Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2005 / 8 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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On political labels | Dear Perplexed,

It was wholly understandable to hear your puzzled reaction to my use of the term Reactionary Liberal. The genealogy of political labels can indeed be confusing.

A Reactionary Liberal, as I understand the term, is someone who wishes to resurrect the liberal trend of American government since the New Deal despite the rise of neo-conservatism, which is another cloudy term I could explore without risking clarity.

The fabled New Deal itself (whichever New Deal we're talking about, the early or later one) would scarcely be considered liberal in the classical sense of John Stuart Mill and the Manchester Liberals of free-trade fame.

Besides, are there any liberals left in American politics? Surely they've all styled themselves progressives by now — a label without some of the unfortunate connotations that liberalism acquired during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, which led soon enough led to Jimmy Carter's great malaise.

Today's liberals/progressives are reacting to trends that have dominated American politics since the Reagan administration and the Republican sweep of the watershed congressional elections of '94. Hence the term: Reactionary Liberals.

Whew. Political genealogy can be exhausting. Also embarrassing. Think of the folks who take great pride in their family tree, unaware of the horse thieves hiding among the intertwined branches.

But the need for shorthand in political discussions being what it is, there's no getting away from handy labels like Liberal and Conservative, Left and Right, Radical and Reactionary but such catchwords can do more to obscure than reveal meaning.

The very terms left and right in politics are more shifting markers than descriptions. Like buoys in a fast-moving river. The left-and-right distinction originated with the French, and with the French Revolution at that, which can make it confusing sometimes. (Was Stalinism a rightist or leftist disorder?)

Yet such terms are indispensable in describing modern politics, an activity that can be as meaningless as it is destructive. See the history of the 20th century. Political labels are over-generalizations squeezed down to only a word or two, gaining in brevity what they lose in meaning, which is a lot.

Labels aren't nearly as satisfying as real, live exemplars in understanding the American political tradition. Whatever political philosophy Burke, Tocqueville, John Marshall and the incomparable Lincoln represented, that's the political persuasion I want to join. Maybe the label for it is Whig.

Trying to explain a political label, like trying to explain a joke, tends to destroy the point of it. 'Cause if a label ain't got that swing — like David Brooks' Bobos or Brian Anderson's South Park Conservatives — it don't mean a thing.

Just what are, or were, Bobos? Bourgeois bohemians. They're really less a political tendency than a fashion trend.

As for South Park Conservative, the closest I can come to defining the term is: a socio-political category of comically semi-obscene libertarian absurdist rebels critical of the political correctnesses of both left and right. (Although the left in particular excites its spleen.)

South Park conservatism is mainly a younger-generation thing, while Bobo-ism, a waning denomination, is or was to be found among those who grew middle-aged and self-satisfied before their time.

Thorstein Veblen, he of The Theory of the Leisure Class, did this sort of thing better a century ago, and he, too, was accused of practicing comedy rather than social analysis. (Granted, the two are not always easy to distinguish.)

I like the term Reactionary Liberal largely because of its obvious irony rather than any fleeting meaning it might have. You describe yourself as a Revolutionary Centrist since it's going to take a revolution to bring today's polarized politics back to where you want it: the center. Not a bad phrase.

It'll be interesting to see how the punditry describes Hillary Clinton when she sets out to make it (back) to the White House in '08: Reactionary Liberal? Pseudo-centrist? Whatever-it-takes pol? That last is another way of saying opportunist. Her inner liberal is already being cut and trimmed to fit the demands of the outward image she's readying for the next presidential election.

I try to remember to use political labels for aesthetic purposes only (irony, invective, praise, just for the fun of it) and not to take them too seriously.

"The nightmare of all art, as well as of all politics, is generalities," says Peter Sellars, the librettist for "Doctor Atomic," John Adams' new political opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the Bomb.

Misleading as labels can be, one can scarcely think about politics or anything else without using generalizations, which is what labels are. See what I mean about explanations spoiling nice, clear, simple labels like reactionary and liberal?

Trusting that I have sufficiently confused this entire subject,

Inky Wretch

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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