Why is 'liberal' a
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
While I was leaving a luncheon last weekend, a woman stopped me
before I got to the door and slipped a note into my hand.
It was a simple missive.
"Please do a column on liberal and conservative," it said.
She explained how concerned she was that these two labels
commonly put on people nowadays are rather confusing, and
During the second presidential debate last week, for example,
President Bush used the L-word to define Sen. John Kerry, and Kerry
tried to run away from the term (or at least dismiss it) by urging
that his opponent squash the labeling.
Bush, obviously sensing that the now pejorative tag had some
resonance with potential voters, has been using the word more often
in recent days, and you can bet he'll continue to do so through the
Nov. 2 election.
The president has labeled himself a conservative, but
understanding the historical definition of that word, he's added a
qualifier. He is, by his own definition, a "compassionate
Let me admit upfront that I am a liberal, and I don't run away
from the term.
I'm proud of it.
As I've told people before, I was raised in Texas during the
1950s and 1960s, so I had a choice of being a liberal or a fool. And
like the old folks used to say, "My mama didn't raise no fool."
You see, in those days conservative meant, among other
things, a champion of the status quo. There is no way any sane black
person, or any fair-minded white person, could have approved of the
way things were then.
But the L-word is just a small part of who I am, for no single
word can totally define me or any other person.
Yet in the past 20 years or so, there has been an attempt by some
operatives to redefine the words liberal and
conservative in ways that give them some precise meaning when
used in a political or social context.
Call someone a liberal these days, and that's all that needs to
be said, at least in the eyes of those who have become so
narrow-minded that they need to know nothing else of an individual
except that one nebulous "fact."
Sometimes, however, the L-word needs a modifier to give it a more
exact meaning for the people who depend on labels as their primary
descriptions of those who oppose their views.
I know, because I'm often on the receiving end of their vitriolic
So, it is not just liberal but ...
Or just plain "stupid liberal."
The president suggests that Kerry's the worst kind of liberal
there is: "a Massachusetts liberal."
Now that's really bad.
Before the word was co-opted and redefined, liberal
generally had a favorable connotation, according to dictionaries
(especially those published before 1980). It meant "giving freely,"
"generous," "tolerant of views differing from one's own;
On the other hand, the traditional definition of conservative was
more negative: "reactionary, right-winger, preserver, die-hard,
conserver, champion of the status quo, opponent of change."
Today, many conservatives see a liberal as a weak, unpatriotic,
socialistic radical who is bent on destroying the country, forever
wanting a handout and giving solace to the country's enemies.
Conservatives, then, would be the opposite of that, using the
root word, "conserve," as the major basis of what they claim to
The president, if judged by that description, has betrayed the
very label he so proudly wears, for he has built up the largest
budget deficit in history, lost more jobs than any president in the
past 70 years, supported proposals to help pillage the environment
and, sadly, gotten us into a war that has caused thousands of
But I suppose he's done it compassionately.
I, too, would like to see us get away from the labels, but I have
no reason to believe we ever will, especially if they help win
Therefore, I shall be content with who I am.
I remain especially proud of that part of me that is a