How Today’s Liberals Betray Yesterday’s

March 9th, 2011

By Dan Miller

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.)

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One Response to “How Today’s Liberals Betray Yesterday’s”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Great work, Dan! Too many people these days, educated to be highly sensitive liberals ignorant of history and much else (thank a teacher or a professor for that), completely fail to understand what basic terms like liberal, progressive, and conservative mean. It’s easy enough to say that what they meant a century or more ago is irrelevant to today’s political discourse, but that’s incorrect. For example, the Republican Party, as it evolved and displaced the Whigs in Lincoln’s time, was the party most opposed to slavery. That tradition carried forward for many years, to the point where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed with stronger support from Republicans than from Democrats.

    Liberals in particular often fail to understand the difference in usage of the word even today between the New World and the Old. American leftists (a more important distinction) have slowly taken over the term “liberal” and now, having discredited it, haved moved on to begin discrediting the word “progressive.”

    In the end, what matters more than labels is what people actually stand for, their motivations, and the factual knowledge they bring to the formation of their ideas. There are many liberals and Democrats who aren’t of the leftist persuasion, despite their sometimes ill-advised support of that destructive wing of their Party, and it’s their evolving alliance with reasonable conservatives and Republicans that will turn things around in the U.S. If, of course, it happens.

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