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Take Back the Word

Liberalism isn't what it used to be.

12:00 AM, Apr 12, 2005 • By JOEL ENGEL
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IN EDWARD ALBEE'S PLAY The American Dream, Mommy proudly delights in her new beige hat until the moment someone refers to it as wheat colored, at which point she hurries back to the store in a fit of pique. Albee, of course, was being ironical, ridiculing his character's weak-mindedness before an audience who would surely agree that roses smell good no matter what they're named, and that insisting the sky is green can't really change what the eye sees.

So what are we to make of the word "liberal," whose current meaning is likely beyond the ken of both Albee and Shakespeare? In the not-so-distant past, liberal FDR believed that the enemies of other democracies were, by extension, America's enemies--and liberals eagerly joined him in taking on the America Firsters here before fighting fascism over there. In his footsteps followed liberal Harry Truman, whose doctrine reflected the view that Soviet expansionism was insidiously anti-democratic and therefore innately illiberal. Then came JFK, the presidential avatar of modern liberalism, which he defined on his first day in office when he announced that America would "pay any price, bear any burden . . . in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." His statement seemed interwoven into the fabric of the burgeoning civil rights movement that was to become liberalism's high-water mark at home--the one issue that ipso facto determined whether you were indeed a liberal. And it was ennobling to be one, sharing Martin Luther King's dream that "all of God's children" would someday be free.

BUT ALAS, somewhere over the last two decades or so, liberalism lost its root as the word liberal was perverted to the point of Orwellian inversion--and therefore rendered meaningless.

For example, rooting against the United States and for "insurgents" who delight in slaughtering innocents is many things (stupid, for one, also sad, evil, and short-sighted), but it is assuredly not liberal.

Decrying the American "religious right" for advocating a "culture of life" while simultaneously praising the neck-slicing Islamofascists is many things (start with pathetic), but it is not liberal.

Calling 3,000 workers who died when the buildings fell "little Eichmanns" is many things (vile, as well as repulsive and morally repugnant), but it is not liberal.

Protesting the painless execution of a sadistic murderer while cheering the removal of a feeding tube from a brain-damaged woman whose parents very much want her alive even if her estranged husband doesn't, is many things (incomprehensible, indefensible, and unforgivably cruel), but it is not liberal.

Marching against war every time the United States is involved--in fact only when the United States is involved--regardless of the war's purpose, is many things (reactionary for sure), but it is not liberal.

Crying that you're being persecuted for exercising your right of free speech, when what happened was that other people less famous than you reacted to your ill-considered and offensive comments by exercising their own First Amendment rights, is many things (solipsistic comes to mind), but it is not liberal.

Pretending that the abuses committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison were on a par with the wholesale torture, rape, and murder committed there over decades is many things (overwrought, unenlightened, an insult to intelligence), but it is not liberal.

Depicting Condoleezza Rice in editorial cartoons as a big-lipped mammy who speaks Ebonics to her massa is many things (offensive, sickening), but it is not liberal.

Marching if you're gay in support of "Palestine"--from which gay Palestinians try to escape to Israel before they're tortured and murdered for their sexual orientation--is many things (nuts, as well as hilariously ill-informed), but it is far from liberal.

Advocating for murderous regimes such as Syria, Libya, and Saddam's Iraq to sit on the United Nations Human Right Commission is many things (start with annoyingly ironic), but it is not liberal.

Decrying the human-rights abuses of regimes like Saddam's Iraq and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and then protesting against the wars that actually rid these countries of their murdering leaders, is many things (childish and willfully blind), but it is not liberal.

Equating Israeli self-defense measures against bombers who hide among civilians to the murders committed by the bombers who intentionally target civilians is many things (foolish, and probably anti-Semitic), but it is not liberal.

Believing that ethnicity determines identity--and accusing anyone of being "a disgrace to his race" because his views fall outside what's considered orthodoxy--is many things (primarily racist), but it is definitely not liberal.

Invoking Nazis and/or the Taliban to describe duly-elected officeholders of another party is many things (tiresome, ridiculous), but it is not liberal.

Referring to illegals as "undocumented workers," and to those who'd like to enforce immigration laws as evil and racist, is many things (self-destructive, short-sighted), but it is not liberal.

Joking about Charlton Heston's Alzheimer's because you don't abide his politics is many things (cold-hearted, intolerant, sophomoric), but it is far from liberal.

Calling the then-recently departed Yasser Arafat a "wily" and "enigmatic" "statesman", as the New York Times did, is many things (nauseatingly PC, for one), but it is not liberal.

Regulating what children can and cannot eat at home so that they don't become obese, as Hawaiian legislators recently tried to do; or trying to pass legislation which would require that every home be retrofitted for wheelchair access, as Santa Monica legislators did, is many things (repressive, despotic), but it is not liberal.

Shouting down speakers in the name of free speech is many things (fascistic, tyrannical, churlish), but it is not liberal.

Excusing Kofi Annan and the United Nations for the worst palm-greasing scandal in history--one that lengthened the reign of a tyrant and led to the deaths of countless thousands--is many things (inexcusable, also shameful), but it is not liberal.

Sadly, the list goes on (and on and on and on). Which is why those of us who consider ourselves classical liberals--and believe that language has power--ought to take back the word "liberal" from those on the left who debase its meaning. Many of them, I suspect, are like the body surfer who's surprised to find that the ocean current has carried him half a mile from his towel on the beach. They would do well to get their bearings and gauge how far the political tide has removed them from their core beliefs.

Me, I know where my towel is--in the same place it's been for 40 years. If that makes me "conservative," well, a liberal by any other name . . .

Joel Engel is an author and journalist in Southern California. His latest book, By Duty Bound: Survival and Redemption in a Time of War, was just published by Dutton.