broad categorizations, like increased spending for public education, protection of the environment, tax cuts favoring the wealthy and Social Security, polling results indicate that in many cases a majority of Americans actually favor the liberal point of view.
People don’t hate liberal policies and programs. They just hate liberalism.
Why the dichotomy? Simple: Conservatives have assassinated the word “liberal.”
Words are easier to assassinate than ideas. Ideas offer their own defense: To defeat an idea, one must generally come up with a better idea, or at least a better sounding idea. But why bother when it’s so much easier to attack the idea indirectly, by assassinating a word. Here’s how it works. First, the would-be assassins select a word that’s in some way associated with the target idea. Second, ignoring the actual dictionary definition, they create their own disreputable definition. Finally, third, they finish the job by self-righteously attacking their own definition. In the end, the hapless word stands assassinated, taking the target idea at least part of the way down with it.
And conservatives are masters of the art. Victims of their linguistic mayhem include “union,” “regulation,” “welfare,” “rehabilitation,” “government,” “secular,” “permissive,” “environmentalist” and “intellectual” — words that once presented a positive, or at least neutral, word picture to the average mind, but all now denigrated, at least to a degree. Victims of murder so foul, perpetrated by the political right.
Take the term environmentalist. Back in the 70s, everyone was an environmentalist. Politicians of every stripe, including conservatives, scrambled to embrace Mother Nature. Richard Nixon, for example, proudly put his signature to some of the most important environmental legislation ever enacted, including The National Environmental Policy Act. Yet, when we hear the word used today, as often as not, it’s in association with derogatory phrases like “environmental extremists,” “tree huggers” and even “environmental terrorists.” (As is true with any political movement, there are, of course, a few people who actually do take extreme positions and engage in questionable conduct as part of environmental advocacy; the slander comes in trying to equate these individuals to the broader movement.)
How did the right pull it off? Well, one thing’s clear: It wasn’t through a fair fight over the merits of environmental policy. Americans still overwhelmingly favor strong measures to fight air and water pollution, protect wilderness areas and defend our children against toxic substances. Poll after poll proves it. No, the “corporate profits over environment” crowd would have been blown out of the (increasingly dirty under Bush) water in a fair fight on the real issues. But they were way too smart to let that happen. So, instead of attacking environmental protection itself — a sure loser — conservatives did the next best thing. They attacked environmentalists.
They took a page from the conservative playbook — in fact, its most well-worn page — and set out to redefine their opponents. To rewrite the definition. Environmentalists, they insisted — not Joe, the guy down the street you sort of like with the Sierra Club bumper sticker, but that great vague, amorphous whole, made up, as we all now know, of overeducated, underemployed, sushi-eating (or worse still vegetarian), latte-drinking, West Coast, hippie-fanatics who would happily sacrifice our jobs, our families and even our very lives rather than discomfort a single snail darter. These attacks weren’t completely successful, of course, and environmental advocates are a long ways from being a universally loathed class within our culture. But the attacks did work to a significant degree — and certainly well enough to make the lives of polluters and developers a good deal easier.
But the bragging rights for conservatism’s all time greatest word triumph belong, of course, to the assassination of the word “liberal” itself. And what a spectacular victory it was: They didn’t just take liberalism down a notch or two in the public’s view. They pulled off a complete polar reversal in the word’s popular definition. Changing it from an unquestionably good thing (remember, the word applies in many nonpolitical contexts, e.g., a “liberal education” or a “liberal serving of plum pudding”), into what’s now widely thought to be a bad thing. The enormity of this transformation is apparent in just how far the popular understanding of liberalism has departed from its very positive dictionary definition.
Here, for example, is how Webster’s defines liberalism: “A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.”
As I pointed out in episode 3, “If you’re a liberal and need more, go beyond the definition of liberalism and read the somewhat longer definition of ‘liberal’ — it will make you blush.” It’s that good.
But, oh, how the mighty have fallen. And there’s no better way to put it than the way they did on the television show “West Wing”: “We all need some therapy, because somebody came along and said ‘liberal’ means ‘soft on drugs, soft on Communism, soft on defense, and we’re gonna tax you back to the Stone Age because people shouldn’t have to work if they don’t want to.’ And instead of saying, ‘Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, Leave it to Beaver trip back to the ‘50s,’ we cowered in the corner and said, ‘Please don’t hurt me.’”
In fact, a big part of why word assassination is such an effective technique is because people usually don’t fight back. Liberals certainly didn’t. It’s just so much easier to ditch the word. And, sure enough, bit by bit, as the concept of liberalism came under stronger and stronger attack from the right, Democratic politicians stopped describing themselves as liberals. They became moderates, or for a brave few (their bravery often enhanced by safe Democratic districts) progressives or populists. But with rarer than diamonds exceptions, like Paul Wellstone, the term liberal itself largely disappeared from the vocabulary of most left leaning politicians.
So given all this, why do we here at The Last Chance Democracy Café cling so tenaciously to the liberal label? Why not just join the crowd and start calling ourselves progressives (certainly a perfectly fine word in its own right), or better still, moderates? Yeah, that’s the ticket. We’re not scary liberals — we’re just a few more of those wishy washy, let’s hide our principles at all costs, vanilla’s our favorite flavor moderates. You know, become the kind of “girl” you can take home to Mom.
Sorry, can’t do it. And, yes, part of the reason’s the chickenshit factor: Throwing off our primary identity in the vain hope of tempering attacks from the other side just seems, well, a little too cowardly. Don’t get me wrong: For the next couple of months, working to send George W. Bush packing isn’t just the top priority — it’s the only priority. So if the folks running John Kerry’s campaign really believe that the best strategy is for him to disown the word liberal, I may not approve, but I’ll live with it.
But, in the long run, there’s more at stake here than the upcoming election. We need to build a competitive and sustainable liberal movement in this country. America badly needs a viable alternative to the politics of greed. And I just can’t see how we’re ever going to be able to do that while running away from ourselves.
Trying to sell a liberal agenda, while denying we’re liberals, is like trying to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ, while insisting you’re not a Christian. It won’t work. You can’t sell an idea you yourself seem embarrassed to embrace.
And this isn’t a matter of choice, anyway. Liberals can run away from the word liberal as much as we want, but we can’t make it run away from us. Even when progressive politicians insist on calling themselves moderates, the bad guys still call them liberals — and the news media generally plays along. This means that instead of spending their time fighting for the future of America, these politicians are forced to fight constant rearguard actions, defending themselves against a “charge” that in any sane world would be considered a badge of honor.
There’s just no getting around it. One of the indispensable steps to building a winning liberal politics in this country has to be the resurrection of the word liberal itself. And we’ll never stand a ghost of a chance of making that happen, until liberals themselves stand ready to embrace it.
We’re proud liberals here at The Last Chance Democracy Café. You should be one too.
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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March 24th, 2006 at 1:31 pm
I am a proud liberal and thank you for asking.
And ,man, I love the bit about Cockburn! I wrote a very angry letter to him about 4 years ago. He fired back a hateful e-mail in which he called me “a silly girl”. That day my computer melted. I have no proof, I’m just saying, it was strange.
Another reason I liked this post: confession time for me; My Mom turned me into a Cubs fan from the cradle. I own a copy (hardback) of George Will’s “Men at Work”. If only he knew that one of the unwashed masses and a tree-huggin liberal he loves to hate, actually paid money and enjoyed his book. Of course, It wouldn’t surprise him, he thinks everyone should worship at his vocabulary anyway.
And “words are easier to assassinate than ideas”
You are so right. We shouldn’t be playing this war of words, we should turn it into a war of ideas.
March 25th, 2006 at 5:53 pm
My former neighbor, who has gone completely “snowbird” on me and will never return to the land of ice and snow, used to take particular pleasure in taunting our neighbors at cookouts by asking “Who’s day is it to be the CRAZY NEIGHBORHOOD LIBERAL?”
We actually reached a point where our most ardent Right Wing neighbors would actually debate the issues and ask questions about the issues. I fear those days are gone now because the neighbor is gone and several other RW neighbors have become so defensive about the policies of GW Bush that rational discussion is no longer possible. I am saddened by the fact that the the great right wing “wurlitzer” has “upped the ante” in the debate. They cannot admit they were or are wrong on any issue. They must defend the personality cult of GWB at all costs and that means that “liberals” must be villanized beyond anything we have seen in the past.
The polarization is complete.
I don’t know if we can turn back.
March 26th, 2006 at 2:29 am
why would you want to go back? Going back means back to the same state you started with - after Nixon America should have learnt how aristocrats think and how steadily (Episode 5 “The “Man” Behind The Curtain”) and secretly they operate to able to destroy democracy
but America didn’t want to see it (Episode 22 “It couldn’t happen here, right? Not here. Not in America . . .”)
and so she wasn’t armed to defend herself against Bush, Cheney and Rove
you must not go back - e.g. you must learn that a president (a single person!) cannot be allowed - under no circumstances - to bypass any law, because bypassing the lawmakers means bypassing the separation of powers, one of the basic foundations of a democracy
America must learn that even “bypassing laws” must be done by the lawmakers - under the one and only condition of strictly well defined “interfaces” in the “bypassed laws”
America must learn that it isn’t enough to have laws - each modern totalitarian nation had laws - you must have laws at least “touching justice” and so you must do something like “ILM” for laws - “simple” laws may be unprotected against violation, but “important” laws should never ever be changed without an overwhelming majority
and some - like the guarantee for the human dignity - must be protected against anything and anybody
March 26th, 2006 at 7:38 am
Great. One moment your recycling rightwing bullshit about Cockburn being a “stalinist” and the next your mocking rightwingers for being stuck in the Cold War era. I just looove that kind of faux-liberal demo-wingnut reasoning. What’s next? Blaming Ralph Nader for the Iraq war? Bwa!