Not Our (Founding) Fathers’ Liberalism

Recent years have seen various political labels bandied about by media commentators, bloggers, Internet trolls and scolds, and even academics and public officials. What is progressive, conservative, liberal, libertarian, neocon, populist, left-wing, right-wing, or other wing? Or what counts as democracy, authoritarian, socialist? Do labels have any real meaning?
Books, newspaper and other print media expostulating ideology and political stance are aplenty— mostly saying “hooray for our side” as the 1960s song observed.
Speaking of the 1960s, The Wall Street Journal this past week featured a column by one Robert Blechman, a confessed “liberal” from that era, complaining about how that label, and his values, have been corrupted.
Before going into his analysis, some word usage discussion is appropriate.
Words can change meaning, or acquire multiple meanings. A word in one context can also mean different in another, even in the same sentence. Words can also be changed or varied by culture, or even by those who have control of the communication facilities or media. Language can be the tool of despots, in the manner which George Orwell described in his essay “Politics and the English Language” and demonstrated horrifically in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Definitions and usage of “liberal” takes up seventeen pages in the Oxford English Dictionary and reports multiple meaning, some inconsistent, for example:
5. a. Supporting or advocating individual rights, civil liberties, and political and social reform tending towards individual freedom or democracy with little state intervention.
or
4. a. Free from bias, prejudice, or bigotry; open-minded, tolerant; governing or governed by relaxed principles or rules; (Politics) favoring social reform and a degree of state intervention in matters of economics and social justice; left-wing.
In the present milieu, especially in the United States, the 4.a. definition is the commonplace adjectival definition. The 5.a. one is often used as the definition of “libertarian” or, oddly enough when considering literal meanings, applied to many avowed conservatives.
Blechman recounts his “liberal” activities as a young man in the ‘60s and early ‘70s and observes as follows.
• At some point, however, the liberal ideal of equality of opportunity gave way to a progressive program to give certain historically disadvantaged groups overt preferences in education and employment. This is the opposite of judging people based on their character. Liberalism somehow made a U-turn when it morphed into contemporary progressivism.
• Another core liberal belief of mine is that proper justice depends on due process—which includes a presumption of innocence. Yet in 2011 the Obama Education Department sent a “dear colleague” letter to colleges and universities, threatening to cut off federal funding unless the schools changed their procedures to make it easier to discipline students accused of sexual assault. As a result, many students were stripped of their rights to counsel, cross-examination of their accusers and discovery of the evidence against them. Those procedures were re-examined by the current secretary of education, a step that was bitterly criticized by progressives because it may make it more difficult to punish the accused—the price of all due-process protections.
• A presumption of guilt replaced the presumption of innocence, and progressives seemed unconcerned. I can imagine a #MeToo version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with Mayella Ewell as the heroine, Atticus Finch condemned for “toxic masculinity” and the lynch mob cheered as an engine of popular justice.
• [T]he idea that every defendant, however unpopular, is entitled to legal representation. This year, however, Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard Law School professor, became the object of student protests after joining disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s defense team
• In the McCarthy era, one often heard of professors and screenwriters being forced out of their jobs for expressing far-left views. Today it’s conservative professors that are an endangered species on campus. Progressive students have become expert at forcing the dismissal or resignation of professors who allegedly display insufficient sensitivity about racial or gender issues. All too often, such students are able to keep anyone they disagree with from even speaking on campus. Once again, progressives have become the most visible enemies of a core “liberal” value.
• [P]rogressives today are riding roughshod over much of what liberalism once stood for. I hope that old 1960s liberals like me will stand firm, not be shamed into silence, and call out those who challenge our core values, whether from the left or the right.
All this is to say that liberalism, at the core of which is liberty, has been stood on its head. The word has certainly come to mean, for most of us, as statist and antithetical to individual liberty. Many in our political class, academia, as well as poorly informed middle class—Lenin’s useful idiots—buy into the modern liberalism.  At its end, it is left-wing authoritarianism and even totalitarianism masquerading as benevolent governance.
Robert Blechman’s essay is The Wall Street Journal, print addition (June 20, 2019) or on line at https://www.wsj.com/articles/liberalism-isnt-what-it-used-to-be-11561069996?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s