On The Use Of The Term “Liberal”
Before I moved to Lake Charles, La., it never occurred to me that I might be what’s called a “liberal” on talk radio. I hated the Clinton administration. I hated NAFTA and GATT, Clinton’s campaign lie about refusing to give China most-favored nation trading status and his military adventurism.
To the degree I formed opinions about partisan politics, I did so purely according to personal inclination. I certainly didn’t want to be involved in partisan politics in any way, least of all by voting for this or that. I thought then what I still think now: that partisan politics is a joke and a hustle. I followed partisan politics because I thought it was often amusing, in an absurdist kind of way, and because politicians reveal a tremendous amount about human behavior.
Then I moved to Lake Charles and started writing for Lagniappe Magazine. And I found out I was a liberal. I didn’t figure this out for myself. I was told I was a liberal by the people who live here. I was told this over and over and over and am still being told.
It must have begun shortly after I started writing my Up Front column early in 2000. A few months after the column’s debut, some stranger pulled me aside in a local restaurant. “Thanks for speaking for us,” he whispered in my ear. Then he walked away at a pretty brisk pace.
Thanks for speaking for us? Us? Who are us? I wondered. It was a curious thing. But I suppose I forgot about it as soon as I got back to whatever food and beer were waiting for me at my table.
A couple of months later, I was sitting in a spacious and upscale office, talking to the broker who sat in a leather chair behind a big desk. The door was closed. Throughout the conversation, he’d been talking to me in his customary voice. But then the conversation shifted to what I wrote for Lagniappe. And the broker did a remarkable thing. He started whispering — in his own office.
“Thank you for supporting us liberals in the magazine,” he whispered. “There aren’t many of us here.” After he said that, he turned the volume of his voice back up.
Two things flabbergasted me about this encounter. First, this person thought I was a liberal. Second, he was, apparently, so scared about being a liberal in Lake Charles that he would only whisper about it even when he was secure in the safety of his private office.
Down through my years in Lake Charles, I’ve been told on a pretty regular basis that I’m a liberal. I almost always hear this second-hand. Here’s an example of the sort of remark I frequently hear: “So and so says he doesn’t read your stuff because you’re too liberal.”
These comments always leave me befuddled. I feel like I’ve been accused of trespassing in a country I’ve never set foot in. I feel like a character in a Kafka story: tried and convicted without ever knowing what the charge was.
Although I’ve never done it, I’ve thought about dragging out old copies of my Up Fronts and saying to some accuser, “What about this?” What about the numerous times I’ve slammed President Obama for failing to keep his promise to close Guantanamo Bay; for his use of the Justice Department to prosecute U.S. citizens he knows were mistakenly arrested according to the terms of the Patriot Act; for his continuation and elaboration of the program of unconstitutional spying on U.S. citizens that was initiated by the Bush administrations; and for his farcical and wasteful beer and Slurpee summits?
I don’t think it would matter if I said “What about this?” to those who say I’m too liberal. Partisan politics and ideological politics aren’t amenable to reason, logic, rational argument or extended argument. If they were, what wonders the human animal might achieve.
Partisan politics are the things of platitudes, power and expediency. If there were ever a thing less worthy of being taken seriously, it’s partisan politics. And indeed, it’s just by not ever taking it seriously that we get whatever enjoyment, humor and knowledge there is to be gotten from it.
But some people take partisan politics very seriously — in fact, as seriously as they take anything. My guess is that almost all those who say they don’t read my stuff because it’s too liberal are the sort of people I call “talk radio people.”
As a rule, when I’ve been around such people, I haven’t enjoyed their company. It seems to me that they’re always mad at the world. They often speak as if they were angry at something — often something the exact nature of which goes unmentioned. Sometimes they talk in such an aggressive and emotional way that they begin to frighten me.
It would be convenient to say that they construe all sorts of things that aren’t really political as being political. But I think the anger is more pervasive than that. It goes beyond the political. It’s easy for a person to become irritable when all the things that are important to him are going wrong. And the mixture of irritability and ideology is like an unstable explosive.
The sort of people I’m talking about quickly become angry at me if they dislike some trivial opinion about a trivial matter that I’ve haphazardly uttered in order to make conversation. They aren’t mad about my politics; they’re mad because something I’ve said about an indifferent topic irks them.
I hope that more or less brings me to the only point I want to make in this essay. It seems to me that in Southwest Louisiana in 2013, the word “liberal” is an adjective that means “uttering or writing statements that are disliked by anyone who consistently listens to talk radio, views Fox News or endorses tea party ideology.” And it’s not far from meaning “uttering or writing statements that are disliked by anyone in Southwest Louisiana.”
I guess the key thing to take out of that is that I feel the use of the term “liberal” in regard to Brad Goins has little or nothing to do with politics. I think politics is a sewer and I don’t take it seriously. How could I be a liberal?
On the other hand, I am someone who takes a pretty lackadaisical approach to the expressing of opinions. Half of what I do in Up Front is work toward a cheap joke. If a politician of either party acts like an oaf, I figure out some way to have at least one laugh at his expense. And I sure can’t make fun of Louisiana Democrats when there aren’t any Louisiana Democrats to make fun of.
To create the sort of political satire or irony I create, I freely ride on any hobby horse that happens to be around, freely jump on any bully pulpit in sight and freely express all sorts of opinions about sundry matters that don’t matter a hill of beans in the general scheme of things.
I used to find a lot of humor at the prospect of ordinary people who fly into foam-at-the-mouth rages at the mere mention of this or that “liberal” or “conservative” fad. But I’m beginning to tire of the joke.
Maybe 13 years of living in a place where people are afraid to utter the word “liberal” except in a whisper or as an insult has given me pause and gotten me to ponder the matter a little too much. Isn’t there something just a little extreme in all this? Is there something unhealthy in it? Is there, possibly, something potentially dangerous in it?
The hours and hours and hours of self-censorship I put myself through as I write Up Fronts — is this good journalism? Is it a failure of nerve? Or is it a very prudent act of self-protection that I should engage in even more?
Power is a real thing. Politics is useless except as a means to power. Partisan politics, or any ideological politics, is never systematic and is therefore never worth taking seriously. Politics as it is practiced by the typical politician is farcical.
But the current use of the word “liberal” — that’s nasty. And as any halfway decent columnist will tell you, you’d better think long and hard before you put a dirty joke in print. Some people don’t like that kind of joke. And some people have a very low tolerance for things they don’t like.