Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's in a Label (part 2)

You know, [liberal] is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it's been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century. I prefer the word "progressive," which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. -- Hillary Clinton (CNN/YouTube Debate July 23, 2007)
I've seen, on numerous occasions, people on the left complaining that the right is so much better at creating labels than the left. This is nonsense. The vast majority of terms used in current politics come from the French Revolution, which wasn't exactly a hotbed of Burkean conservatism. Even the terms "left" and "right" address where people sat in the French National Assembly of 1789.

One term that doesn't come from the French Revolution is "liberal". Clinton is correct that "liberal" originally referred (derogatorily) to those in favor of individual liberty. It was somewhat similar to how we would use "libertine" referring to, principally French, criminality and lawlessness. It came to refer to most Enlightenment thinkers (both Scottish and French) and was then taken up in the mid-nineteenth century by those who wished to be free from attachment to current policies and institutions (the opposite of conservative). I will note that in the United States this necessarily means a desire to be free from the constraints the Constitution places on government.

Clinton's preferred label, "progressive", has always meant this final meaning of "liberal". Specifically the origin of the term is with those who wish to free the government in order to lead "progress" towards a more perfect humanity. Contrary to Clinton, however, this has always meant delegating more power to the government in order to allow it to force the people forward. As early as Teddy Roosevelt (and certainly as early as Wilson) Progressives have known that they know how to move forward and if only they could escape the dated bounds of the Constitution they could enact laws forcing us forward.

On to the labels that NoLabels decries, we have Socialist and Capitalist, both coined by Socialists. With the rise of Socialism the socialist wished to distinguish their policies, which looked out for social good and the good of the populace, with those which looked out only for Capital assets and those who held them. You might claim that Socialist whatever Socialism was originally intended to denote, it has come to mean something vile and unpopular and its origin should have no bearing on whether or not it's polite to use it. That might be fair, but it does have meaning. I would assert that most people understand it to mean something pretty close to how Merriam-Websters defines it:
any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
If that's the case then the question is not, as NoLabels would have it, suppressing the label of Socialist but determining if somebody who nationalizes the auto industry, parts of the financial industry (with the hope of regulations allowing the further nationalization as it becomes needed), regulates the health care industry to the point that providers are still ostensibly private but must do exactly as the government tells them, and rides roughshod over the capital rights of bondholders in bankruptcy holdings is actually a socialist. I think it's pretty obvious where I stand on this, but I wouldn't want to upset David Frum by labelling anyone so I'll stick with just describing policies.

The other label I've seen which No Labels thinks we shouldn't use is "racist". Racist was created as part of Nazi race theory to describe the fact that we should look out for the master race. Like Socialist, I think its meaning in popular culture is largely unchanged and reflects about what modern dictionaries describe it as (again from Merriam-Webster):
a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
Again I think the question we should ask is not if the label "racist" should be banned from public discussion, but whether those labelled racist actually are. For this I have two questions to ask:
  1. Is someone who thinks people from all races should be judged in all ways without regard to their race, and who disagrees with the policies of the current (black) president just as they disagree with similar policies undertaken by Carter, Wilson, or FDR a racist?
  2. What about someone who believes that certain minorities can't make it without government handouts and therefore need preferential treatment from the government in farming, business, college admission and various other endeavors?

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