When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."
That passage from "Through the Looking Glass" came to mind as I was trying to pin down some terms that are tossed about freely these days; words such as “liberal,” and “conservative.” You probably have a general sense of what they mean to you, but how many would agree with your concepts?
Let’s take "liberal," for example. Look in the distant past and it meant a man of free birth. At some point, it served as a synonym for licentious. In modern times, it’s an adjective meaning generous, open, or broad-minded.
Turn it into a noun and apply it to politics and all sorts of things happen as you move from left to right. In this country, it is used as an epithet: someone addicted to high taxes and free spending, with a tendency towards socialism.
Across the Atlantic, meaning shifts. In the United Kingdom it is “associated with ideals of individual, especially economic, freedom; greater individual participation in government; and constitutional, political, and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives.”
That’s why you hear of conservatives abroad fighting to preserve “liberal” democracy. Free trade is at the center of it; which is why our Republican Party supported it before doing an abrupt about-face just two years ago.
In this country, liberals were the heroes who turned the government’s attention from serving corporations to addressing the welfare of individual citizens in the New Deal and Great Society programs. In the long battle of invective to kill both, “liberal” became a naughty word, connoting waste and bureaucratic ineptitude.
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Things are just as slippery when it comes to conservatism. What does “conservative” actually mean, as adjective and/or noun?
The Economist, Britain’s leading newspaper (actually, it’s a magazine) spent some time a month ago worrying about what they see as the “Global Crisis in Conservatism.” Part of the problem, they admit, is that “conservatism is not so much a philosophy as a disposition.”
They quote philosopher Michael Oakeshott to make the point: “To be a conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant.”
On those terms, you can be a conservative in any political system or party. You simply place greater emphasis on social order and the abiding strength of institutions as guarantors of individual liberty. Changes occur, but “with all deliberate speed.”
As I reported some time ago, a friend of mine explained that “we need liberals because they are the ones with new ideas. Then we conservatives slow things down until we can figure out whether or not they will work and how we can pay for them.”
The Economist’s worry is conservatism’s drift to the extreme right: “the new right is not an evolution of conservatism, but a repudiation of it.” The best witness to this is our Republican Party which once championed conservation, civil rights, environmental protection, women’s rights, and a number of noble causes, all of which have been repudiated in little more than a decade.
It’s not just our problem. Governments around the globe have been turning into nationalist autocracies, as traditional, generally conservative parties have collapsed into one-man rule.
Now, both “liberal” and “conservative” are used as slurs in bitter, divisive argument around the world. “Populism” and “nationalism” are thrown into the mix as if they were somehow compatible with democracy.
Where is the Humpty Dumpty who can master these words and fix their meaning?