It always amazed me, the times I appeared on the local right-wing talk radio station, how many people calling in started their conversation with: ''All you liberals think...''
''Whoa, Nellie. Where are you getting this stuff?'' I would ask.
''Well, Rush Limbaugh said....''
Hate to tell you, folks, but taking your definition of a liberal from Rush Limbaugh is akin to taking your definition of a Jew from Hitler, either before or after he, as Marge Schott explained, ''went too far.''
Don't get me wrong. I love talking to conservatives, particularly dyed-in-the-wool, self-described ones. Keeps the blood pressure down.
(I recently invited a friend of mine to a local fair which I knew would be laden with left-wing, throw-back-to-the-60s hippie types, but I did not invite her intense, focused, activist, decidedly left-wing husband to go along with us because I knew it would drive him nuts to be in a crowd of hundreds of people who ALMOST agreed with him. He said my characterization of the situation wasn't exactly accurate, but that he didn't have time to get into it with me.)
When faced with a radio caller who presumed to know what I thought, because all of my ilk thought a certain way, I would say, ''Well, I call myself a liberal, and here's what I think about that issue and here's why.''
I've lost track of the times those self-avowed conservatives would say in utter amazement that they agreed with me on those points, then hasten to add ''...but I'm not a liberal.''
(To be fair, I have also lost track of the number of people who called to say I was so far out that I must be living on another planet and they were surprised my broom could survive the heat of re-entry.)
Of course, it works both ways. I have also been known to agree totally with self-described ultra-conservatives. Take, for instance, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). A recent speech he gave to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce contained these two paragraphs:
''The politics of fear and misinformation will always give up and go away if those who believe in freedom have the courage and energy to stand up against it.''
And, ''There is an old trick in selling snake oil: you raise a fear, and then you sell to it. If you can scare someone badly enough; if you can frighten them about their future; if you can convince them that things are beyond their control; then you can get them to buy whatever snake oil you're telling them will cure their fears.''
Having said that, however, he went on to apply a liberal application (did I say liberal?) of his own misinformation and snake oil.
Armey said the Republican legislative agenda is one which supports working men and women by striving to lower their taxes and give them ''relief from job-killing regulation.''
Sound good? This is the man who is leading the charge to abolish – not reduce or freeze, but outright abolish – the ''job-killing regulation'' known as the minimum wage, which, if he succeeds, would put every American worker in the same camp with sweatshop workers in Third World countries, and would lower their taxes by lowering their wages, on the theory that if you earn less money, you pay less in taxes.
Some say a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. I say a liberal is a flag-waving Yankee who has been lied to.
But you've got to admit, those two paragraphs from Armey's speech are real gems.
This all points up the problem with labels, and who applies them. I prefer the self-adhesive ones.
When I was a kid, we didn't have much to say about labels. They were stuck on us by adults, like a brand name on a washing machine, and like any new washing machine, came with a complete set of instructions. I was raised, baptized, and confirmed a Catholic. Therefore, I knew ahead of time that when
this event happened along in my life, I was to punch those buttons in that sequence, and behold, the wash would be whiter than white.
In my 20s, some of those instructions didn't seem to get out the stains of the situations in which I found myself. And by then I was surrounded by very persuasive people who had other, and contradictory, sets of instructions they were using to agitate their lives.
On top of that were all those nagging ''Question Authority'' bumper stickers.
(And then there were the ones that said, ''My country, love it or leave it.'' Did the people in all those pick-ups who thought that was such a great slogan turn on their heels and walk out every time the current love of their lives got sick or made them mad? Can you say ''commitment?'')
So I sat myself down and said, ''Self, what do you believe, deep down?''
By and large, I thought people were pretty decent, or at least wanted to be. I believed in hard work, and expected to reap the consequences of my actions – either good or bad.
I also knew I had a strong sense of justice and fair play, and as a result, I found prejudice in any form ugly. In analyzing myself, I discovered that, barring the possibility of real physical harm, for some reason I found people who were different from me – in culture, upbringing, clothing style, income levels, sexual orientation, even pierced body parts – to be interesting, not threatening. And I was startled and saddened to learn how few people looked at other people that way.
I carried this set of values around in an unmarked knapsack for awhile. But with people turning into walking billboards (ironic in Maine, where wooden ones were banned from the roadsides years ago), I decided my hodgepodge of values needed a logo. But where to begin?
Hang the bumper stickers, I started with the ultimate authority: the dictionary.
liberalism: ...a political philosophy based on a belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual, and standing for tolerance and freedom for the individual from arbitrary authority in all spheres of life, especially by the protection of political and civil liberties, and for government under law with consent of the governed.
Clearly, my values fit the definition.
So I'm a liberal. I can live with that. And I liked the idea that the humble, generic, lower case label came last, that I had become a liberal through the back door.
Then along came George Bush, whom I credit with pushing me back over the line into brand names.
It was 1988, and there he was, this conservative American vice-president presidential-wannabee, deciding that it would be politically astute to scurrilously brand Michael Dukakis with the ''L'' word, capitalized. But he didn't stop there. No, Bush went on to accuse Dukakis of being a Card-Carrying Member of the American Civil Liberties Union, that non-profit organization which has long defended the civil and human rights of the underdog, using the bludgeon of the (gasp!) U.S. Constitution.
By invoking the name of one of the most courageous and principled organizations I had ever seen, Bush's charge caused an immediate, almost reflexive, and I'm sure unintended, response in me: ''Got to have one.''
I've been a card-carrying ACLU member ever since.
What is discouraging is that Bush's ploy worked.
''Liberal'' became a swear word in political circles. Which is exceedingly strange, considering the fact that our nation's founding documents, to which conservatives try to lay exclusive claim, really belong at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Think about it. The ideas in those papers were pretty bizarre in their day. Separating church and state? No country had ever done that before, ever, in the history of the world. (Sure wish more of them did today. See: Bosnia, Northern Ireland) All men are created equal? Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and not from the power of the sword?
Oh sure, intellectual types had postulated about equality and liberty for years. But that was just hot air. You can't run a country on that kind of crap. Nothing would ever get done. Just who are these radicals – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams?
Face it, there is a reason we call it the Revolutionary War. And ''liberal'' is the mildest label one could pin on our founding fathers.
Now that I'm into labels, some people think I've gone a little overboard. A bumper sticker on my car declares:
''Some of my best friends are diverse''
(That one I had printed up after one of the leaders of the anti-gay-rights referendum in Maine last year warned everyone in a radio interview about the imminent influx of civil rights. ''In the Midwest,'' he said in a clearly disgusted voice, ''they are actually teaching DIVERSITY!'' I have to wonder if the guy has a vocabulary problem, and really meant ''perversity.'' On the other hand, maybe he thinks they are the same thing.)
I've also ordered up and have sold ones which say:
''Politically Incorrect And I Vote''
and ''Bleeding-Heart Liberal And I Vote''
(A hot-shot in the National Woman's Political Caucus in California ordered up a bunch of that one. California. Wouldn't you know.)
Now I'm thinking of branching into lapel buttons. I envision one that says:
''Proud to Be a Card-Carrying, Flag-Waving, Patriotic American Liberal''
Too long? How about: ''Patriotic American Liberal''?
Or even more simply: ''American''
As far as I'm concerned, same difference.
Paperback Version also available
PO Box 319, Stillwater ME 04468-0319 Bruce Littlefield, Treasurer.