First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Ideological Labels -- What Do They Mean?
Quote of the week:
I wish we could throw out all the old political labels and invent new ones.
The ones we've got were once useful, but now have so many contradictory meanings that no label really fits anybody.
Take conservative. Like the word right, it has two opposites. The opposite of conservative is liberal, right? But the opposite of conservative is also radical.
(For those who are hopelessly confused, the two opposites of right are left and wrong. Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do.)
On the scale of conservative vs. radical, the conservative is the person who pretty much likes the direction things are going and doesn't want any sudden changes to rock the boat, while the radical thinks reform is so badly needed that change needs to be made at the root, cutting down old institutions to make room for the new utopia.
Both, of course, are usually completely selfish, and both believe (or claim) they are completely altruistic.
But on the conservative/radical scale, today's liberals are absolutely conservative. They are struggling to protect the status quo. The filibuster is the tool of those who reject change, who want to block reform. The Democrats in Congress who are blocking Bush's judicial nominees are doing so because they like the thirty-year-old dictatorship of the courts, and don't want it to be (radically) changed.
And on that same scale, today's "conservatives" actually range from radical reformers to moderate reformers -- far from wanting to keep things the way they are, they believe that our society is deeply sick and must be changed in order to be healed. So the one thing they cannot bear is the status quo. Which means that our "conservatives" are not conservative at all, while our "liberals" are.
At the same time, many of us remember when the current establishment was radical. What changed them from radicals to conservatives is the fact that they won, and now they want to keep it that way. It's like the Soviet Union, where octogenarian "revolutionaries" spent their whole careers protecting the status quo.
Now, though, we look at the other scale, the conservative/liberal scale, and that's where we find a real mess. Liberal used to mean a commitment to democracy bordering on populism, a protection of the common man against selfish special interests. Liberals weren't as anti-government as libertarians, but they were all suspicious of government as a tool of established wealth and power.
Mostly, though, to be liberal was to favor freedom.
Now, though, the scale has actually split. There are "economic liberals" and "economic conservatives," in which the libecons favor unions and consumer protection (bordering on socialism in many cases) over business interests, and the conservecons favor free trade and deregulation (bordering on insanity in many cases).
All of these groupings were reached for sound historical reasons but have nothing at all to do with the original meanings of the labels now applied to them. There is nothing conservative about radical free trade and deregulation (it is quite dangerously anti-status quo), and there is nothing liberal about strict government regulation.
Meanwhile, there are "social liberals" and "social conservatives," though once again the meanings have become weird. Both groups are, at their extreme fringes, insanely repressive. Extreme social liberals will expel a child from school for bringing a table knife or trying to kiss a child of the opposite sex, and love to censor or punish "hate speech" and "gender stereotypes."
Extreme social conservatives also have lists of things they want censored, banished, or expelled -- the two lists simply don't overlap at any point.
I mean, you can take George Carlin's list of seven words you can't say on television (most of which can be said now somewhere on TV), and match them up with seven words you can't say on television because liberals have banned them. (Personally, I'd be happy to see the words on both lists banned from public conversation as a simple matter of good manners.)
Neither group is in favor of freedom in general, only of freedom to do the things they approve of. The social liberals are proud of being in favor of letting anybody do what they want -- unless they want to pray in front of an abortion clinic or at a graduation ceremony.
The social conservatives also have a list of freedoms they want to preserve, like the unlimited right to bear arms and the right to talk about God as if he might exist and his commandments might matter. But get away from their list, and they want to shut you right up.
Add to this the assumption that conservatives are "pro-war" and liberals are "anti-war" -- with few allowances for the possibility that they may be merely pro- or anti-this war -- and we find ourselves in a nightmare of contradictions.
Because social liberals control the establishment, completely. They control the major print and broadcast media (with conservatives clinging only to talk radio, which is listened to only by conservatives, so it isn't as if it were influential). So on social issues today, it is the conservatives who want radical change in the system -- who want to overthrow the establishment.
Yet the liberals are so proud of their anti-establishment roots in the sixties that they insist that it's still a "brave" and "revolutionary" act to create "art" that offends Christians or to use bad words or show bare buttocks on prime time television.
Nothing is sadder than aging college professors trying to stir up sixties' style anti-war fervor among their college students. They forget that any revolution initiated by the professors, exploiting ignorant college students to act out the professors' agenda, is just another example of the establishment co-opting young people.
They're not recruiting the most revolutionary students to their cause -- they're recruiting the most malleable and least skeptical.
Liberals today are the establishment. A conservative revolution is well under way, and has elected slim majorities in both houses of Congress. But the liberals are acting just like the Southern Democrats of the 1940s and 1950s on the issue of Civil Rights -- using every possible parliamentary maneuver to block even moderate reforms that the majority of voters clearly want.
Wait a minute. Did I just compare liberals to the old racists of the 1950s? That's unfair, indecent, McCarthyistic of me! Only conservatives can be compared to racists of the past, as in, "Oh, you think America was better in the 1950s? Then you must want us to return to segregation!" -- which is the inevitable response of liberals to any conservative attempt to "turn back the clock" on some of the devastating social changes that liberals have already visited upon America.
You've seen the pattern: If you think co-ed dorms in colleges have proven themselves to be a terrible idea, then you must be in favor of racial segregation. If you think "no-fault" divorce has devastated the American family, or that easy welfare has shattered the American underclass, or if you want to break the power of the courts to make new law and return to constitutional government, then obviously you want to put black people "in their place."
And that's what intellectuals do.
But in fact, the real problem is that we have no names for anyone that mean anything at all.
Why should someone who hates abortion have to hate trade unions, too? Why should someone who favors gun control also have to favor euthanasia? Why should someone who believes in banning illegal drugs also have to support the IMF? What do any of these things have to do with each other?
When you look at what gets done under the names "liberal" and "conservative," who would want to belong to either group?
But we have no name for people like me, who think the extremists of both sides are short-sighted, ignorant, reckless, and dangerous, and want to go back to the old commitment to building consensus for change over time, through democratic process, and to undo the "reforms" that have clearly not worked, while retaining the reforms that show real promise.
Where's the talk show for moderates? What party do we join? What label do we place upon ourselves?
If you want moderate gun control and moderate limitations upon abortion and moderate restrictions on pornography and moderate government regulation of business and moderate affirmative action and moderate tax reform, then what exactly are you?
If you want to carry out reforms by carefully controlled steps, always watching to see the results of each change before going further in the same direction, is there any party you can join?
How do you rally excited voters to causes like those?
Who would donate millions of dollars to promoting moderation?
No, it's the lunatics who succeed at fund-raising, and the lunatics who eliminate all the moderate candidates in the primaries.
I do have a name for people like me. I call us "ornery Americans." Ornery is a word that comes from a contraction of the word ordinary, in an era when ordinary was used as a pejorative. Parents would tell their children not to be so "ordinary" or "common" or "vulgar" -- then virtual synonyms -- but instead to behave like upper-class gentlemen and ladies.
Still, I embrace all the meanings of the word. Ordinary Americans. Misbehaving Americans. Stubborn Americans who are sick of the extremists blocking any possibility of compromise on issue after issue, and sick of having everybody try to remake the country into a utopia.
Ornery Americans know that one man's utopia is another man's hellish nightmare.
Which is, by the way, what America has already become, in many respects.
A land where each camp always assumes the worst possible motives for every action by their opponents and vilifies them like devils.
A land where millions of half-developed babies are slaughtered each year, and old and sick people are encouraged to kill themselves, while concealed weapons are spreading, and more public tears are shed for the death of a cow or of a convicted murderer than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of humans in Rwanda or the hopes of millions of would-be immigrants seeking the blessings of freedom in America.
A land where basic government protections against rapacious capitalism are being subverted, where health care is eroding in quality while increasing in cost, where infrastructure is dying while government payrolls expand meaninglessly, and you can't fire even the most grossly incompetent government workers.
A land where marriage has become a joke, where the family is blamed for everything and supported by few, where the schools are worse than anything except the proposed "solutions," and where the fervor of the would-be reformers is usually matched by their smug ignorance and illogic.
Ornery Americans don't believe they're right about everything, and suspect they might be partly wrong about almost anything. But that doesn't mean they want to turn their future -- or their nation -- over to the dolts who think they're right about everything!
Instead, we Ornery Americans would like people to calm down and work out reasonable compromises and stop all the destructive experiments that are causing great misery in order to solve relatively small problems. Especially we detest the way both extremes use the schools to ram their agenda down the throats of our children.
We don't expect all those who call themselves Ornery to agree on all the issues. There are likely to be as many Ornery Democrats as Ornery Republicans. (Come visit http://www.ornery.org.)
What we agree on is civilized discourse, rational argument, reality-checked idealism, and willingness to negotiate compromises.
Yeah, what a great movement, considering we can claim almost no one who actually holds any political office. Nor do we have any voices in the media.
All the powerful offices and all the well-paid voices seem to belong to the "liberals" and "conservatives."
Really, do we have to let the crazy people go on dragging the rest of us back and forth between damaging extremes of left and right?
Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.
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