I BEG TO DIFFER: The erosion of ‘liberal’

“If you’re a conservative at 20, you have no heart. If you’re a liberal at 40, you have no head.”

In my early college days, this was an accepted truism. If we stick with that description, at nearly twice 40, I should be either headless or a rock-ribbed Republican.

Surprise. I am neither.

Jo Ann Augeri Silva

I’ll say it loud and proud: I am a liberal. There are many definitions of the term, but if I tell you I’m a liberal, I guarantee you’ll have a preconceived interpretation of what I mean.

That’s the context here. Not what I or you believe, what you or I stand for politically, culturally or spiritually, but the reactions we get to the words we use to describe those beliefs.

In some circles, even liberal ones, the term “liberal” has acquired high-level insult status. The word “liberal” is hurled and snarled as a slur by conservatives who are less than kind. Too many of those who hold progressive values run from the title, and run faster from its partner in infamy, “woke.” Why?

The most conservative critics of liberalism have conveniently forgotten that the revered old white guys who founded this country were devoted, die-hard liberals. As in, they believed in liberty and freedom from oppression. They even codified what they meant, in many thousands of carefully crafted words.

What makes a person liberal? There are more than a few definitions, but I like these best: “willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas; relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy and free enterprise.” I’ll take these, as well: “A supporter of policies that are socially progressive and promote social welfare. A supporter of a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy and free enterprise.”

That, I think, is what America’s founders (old, white men though they were) had in their hearts when they worked to take the yoke of British oppression from our necks.

It would be easy to blame Mike Dukakis for turning the word liberal into a verbal punching bag. Remember (if you were alive then) when he was running for president against Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush? At the beginning of the campaign, Dukakis was the odds-on favorite to win. Bush was weak, his message (“A thousand points of light”) unfocused, while Dukakis was the wildly successful governor of Miraculous Massachusetts. His progressive (aka liberal) policies were touted as the reason our state was such a great place. But any time the word liberal was brought up, Dukakis ran from it as if it were a dirty word. The man lived “on message” as a centrist, and never varied from the stock phrases of that message. He was so stuck that Ted Koppel, in the middle of an interview, looked at him and said, “Governor, you just don’t get it.”

Dukakis didn’t get the presidency, we got a one-term Bush administration and a Gulf War that led to the current Middle East mess we’re mired in, and “liberal” lost its true meaning and became a word to run from.

If you follow this blame trail, as a side benefit conservatives got a huge gift: permission to use the word liberal as a damning insult, especially for other conservatives. Watch a few political ads if you can stand it. What is the worst possible thing one candidate can say about another? “S/He is really a Liberal!”

In today’s world, on the face of it, I grant that it might seem easy to be a liberal as a financially comfortable resident of an affluent town. That’s not a good fit here: my current status is the result of hard work and wise financial decisions. I was raised by a single mom who was the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, who used Christmas Clubs and S&H Green Stamps to stretch our income rather than seek government assistance. For several years I was also a single mom, fortunate to have learned from my mother never to pay full price for anything.

Waste money? Not on my dime.

And, I totally supported both overrides proposed by our once-revered town officials. And there are times when I totally support raising taxes. Why? Because there are times when a situation is so screwed up that it’s time to invest money in correcting it. Course correction is just that, an investment, painful at times but necessary.

But, hold up. I’m spending a lot of time explaining myself here, when the point of this column is protest.

Because I’m fine with anyone disagreeing with my liberal opinions and beliefs. I own those beliefs. I hope I’ve spent enough time studying and deliberating them that I can support them in a discussion, and even defend them in a disagreement.

Here’s what I object to. The spewing. The hate. The rejection of anything that comes out of the mouths of supposed “liberals” simply because they brought it up.

I know it’s become an insidious part of our culture in the past few decades to demonize those with whom we disagree. In a non-peer-reviewed study of political commentary, though, it’s clear that the preponderance of hateful speech is spewed by the right.

Look, there’s nothing I can do about that other than write this little column expressing my dismay, and continue espousing and defending my liberal, progressive beliefs. And if I’ve influenced even one human to be more measured in his/her criticism, I’ll take that as a win.

Jo Ann Augeri Silva
+ posts

Marblehead resident Jo Ann Augeri Silva, a retired journalist, author, public relations professional and educator, was an editor of the Marblehead Reporter.

Leave a Reply