Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Defining Liberal; Labeling Liberal

There is much contention about what constitutes a 'liberal', and what the label really means. For me, the modern label is sufficient. Yet many who fit this label do not want to be associated with the label. They want to be independent. They want to be progressive. Or they just want to be known for their special topic which they are passionate about. The classic duck is "Well, I'm fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal". Ok, you're a liberal. When you ask them about cutting social services its definitely no. But they are perfectly willing to cut the military budget. Is that fiscal conservatism? However, the reason for our current pontification is to find a more historical definition of the noun, Liberal. Lets look at the Oxford dictionary (my anglophile roots showing?) for enlightenment:

1. A member of the Liberal party

Ok, so far so good, but lets look at examples for the above:

1823 SOUTHEY in Q. Rev. XXVIII. 496 The Liberals of that day [end of 18th c.].. flew at high game... There was a scheme for establishing a society of Liberals at Cleves, where..they were to employ themselves in the task of destroying Christianity by means of the press.

Oh my, we have found some interesting usage here. Collusion of the press? Destruction of Christianity? Schemes and plots, and the goal is clear. Wait, there is more:

1885 LOWE Prince Bismarck I. 469 This was evidently the calculation of the Liberals in the Reichstag, when..they began a series of attempts to cobble at the Constitution.

Cobbling at the Constitution? Oh dear, what have we done! Now this is getting out of hand. In fairness to honest liberals and slanderous conservatives everywhere, I have to provide historical precedent for the usage of such labels. A very informative location of British history and politics of the day has a page devoted to the term Liberal Tory. If that raises a question, then you ought to investigate, but for the great unwashed, I'll summarize. A liberal when the term became a label for political usage, was not a liberal of the late Victorian, who is not a liberal of pre WW2, who is not a liberal of the 60's, and then we get to today. And its even worse for us conservatives. We were for the monarchy, lets leave it at that.

So that brings us back to the Oxford dictionary. A few instances of modern usage:

1940 N.Y. Times 23 Jan. 20/4 Since then [sc. the Russian Revolution] Liberal has been a word of confusion. Everybody who was not a Conservative became a Liberal or Radical or Red, whichever came first to the mind.

Well, I'd contend that Liberal is still a word of confusion. And most liberals are confused in the strict definition of confused. But, that is a digression, onward:

1969 New Yorker 14 June 44/2, I don't think he is a liberal. He's tight with his money, and he wants to see the poor work for their money.

So that sums up our example of usage of the noun liberal. Note that the final implication is that libs are not tight with their money, and intend on giving it to the poor. But I would take issue with this, as it seems that they actually are tight with their money personally, and want to give 'other' peoples money to the poor, of whom they don't expect to work, just vote. I am more fully behind the definition now than ever. Liberals are just part of a political body. There is no special meaning, and no horrible stigma to shy away from. So why do they not want to be called liberals? Is it because they do not want to be members? Are we using the label to broadly? Things to ponder, but I will continue to call a lib a lib. Its just plain fun.

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