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by
Dan Miller

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March 9, 2011 - 12:00 am
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The meanings of words change over time. “Gentleman” once meant a person privy to the person of the king; eventually, it meant a man of wealth and station; now, it adorns the entrance to a toilet intended for males. This devolution has done no noticeable harm. However, “liberal” — Thomas Jefferson was one — has decayed in similar fashion. Ditto progressive — Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive, and were he alive today would probably be outraged at the current usage. These are, unfortunately, common devolutions. It is offensive to understanding and to common decency to usurp words and twist them beyond recognition — apparently, to benefit without the substance from the pleasing coloration associated with what they once meant. It is little better to apply once-honorable labels to such people. And worse, perhaps, the sloppy use of such words prevents the communication of even clear thoughts, facilitating misleading harangues.

This attempt to distinguish between “liberal” in the old fashioned and current senses seems as good as any:

According to the dictionary, the adjective “liberal” comes from liberalis (latin), meaning “of freedom.” “Liberal” describes someone who [...] has an open mind, free from bigotry or bias, not constrained by standard doctrine — indeed, someone who actively resists orthodoxy.

Calling oneself “a liberal” [in the current fashion] connotes an affiliation with the political philosophy known as liberalism. This is a misnomer bordering on oxymoron [...].

Liberalism was founded on the primacy of the individual and the rule of the individual in contrast to the rule of the monarchy, the priesthood, or the central authority [...].

Liberalism in its earlier sense has become moribund, and in its current incarnation can sometimes even be fatal. A conservative does not agree with these illiberal “liberal” notions:

  • The central authority (government) knows best, rather than individuals.
  • The government should take care of me (no personal responsibility).
  • The government should make the rationing (balancing) decisions between supply and demand rather than letting the market do that.
  • A liberal will aggressively even violently defend “liberal” orthodoxy: You either agree with me in all particulars or you are an amoral heretic and outcast [emphasis in original].

A “conservative,” as I try to use the word, wants to conserve the good in society, while pressing for incremental change for the better. Some “conservatives” have opposed all change, much as did the royalists in France before the revolution. Britain accepted incremental change while preserving what was basic and good. France? She had her bloody revolution.

Devolutions such as these should be closely considered when interpreting words. Their earlier attributes do not properly apply to the “liberals” of today or to quite a few “conservatives”; neither do the characteristics of the early progressives fit the current crop of “progressives,” as the term has come to be misused. Here is one example:

[The] mass murder at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s meet-up with her Arizona constituents was immediately politicized by progressive politicians and media figures. But it’s wrong to see this as an unusual event. It’s the way things are always done when progressives have any power to reach the public: everything is political. And President Obama is doing his very best to take advantage of the situation.

That is, of course, an accurate description of the current crop of “progressives” who kidnapped the word. Perhaps such words should have the prefix “neo” or “faux.”

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