I used to detest labels. Still do. They’re shortcut to thinking, given to stereotyping, and generally speaking, demeaning when referencing this individual or that. Some of them, however, I recently found out, are useful, alas, indispensable. One of them is the term “liberal.” Imagine everyday political discourse without recourse to this all-convenient label. You can’t!
Now, what do I mean by a liberal, or more generally, by a liberal mindset? Obviously, the term of old, as defined by John Stuart Mill and followers, no longer applies. One would have to be steeped in those writings in order to preserve a sense of continuity and the integrity of the original conception – a tall order indeed for today’s Everyman. Even a fairly recent usage is not only inaccurate but downright misleading. Our political landscape, if not evolving, is everchanging, which renders the term deliciously vague and ambiguous. What used to be a liberal policy, stance or administration only fifty years ago (Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, even Nixon), nowadays is deemed a conservative, if not ultraconservative, position. Which would seem like a desirable trend, the entire nation becoming as it were, increasingly progressive. Instead of rushing to judgment, however, let me state the obvious: for all these detours and obstacles along the way, liberalism has an uncanny ability of reinventing itself.
What else don’t I mean by it? For reasons which shall soon become apparent, I don’t associate it with the New Left, let alone with the Radical Left such as we’ve witnesssed in the sixties during the height of the antiwar protests, the civil rights struggles, the sit-ins, the flower generation, the counterculture revolution and Joan Baez. Nor do I associate it with the civil rights workers shot down in Mississipi for their valiant efforts to institute the voter-registration program on behalf of the NAACP in the segregated South, or the farmworkers’ movement led by César Chávez. Perhaps I’m wrong, but somehow none of these strike me as anything even remotely connected to, or reflective of, today’s liberal mindset. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that the recent gains in the area of gay rights or sexual harrasment legislation have nothing to do with today’s liberals (or any other polical affiliation you may think of), though I’m certain they'd like to take credit. These gains were won as a result of a bitter struggle by the oppressed people against a presumably equitable system which denied them basic human rights.