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I am liberal, hear me roar*By Daniel Johnson, Associate Editor, Salem-News.com
It's long past time for liberals to repossess the word that identifies them which has been stolen and mutilated in reprehensible ways. If we can accomplish this, then conservatives will have to criticize ideas, rather than just obfuscate with their use of liberal as an unchallenged code word.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - In my last story, Conservatives are winning battles, but losing the War, one commenter who signed himself (presume a he) as BG wrote:
Liberalism is a disease, almost as dangerous as Islam, and must be excised from western civilization by ... Unfortunately, he did not finish his rant, so we are left in the dark about how liberalism can be effectively excised from Western civilization.
This, to me, raises the question of how intelligent people can let a word be hijacked? I’m referring, obviously to the word liberal which conservatives have turned into a dirty word, with no effective resistance from liberals. That ends here and now!
I took out from storage and blew the dust off a dictionary I’ve had since I was in high school, my THORNDIKE-BARNHART Comprehensive Desk Dictionary (Doubleday, 1962). TB defined liberal as:
adj. 1. generous: a liberal donation
2. plentiful; abundant: a liberal amount
3. broad-minded; not narrow in one’s ideas: a liberal thinker
4. favoring progress and reforms: a liberal party
5. giving the general thought, not a word-for-word rendering: a liberal translation
n. 1. a person favourable to progress and reforms Liberal, member of a Liberal Party.
[Latin liberalis befitting free men <liber free]
—Syn adj 1. bountiful, unstinted 2. ample, large 3. tolerant
TB goes on to define:
liberalism liberal principles and ideas; belief in progress and reforms
liberality 1. generosity 2. a gift 3. broad-mindedness
If conservatives are the opposites of liberals (as many conservatives maintain), then being a conservative is not very nice: mean-spirited, ungenerous, small-minded, narrow, intolerant, against progress and reforms—well, you get the picture.
Now, move ahead nearly 50 years to a definition of liberal in the current Merriam-Webster. The lengthy definition is about the same as TB with the following synonyms:
“generous, bountiful, munificent, mean giving or given freely and unstintingly. liberal, suggests openhandedness in the giver and largeness in the thing or amount given [a teacher liberal with her praise]. generous, stresses warmhearted readiness to give more than size or importance of the gift [a generous offer of help]. bountiful, suggests lavish, unremitting giving or providing
Paul Krugman, Nobel economist and columnist with the New York Times defends the New Deal, its goals and ideals in his book The Conscience of a Liberal:
“Liberalism…isn’t just about the welfare state: It’s also about democracy and the rule of law. And those who call themselves conservative are on the other side, with a political strategy that rests, at its core, on exploiting the unwillingness of some Americans to grant equal rights to their fellow citizens—to those who don’t share their skin color, don’t share their faith, don’t share their sexual preferences.”
This goes back, he writes, to the 1950s when “The National Review [William F. Buckley] praised [the Spanish dictator] Francisco Franco and defended the right of white southerners to disenfranchise blacks.” (p. 267) Buckley had written: "The White community is so entitled because it is, for the time being, the advanced race." (p. 9)
What is a dictionary?
A dictionary is not a rulebook, but rather a display of a word’s current usage. Words change their meaning as a look back on the evolution of the English language shows.
For example: In 1962, gay was defined as “1. happy and full of fun; merry 2. bright-colored ; showy 3. fond of pleasures.”
The current MH, gives an equivalent definition, with the new addition of referring to same-sex orientation between men. That word, too, has been hijacked but I don’t know who would really object because it hasn’t been taken over in a hostile, mean-spirited manner. It just means that a person using gay has to exercise caution in its use. You might say a man is really gay, but unless you mean he has a homosexual orientation, you would be better to use other words, such as happy or exuberant to avoid misinterpretation (or even offense).
To see what can happen when words are hijacked, I offer the case of Ayn Rand, the crazy doyen of capitalism. To an audience of architects, she once said: “'I use words the way you use a slide-rule.” She always maintained that her use of the word “selfishness” conformed to the dictionary. Then, after her death, one of her followers, Harry Biswanger, acknowledged that one of her signal accomplishments was to have shown that some of the terms she used, like “selfishness”, had been improperly defined—a perfect illustration of the old story of the lady watching the troops march by: “Look, everyone is out of step but my son John.”
Just as Ayn Rand used words out of step with the society around her, so too, do conservatives. Their use of liberal is not in congruence with the way that non-conservatives use it.
This is the state of modern conservatism—a once noble word itself, that goes back centuries. But if modern “conservatives” wish to see themselves, define themselves, as opposites of the hated liberals, then you can understand how we liberals can honestly see them as not very nice people.
Liberals. Stand up. Take back who you are!
*Acknowledgements to Helen Reddy
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