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You Can’t Wash the Taint Off “Liberalism”

Modified image by Ale via Flickr. Modified image by Ale via Flickr.

The following is a response to Daniel B. Klein's essay "A Plea Regarding 'Liberal,'" which appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Modern Age, on sale now. You can subscribe to this journal here.


Professor Klein has done yeoman’s work in a worthy cause by highlighting the noble history of a word that now is tainted irretrievably, at least in American English: liberal. I could imagine similar essays intended to revive the original meanings of other once-useful words. Gay, for instance. There really isn’t another proper English word to convey the free, devil-may-care, almost Edenic insouciance that the word gay once evoked. As a college teacher, I sometimes felt constrained to remind my students that Nietzsche’s The Gay Science was not a review of HIV research.

Symbols have suffered too. As a Christian, I’m saddened to see that the rainbow is no longer, for most of us, a Hebrew reminder of God’s promise to Noah that He would never again unleash a world-destroying flood. As any user of Facebook knows, the rainbow is now the symbol of the gay rights movement.

Some Christians I know have resolved to recover the rainbow, but they will have no better luck than did the Raëlian space cult, based in France, which tried to reclaim that ancient Eastern symbol of eternity, the swastika. Each time I see the rainbow employed by the increasingly intolerant gay lobby, I wince a little, and remember instead the lines from an old spiritual: “God sent Noah the rainbow sign / Said no more water, the fire next time.”

Theologically, we know from Saint Augustine that evil is a negation, parasitical on the good. It is only in the realm of man-made symbols that dualism is true: negation is just as strong linguistically as affirmation is. The devil cannot, in reality, uncreate the world, much as he might like to. But any fourth grader can multiply a vast equation, or even infinity, by zero—and poof, it’s gone!

Likewise, once a word has attained pejorative connotation, we are reluctant to take it back. The noblest words have undergone such a fate. It was the custom in medieval France and Italy to refer to the mentally handicapped quite charitably as “poor Christians.” This reminded people of their duty to treat such people kindly, because of our common nature as images of God. But euphemisms can backfire (how long will it be until the word special always conveys “mentally retarded”?). Soon enough, those poor Christians were known as “cretins,” a usage that spread through Romance languages.

The word came to my attention when I lived in south Louisiana, as I drove each week past the headquarters of Cretin Homes, then in LaPlace, outside New Orleans. No, it wasn’t a mental institution but a home-building company named for its founder, Eddie Cretin. I don’t know his family story, but I’m guessing that they left some place like southern Italy, where their name was Cretini, or, put bluntly, “idiots.” They came to America, succeeded, and hopefully changed their name to Cretin . . . not realizing that this means “idiot” in English. But thousands of Americans proudly live in Cretin Homes. So maybe you can save a word from the trash bin—but it takes a lot of forgetting.

In the case of liberal, why should we try? Speaking as a rhetorician, not as a political science purist, I find that liberal has mostly negative connotations, which leftists are eager to dodge. That is why they prefer to call themselves “progressives.” The word liberal reminds people of shivering Jimmy Carter and bloated Teddy Kennedy, of crime-ridden cities like David Dinkins’s New York, and the smoking rubble of Detroit. Most of us recognize that “liberation” movements are fronts for Marxist thugs and know enough to shun “libertines” in our private lives. When we speak of religion, a key concern for conservatives, the “liberals” in any given faith are not those who oppose its imposition by the state but those who would water down its creed’s central tenets to suit the times, who oppose authority in the abstract—even authorities to which we subject ourselves by choice.

Happily, liberty seems not to have been caught up in the scandal. In fact, that word is now part of conservative and libertarian branding; leftists seem to shun it, using instead the neutral term freedom, which remains nonpartisan and ambidextrous.

As noble as Adam Smith’s or Frederic Bastiat’s liberalism really was, the word was caught up semiotically in Rousseau’s project of “liberating” individuals from every structure of society that might repress their allegedly unfallen, wholesome animal instincts. Contemporary liberals follow Rousseau, not Adam Smith, when they force us to be “free.” Let’s not make that totalitarian project any easier for them by letting them worm off the hook of the failures of modern “liberalism.” Let us leave them there to squirm.

John Zmirak is senior editor at The Stream.

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