The (other) L-Word

You ever notice how sometimes little kids like to make up insults that have no real meaning? My four-year-old cousin does it all the time. “You’re a cat.” Okay, sweetie, whatever. Bedtime now, off goes the Sesame Street.

As usual, when I think we as a culture have grown out of doing something that little kids do, I’m wrong. I hear another common word being tossed around with all the weight of a pejorative, but this one’s gained some barbs to it. It causes people at whom it’s directed to flinch, to change their positions, to backtrack, to do whatever they can to make this horrible accusation untrue – even if it doesn’t apply to them anyway.

This terrible word, this word which makes grown men twitch on live TV and babies shriek in their beds, etc., etc.: Liberal.

lib⋅er⋅al [lib-er-uhl, lib-ruhl]


1. favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
2. (often initial capital letter) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform.
3. of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism.
4. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
5. favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
6. of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
7. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.
8. open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.
9. characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts: a liberal donor.
10. given freely or abundantly; generous: a liberal donation.
11. not strict or rigorous; free; not literal: a liberal interpretation of a rule.
12. of, pertaining to, or based on the liberal arts.
13. of, pertaining to, or befitting a freeman.


14. a person of liberal principles or views, esp. in politics or religion.
15. (often initial capital letter) a member of a liberal party in politics, esp. of the Liberal party in Great Britain.

1325–75; ME < L līberālis of freedom, befitting the free, equiv. to līber free + -ālis -al 1

I fail to see how this is in any way a bad thing. “Favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties; favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression; of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.” (Hey, don’t we really love those concepts somewhere? You know, the whole ‘freedom’ thing, with the ‘freedom of action regarding personal beliefs’ and the ‘representational government’ doohickey-bob? Which country’s really big on that, again? The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, right?) The root word is even equipped with some excellent Latin compadres: līber, lībera, līberum: free, unimpeded, frank, free-spoken, outspoken. līberālis, līberāle: gentlemanly, well-bred, generous. (Well-bred?! Those elitist Romans and their patrician republic!)

Let’s take a look at some of the other definitions. “Free from prejudice or bigotry.” “Open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.” “Characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts.” It’s the same as calling someone a damn saint, if anyone bothers to check the dictionary.

I’m not going to take this lying down anymore. It is a noble word, and a noble sentiment, and I am sick of people making it out to be something it’s not, twisting freedom and generosity and lack of prejudice into something immoral, ugly, and evil. (And while we’re at it, I’m taking “tea party” back, too. It is a party where people drink tea and have scones with their stuffed animals and that is all, damn it.) I will not flinch back, I will not stutter, I will not falter when I am called a liberal, even with all the venom and calumny the accuser is implying. I will say simply, “yes. Yes I am. Got a problem?”

It’s time to fight fire with fired up.

I yield the remainder of my time to Mr. Sorkin of California:

Sam Seaborn: Why are you so bent on countering these idiot leaflets?
Bruno Gianelli: Because I am tired of working for candidates who make me think I should be embarrassed to believe what I believe, Sam. I’m tired of getting them elected. You all need some therapy, because somebody came along and said liberal means soft on crime, soft on drugs, soft on communism, soft on defense, and we’re going to tax ya back to the stone age, because people shouldn’t have to go to work if they don’t want to. And instead of saying ‘Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, Leave it to Beaver trip back to the Fifties,’ we cowered in the corner, and said ‘please don’t hurt me‘. No more. I really don’t care who’s right, who’s wrong. We’re both right. We’re both wrong. Let’s have two parties, huh, what do you say?


  1. Alex,
    That’s nice, but you are forgetting that the world “Liberal” has different meanings, and that definition that you used applies to “Classical liberalism”, not to the modern day concept of liberalism as it is understood today in the U.S. When somebody in the U.S. brands you a liberal, they are calling you a socialist.
    Just take a look at the Wikipedia entry for “liberal”: They need to explain that the word has different meanings in different part of the world. But if Wikipedia is not your cup of tea, here’s the Economist online edition, writing about liberalism in Brazil:

    “ADMITTING to liberalism explicitly,” wrote Roberto Campos, a Brazilian politician, diplomat and swimmer against the tide who died in 2001, “is as outlandish in a country with a dirigiste culture as having sex in public.” His observation still holds for Brazil, where economic liberals (in the British, free-market sense, not the socialistic American one)

    Sooo… you want to say now that you are a “classic liberal”? Hey, welcome to the club, I knew you will come around… just shoot me an e-mail and I’ll tell you were to get the Rush Limbaugh podcast for free… he he…

  2. I’m a dictionary liberal – my point is that the term has become pejorative in American politics, when the US was founded on (classical) liberal ideals…for example, tell your average pundit that this country was founded on liberal ideals, their heads’ll catch fire. Classical liberalism isn’t quite my fruit tart once you get down to it – I actually specifically avoided saying I was one. Kind of like how I’m not a Christian but I find merit in many of Jesus’ teachings. (I swear – if the 18th century had internet I’d fit right in sometimes. I could be a Deist like Jefferson.)

    Thanks for commenting – I’m afraid the comments section’s become a bit of a ghost town!

  3. Well, first of all… What are you doing up so late..? he he… my excuse is that I’m a night owl… anyway… I repeat… the reason the world “liberal” has become a pejorative is because in American politics is the same as saying you’re a socialist.
    Norman Thomas, U.S. Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party said:

    The American people will never knowingly adopt Socialism. But under the name of ‘liberalism’ they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist program, until one day America will be a Socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.

    Somehow socialist got the message and now they call themselves “liberals”. So I repeat, you are a “dictionary liberal”? Welcome to the club…! BTW, I’m always around and I always comment, not as often as I would like, but at least I’m reading.

  4. I consider myself a liberal, and I believe in at least a rudimentary social safety net (but not a “nanny state”), but socialism proper is something that can only work in theory. Socialism as a bugaboo word also bothers me, but that’s the subject of another entry I’ve been working on for quite some time, on and off. 🙂

    I’m routinely up this late – tonight, I’m procrastinating on homework. Shh, don’t tell anyone!

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