Sunday, December 10, 2006

Is the term "liberal" still meaningful?

By John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

I am constantly bemused by the way people use the word "liberal" as if it had some sort of clear meaning. It doesn't. In America it is used to describe the mainstream Left. In Australia it is used to describe the mainstream Right and in Britain it is used to describe the naive and dreamy Left. The word is also used to describe the sort of doctrine preached (but not practiced) by John Stuart Mill, though a clarifying "neo" prefix is sometimes attached in that case.

The word also has vaguer meanings along the line of "broad-minded", "tolerant", "enlightened", "relaxed" etc. Thus we hear of a "liberal" education -- which is an education in basically useless subjects. We also hear of "liberal" democracy but I am not at all sure how such a democracy differs from any other sort of democracy. Is there an "illiberal" democracy anywhere? Perhaps it means a democracy that respects the rights of the minority but it generally seems to have a much warmer glow attached to it than just that.

I myself almost never use the word. I sometimes use it to refer to the American mainstream Left but I always put it in quotes on such occasions out of respect for the origins of the word -- the Latin "liber" meaning "free". Since the American Left seem to believe in as little freedom for the individual as possible, their adoption of that word as a self-description seems particularly perverse to me.

Perhaps most confusingly of all, paleoconservatives (itself a term of several meanings) sometimes claim that BOTH the Left and Right of modern-day politics are "liberal". By that they seem to mean something like "ignoring genetic constraints and racial differences". I find that usage perhaps the most puzzling of all since conservatives are quite emphatic that there is a genetically inherited "human nature" that constrains greatly what we can do or can be made to do. So how can they be "liberal" in the paleoconservative sense? And even Leftists do admit genetic constraints in one case only -- the case of homosexuality. So I think the paleoconservative meaning has to be decoded as "denying the importance of inborn racial differences". Even that decode has its problems, however, as a majority of psychometricians (who are almost all Left-leaning in one way or another) admit inherited racial differences in IQ, which is a very important difference indeed. Does that make them paleoconservatives? The psychologists concerned would almost all vigorously deny it.

Amusingly, the term "liberal" seems to be falling out of favour among the American Left. The term has so often been attached to silly and unrealistic policies that the term "progressive" is now coming back into favour as a description of the broad Left. If the modern-day users of that term were aware of the eugenic, militaristic and nationalistic policies of the early 20th century "Progressives", however, they might be less keen on applying it to themselves.

Nonetheless, the term is undoubtedly going to be with us for a long time as a description (however inappropriate) of the mainstream American Left so we will undoubtedly have to put up with that. I do wish however that other usages of the term would be dropped in favour of more informative descriptions of the policies or philosophies concerned.

The racial dimension

A curious complication in use of the term "liberal" is what the "liberal" attitude to race might be. Insofar as "liberal" means tolerant or broad-minded, we might expect liberals to be racially tolerant and judge people as individuals rather than as group members. Yet that has never been the case for "Progressives" or those on the Left generally.

Most people today are totally unaware that the mainstream Left were great racists before World War II. Racist beliefs were almost universal at that time but Leftists were the great preachers of it. Even Marx and Engels were furiously racist and if they were not Leftists, who would be? I have documented all that at length here and here and here and here.

Conservatives, by contrast, have generally been moderate in their racial views -- which is why the British Conservative party made an outspoken Jew their Prime Minister at the height of the British empire. And to this day conservatives take a moderate view of race -- rejecting for instance the Leftist claim that the problems of blacks are all the fault of whites. As always, conservatives think in terms of individuals rather than in such crude racial terms. Leftists have now reversed the polarity of their racism but they are still the ardent racists they always were. It is just another instance of their characteristic simplistic thinking. The dreadful Hitler episode made pro-white racism unmentionable just about everywhere but since they really believe in nothing at all other than their own entitlement to power, sophisticated Leftists immediately became anti-white without a qualm. Because of their claim to have an explanation for everything, they NEED that sort of simplistic thinking.

Less sophisticated and more down-to-earth Leftists could not do a backflip so quickly or easily of course -- as we saw in the American South. The opponents of racial integration in the 1960s American South (George Wallace, Orval Faubus etc) were of course prominent Democrats, members of America's mainstream party of the Left. And the Southern Democrats had not long before been the great bastion of support for the socialist FDR. Even in 1932, Roosevelt won all the southern states. Even the Ku Klux Klan was basically a Democrat organization. A former Klansman (Byrd) sits in the U.S. Congress as a Democrat to this day. See here (or here) for more extensive details.

And as for FDR, note this quote showing that FDR too was a typical (racist) Leftist of his era:

"For an excellent illustration of just how little FDR cared for the desperate plight of southern blacks, you can study what happened to the Scottsboro Boys, eight young black men unjustly accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama. Even the more level-headed Southerners eventually came to see that no rapes had occurred and that the accused were innocent. But given the region's fierce pride, untangling the legal mess created by their conviction took many years. FDR could have waved it all away with a single signature on a federal pardon, knowing that the party's southern leadership would see that it never became a political issue. Instead, he did nothing."

So I think racism is another way in which "liberal" is a great misnomer for mainstream Leftists. They still judge people by the colour of their skin rather than by the content of their character.