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Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Liberals, Progressives, and the Future
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Noah Millman on the temperamental difference between liberals and progressives over at the new American Scene. I interpret it thusly: Liberals like poetry; progressives like science fiction.

July 30, 2007 / Uncategorized

7 comments

I may have to either dispute that, or serve as an exception. “Progressive” polls better with me, but I spent my weekend with Ulysses, and we all know how I feel about science fiction.

I first thought Matt meant Joyce’s Ulysses. So I was going to joke: “A weekend? You must have had enough time to read it twice then!” But it doesn’t work so well with Tennyson. Boo!

Although it’s pretty, apt, and smart, I think Robin’s summary may be misleading. Put more pedantically, I think we could say that Millman claims that Liberals uphold an ideal of the individual in society and Progressives set forth a vision for a better society. Thus Robin’s decision to use poetry as an embodiment of timeless ideas and science fiction as notably instrumental genre.

Still the problem may also be that Millman doesn’t actually do what he claims. He says he is going to look at temperament rather than policy, but then derives his ideas about temperament from what he knows about policy. Matt’s comment suggests that one really needs an empirical study looking at who would pick which label.

My instinct is that such a study would significantly complicate Millman’s analysis. For one thing, Millman talks about self-described liberals as if they all were well-versed in classic 19th century Liberalism. I rather doubt that. I would bet that many people would call themselves liberals, and would mean “not-conservatives.” They might also be gladly living up to the label as mediated by some conservative voices, who have effectively re-framed the way people think about “liberals” to mean “those who with reckless abandon cast away all that anchors society in its place.”

Similarly, I think this conservative re-framing has made the word “liberal” less palatable to those who would rather remain above the fray in a nasty liberal-conservative fight. Progressive, then, can be a way of expressing hope for a better and more just world, while distancing one from apparently ugly politics.

It’s not your fault, Tim. If I were following the rules, I’d have put “Ulysses” in quotation marks. But I try to use Garamond Italic whenever possible, because its charms are obvious and legion.

I’ve always liked that the Economist calls itself a liberal magazine — but in the old (original?) English sense. Freedom above all else seems to be the order of the day — free people, free markets.

So, yes, given the confusion and demonization, I think the word ‘liberal’ might actually be dead — the victim of a brutal (and honestly, sort of darkly impressive) linguistic assault and battery.

If you could target one word with similarly effective campaign, which would it be?

Well, while we’re on the subject, “conservative” has been a little bereft of meaning for a while now.

I’d institute a campaign not necessarily to eliminate a word, but to enforce a delineation of some sort between “theatre” and “theater.” I’m not arguing for a particular way of delineating them, but the overlap plays all kinds of havoc with tagging on vita.mn.

“Semantic Web.” Blech. With that name, no wonder someone keels over every time the phrase is uttered.

The meaning of “conservative” is contested, but that doesn’t mean that “conservative” is a bad thing to be, especially among a group of conservatives. It hasn’t lost its cachet.

On the other side of the political spectrum, I think “socialist” would love to have the life “liberal” is now. “Socialist”, “Socialized,” and “Socialism” are words giving death to whatever they touch.

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