Posted on Wed, Oct. 13, 2004

Why is 'liberal' a 4-letter word?

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 intentionally so.

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 conservative."

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 diatribes.

So, it is not just liberal but ...

"Wild-eyed liberal."

"Bleeding-heart liberal."

"Tax-and-spend liberal."

"Socialistic liberal."

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; broad-minded."

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 believe.

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 casualties.

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 elections.

Therefore, I shall be content with who I am.

I remain especially proud of that part of me that is a liberal.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. (817) 390-7775

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