"A conservative is a statesman who is enamored with existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace those evils with others."
- Ambrose Bierce
During the turbulent anti-everything '70s, I had a friend who worked for the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society. Although her organization enjoyed high esteem, she scanned the political landscape at the time and came to a startling conclusion: "Every word in our title is now politically incorrect."
Baptist? Can't be religious. Man is responsible for his own destiny.
Foreign? We have enough problems here at home.
Mission? What are we doing trotting around the world telling other people how to run their countries?
Society? Who cares about society anymore? It's the "me generation."
But it was "conservative" that people most identified as the scurrilous, four-letter-word. Conservative, as in: the way things used to be done; the way people conduct themselves when duty, cause and commitment rein them in. Conservative: life with restraints.
My, how the political pendulum swings!
Almost every candidate running for office this year is saying the same thing: "Conservative - Pro-Family - Elect me and I'll bring back the good old, back-to-basics, God-fearing lifestyle of our Founding Fathers"
Funny, but few people are calling the 12-letter word a four-letter word anymore, and it's the once-heralded liberal who is embarrassed to reveal his positions.
I haven't always associated the left and right wings of the philosophical world with politics. In my small-town, Christian-school background, the words "liberal" and "conservative" were reserved for things theological, or what you believed about God. So when my environment enlarged to include politics, it was only natural for me to believe the good guys wore conservative hats, and liberals were the ones you probably wouldn't find in Heaven and, therefore, shouldn't seat in office.
Some judgments, I now know, are best left to God. But when it comes to marking a ballot, the decision is left to us. Therefore, to clarify the meaning of these two opposing words, I decided to see what the experts say.
Old (1952) Webster - Conservative: "cautious; tendency to preserve what is established; opposition to change; one who aims to preserve from ruin, innovation or radical change." Liberal: "free; advocating what pleases or is agreeable; one with a bountiful, generous heart; not (too) selfish, literal, or strict: an advocate of freedom from restraint, especially in politics and religion."
New (2000) American Heritage - Conservative: "Favoring traditional values; tending to oppose change; cautious; restrained. Liberal: Not limited by traditional views or dogmas; open to new ideas; broad-minded; not strict or literal (but) loose or approximate; unrestrained."
And a cross-section of the wise and the wise-cracking - Conservative: "There's always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact" (Ralph Waldo Emerson); "Habit is society's most precious conservative agent" (William James). Liberal: "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel" (Robert Frost); "Liberals can understand everything except people who don't understand them" (Lenny Bruce).
I suspect, however, that those who are writing today's political ads don't get their material from a lexicon, but from the finger-in-the-wind rule of public opinion. Maybe there is such a thing as evolution within in a species but, like his conservative counterpart, it takes more than 25 years for even a liberal leopard to change his spots.
So don't be fooled by the label, but be informed about the man or woman seeking your vote. And please, on Nov. 7, don't be among the approximately 50 percent of registered voters in Columbia County who, traditionally or otherwise, don't bother to vote in an off-year election.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@ aol.com.
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