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Dan Miller

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March 9, 2011 - 12:00 am

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.”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) was probably not a liberal in the classical sense; progressive and liberal are not synonymous. He had a certain rigidity of mind which allowed him to dismiss most views not his own. He was very passionate in all that he did and was motivated largely by the progressive spirit of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which called upon people to do responsible things as individuals. (Solid accounts of his life and works can be found here, here and here.) TR greatly admired his father — also named Theodore — who had a strong sense of noblesse oblige. It was his responsibility, less than that of the government, to do good for the poor (to whom the political machines often gave cash and other things in return for votes, a process which tends often to be more subtle now). With some of his “comfortable” friends, the elder Roosevelt established a place where “newsboys,” among the most wretched of New York’s youth, could find food. That sort of private initiative would probably not be permitted in some parts of the United States today, where

anyone serving food for public consumption, whether for the homeless or for sale, must have a permit, [per] Kathy Barton, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department. To get that permit, the food must be prepared in a certified kitchen with a certified food manager.

The regulations are all the more essential in the case of the homeless, Barton said, because “poor people are the most vulnerable to foodborne illness and also are the least likely to have access to health care.”

Bobby Herring said those rules would preclude them from continuing to feed the 60 to 120 people they assisted nightly for more than a year. The food had been donated from area businesses and prepared in various kitchens by volunteers or by his wife.

The private charity in which Roosevelt was involved also provided a place where the newsboys could sleep comfortably. Not free, it cost five cents a night. This sort of “intrusion” on “governmental functions” considered by the modern neo-progressives to be all important would probably be prohibited as well. The senior Roosevelt and his friends were also successful over the years in sending about 100,000 newsboys west to work on farms — child labor, gasp — to learn productive activity and to become responsible, self-sufficient adults — instead of adult street criminals. He also worked, with some success, to clean, rather than to lubricate, the political machine of the day. At a very young age, TR took on that job left to him by his father.

He became “Mr. Progressive” and an acknowledged leader of the Republican progressive movement. In 1884, at the age of twenty-five, he nearly succeeded in swaying the Republican Party to nominate sitting President Chester A. Arthur (September 1881 – 1884), at least a moderate progressive, as its presidential candidate. Arthur had been the vice president under James Garfield, who had been assassinated by an “embittered attorney” in 1881. By 1884 Arthur was quite sick with a kidney disease, a fact concealed from the public, and did not seek the nomination; he died in 1886. Despite TR’s impassioned speeches, one given while standing on furniture at the Chicago convention hall, yelling in his high-pitched voice and with his arms flailing, the old Republicans of the day prevailed and James Blaine — an enemy of much that TR and his father had held dear — got the nomination. TR provided only the most tepid support.

He then left public life, briefly, becoming a rancher in the Badlands; he also wrote copiously, in what time he could spare from hunting (lots of wild game, including several grizzly bears) and working with his ranch hands. At one time, he owned about 1,500 head of cattle, and was intensely involved (as he was in just about all else that he did) in riding and running cattle roundups. One cowboy said of him:

Invariably he was right on the job holding his own with the best of them [...] with all his natural intensiveness [...]. Riding circle twice a day, often taking the outer swing, taking his turn on a day-herd or night-guard duty, helping with the cutting-out operations, branding calves [...] he was in the saddle all of eighteen hours per day [...] like the rest of us [...].

One night while riding night-guard, during a stampede caused by a violent thunderstorm, TR spent forty hours in the saddle and exhausted five horses. TR wrote that after a time, “All strangeness passed off, the attitude of my fellow cowpunchers being one of friendly forgiveness even toward my spectacles.” His equals referred to him as Theodore; he insisted that the cowboys call him Mr. Roosevelt.
It was not his nature to stay away from politics for long and he didn’t. In 1900, by then at the ripe old age of forty-two, TR was given the vice presidential nomination to get him out of the way — he was by then the governor of New York and had continued to offend many machine politicians — so that those who knew best how to run the country could get on with their work and dispense patronage unhindered, the old fashioned way. Senator Marcus Hanna, McKinley’s chief strategist, complained, “Don’t you realize that there’s only one heartbeat between that damned cowboy and the White House?” This attempt to send him into oblivion might have succeeded indefinitely but for the assassination of President McKinley by a “deranged anarchist” in 1901.

(Those were the peaceful, civil days of yore when there were no nasty groups full of deranged lunatics to foment violence. All public utterances were then calm, devoid of passion and might as well have come from Mr. Caspar Milquetoast. Yeah, right.)

TR served as president from 1901 until 1909 and remained generally true to the progressive beliefs of the period. He believed strongly in American exceptionalism and in American destiny, passionately pursuing both. He probably would not have much appreciated the England of Neville Chamberlain, later characterized by Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm as behaving “as if all the world were as easy, uncalculating, and well-meaning as herself.” TR did not behave in that fashion and he despised President Wilson for pursuing policies similar to those pursued by Chamberlain in the years leading up to the next war. Nor did the United States pursue such policies when TR was the president. To him, the interests of the United States were foremost in that age of increasingly interdependent nations. Shortly before his death in 1919, he said, concerning internationalism and nationalism, that “I am for saying with a bland smile whatever Nationalism demands.” He favored a strong military, particularly naval power, and intervened in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela when he deemed it necessary to protect U.S. interests.

Aware of the strategic need for a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific, Roosevelt ensured the construction of the Panama Canal. His corollary to the Monroe Doctrine prevented the establishment of foreign bases in the Caribbean and arrogated the sole right of intervention in Latin America to the United States.

Among other things, he actually earned

the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War, reached a Gentleman’s Agreement on immigration with Japan, and sent the Great White Fleet on a goodwill tour of the world.

He relished life and “wrote his own speeches and presidential messages and more than twenty books dealing with history, literature, politics and natural history.” TR also recognized the harm done by corrupt politics as usual and by the trusts. He fought the good fight for enforcement of the antitrust laws, sadly neglected today. Labor conditions were then, unlike now, very bad, and unions were then, unlike now, very weak; he sought to empower them — while rejecting vigorously labor demagogues like Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and Big Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World — as counterweights to the excessive power of the trusts and big corporations. Had the words “too big to fail” then been in vogue, I think he would have seen keeping large corporations from becoming “too big to fail” as no less important.

He was sometimes rather petty and of course made mistakes: he trusted in the efficacy of experts — impartial, non-political, fairminded bureaucrats — and of government itself, all guided by a common sense of morality. His experience with machine politics and other corruption should have suggested that this was folly. (These goals may be achievable, but we haven’t yet found a way, and I doubt that we will.)

In 1908 he decided not to become a candidate for the third consecutive term which he could likely have won easily, saying

I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands, provided the holder does not keep it for more than a certain, definite time, and then returns to the people from whom he sprang.

By 1912, he very much wanted another term as president and, when Taft managed instead to get the nomination, bolted and became the candidate of his Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, thereby splitting the vote and leading to the election of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In 1916, TR rejected the Progressive Party nomination, supported Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes (whom he considered incapable) and disbanded the Bull Moose Party. He found Wilson’s policies, particularly his appeasement of Germany even after the 1914 invasion of Belgium, disgusting. Wilson won the election by a narrow margin and TR died in 1919 as a somewhat disillusioned old man of sixty-one.

Fast forward to the present day. President Obama is a neo-liberal neo-progressive, neither a liberal nor a progressive as the terms were used back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and as they should be used now. Many of President Obama’s mentors, including William Ayers, were and remain radicals who would have run guillotines quite well at the time of the French Revolution. (Ayers has “no regrets” and still thinks highly of such “democratic leaders” as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and his education reforms.) President Obama plans to “put education overhaul at the forefront of his agenda as he adjusts to the new reality of a divided government.” I wonder what that means: reduce the power of the education unions? Stop pandering to his leftist core and resume teaching the Three Rs? Critical thinking? Probably not. If it means what I think it does, it is not something for which we are all likely to strive together.

President Obama has his own vision of the destiny of the United States, a twisted and dangerous vision. What would have been TR’s response to Islamic terrorists and offensive jihad? I have a pretty good idea. President Obama has demonstrated his. He apologizes to our enemies at every opportunity and seeks to minimize not only the good she has done but her future potential as well. These prophecies can — and already have, to some extent — become self-fulfilling. He seems to think that weakness is better than strength and that submission to evil is better than the pursuit of good.

The United States is divided — almost half slave and half free, half desiring slavery and half desiring freedom. The question is whether the desires to be slaves are greater than the desires to be free. President Obama’s neo-liberal, neo-progressive base apparently feels that there may be cause for joy rather than for concern. Papa Doc Obama and his wise, beneficent czars will care for us all if only we will just shut our yaps and go along. Resistance is useless and besides, who are we to question their superior wisdom and kindness? They give us — out of the kindness of their overflowing and empathetic hearts — all the freedoms we need and can properly use — sometimes too much. Ungrateful Uncle Toms and other racists spitefully reject what they are given and want something else. They insist that their obstreperous and intemperate voices not only be heard but also have an actual impact.

We speak of public servants and of our elected officials, but who are we to claim ownership in this obsessively possessive way? We should merely contribute to their campaigns, vote them into office and provide the funding to enable them to give us, generously, what they know we need and would want if only we were as enlightened as they are. Like slaves on a happy plantation, all of our modest needs are met by our kind masters who unselfishly decline to take part in their (public) bounty.

Has it always been thus? Beats me; I haven’t always been around.Can we use our voices and do something about it? Can we even aspire to reclaim the honorable words “liberal” and “progressive” from the pit and apply them properly? Even to ourselves? That could be a useful beginning.

Something is going to happen, both domestically and internationally. Settling down with a Valium or three and behaving “nicely,” as those peering through the dense fog of ill-remembered history seem to think we once did and should do again, bodes ill for the future of our country.

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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