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words, words, words

Eric Alterman in The Nation mentions a speech by John F. Kennedy accepting the nomination of New York’s Liberal Party in 1960. It’s an interesting speech. Mr. Alterman (and others, including the audience) picked out the bit at the beginning, where then-Senator Kennedy suggests that he (and by extention each Liberal in the audience) is “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I’m proud to say I’m a "Liberal."”

There’s a bit of fuss, to which Mr. Alterman is responding, about whether the Democratic Party in this country should keep or reject the adjective liberal. I am ambivalent, myself. Mr. Kennedy’s speech notwithstanding, I’m not terribly comfortable with definitions of political liberalism that are connected to the word and its traditions. In fact, and I think I’ve said this before, I think there the two parties in this country broadly represent on our side the idea that the federal government should use a bit more of its power to protect those with less power (money, education, connection, resources, etc) from those with more, and those who think that such is not an appropriate role for the federal government. There are a variety of reasons and motivations for those, but that’s the essential split and the politics of it. There isn’t much that’s liberal about our side, except I suppose a sense of great-spiritedness, or at least a sense of that the other side is unacceptably stingy. In terms of liberty, well, we’re for it in general, but as I said, I don’t think there’s a liberty-related definition that makes a lot of sense for the Party or its agenda.

I do tend to think of myself as progressive, not in the sense of the Progressive Party, but in the sense that I tend to describe my mindset in opposition to the Conservative attitude toward our inherited institutions, values, symbols and rituals. The Conservative mindset (on the whole) is that our IVSRs are in danger and must be protected. I feel that we can have better ones, and that our job is essentially to progress to better ones.

Still, if I describe myself as politically progressive, I don’t get to decide what that means or what it connotes. Same with liberal. The truth is that (as with conservative) the words have connotations and meanings, and that in practice the Democratic Party is the liberal Party and its candidate will be seen as a liberal, perhaps as too liberal. Vaddevah dat means.

You know, Your Humble Blogger is a jerk. But I really want somebody high up enough in Democratic politics that the Sunday morning pundit-wallahs have to talk to them now and then to take up the rhetorical strategy of playing dumb when people use certain words. What do you mean? When you use the word liberal, what do you mean by that? How do you know if a policy or a candidate is liberal, or how liberal it is? and just keep at it until the host either gives up or says something. Not just with that word, of course, but with lots of stuff. Because I really don’t know what Mr. Lehrer or Ms. Clift or Mr. Russert or the buffoon Chris Matthews mean, most of the time. More important, though, I think it would help my party, electorally, to have somebody give them shit about the words they use and how they use them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,