Labels and Libels

by Joseph Sobran, 9/4/2001

       The United States and Israel have walked out of the United Nations conference on racism to protest other countries’ delegates’ use of the label racist to describe Israel. Israel “racist”? Just because it assigns different rights to different people, depending on whether they have Jewish ancestors? Come now!
       Of course it all depends on your definition of racism. And in fact, most people who use the word as an invidious label don’t want to define it at all. As long as it remains undefined, it’s handy for smears—and, of course, for justifying expansions of government power. How can we defend ourselves against a charge that has no fixed meaning?
       When a charge isn’t defined, even the accused person doesn’t know whether he’s guilty or not. Nobody can say for sure whether the charge is true or false. But in practice, those in power will decide. The state will decide. And its decision will be arbitrary.
       If, in a country with free institutions and the rule of law, you are charged with murder, you may get a fair trial. The word murder has a clear definition; it’s not just a malicious label. A jury can determine whether the evidence supports the assertion that the defendant has committed an act meeting the definition. If the evidence is insufficient, he can be acquitted. And, just as important, anyone who knowingly brings a false charge of murder can be prosecuted.
       But with charges like “racism,” there are no such safeguards. Nobody can be acquitted, standards of evidence are lax or nonexistent, and false charges go unpunished. Have Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton ever paid a price for loose accusations of racism? Of course not. That’s why they feel free to throw the word about with abandon.
       Some people do use the word racist conscientiously. In their minds, at least, it has a clear meaning, and because they take it seriously they no more want to accuse innocent people of racism than of murder. But such scruples are exceptional, and no man who holds them will ever make it as a “civil rights leader.”
       Speaking of labels, one commentator has observed recently that “the old labels liberal and conservative don’t mean anything anymore.” Only a liberal would say that. Sure enough, the pundit tried to prove his point by quoting an old definition of a conservative as one who is opposed to change. Then he noted triumphantly that today’s so-called conservatives want to change all sorts of laws and institutions! Not very conservative of them, he gloated. Apparently he thought he’d scored a clever point.
       Well, why not argue that by the same reasoning, today’s liberals aren’t very liberal? After all, they oppose changing all the things the conservatives want to change.
       The real point, which should be obvious to a moron, is that liberals and conservatives have reversed their strategic positions, not that they no longer differ significantly. There is one point of contrast: conservatives are happy to be known as conservatives, whereas liberals no longer want to be identified as “liberals.” That’s why liberals disparage labels. In this case, the liberal pundit was disparaging labels in order to disparage conservatives.
       The liberal label is itself misleading. A liberal used to be one who favored minimal government and maximum liberty. Today we have to call such advocates of the limited state “classical” liberals in order to distinguish them from the modern collectivist liberals who have usurped the name. But having given liberal a bad name, the collectivists now want to switch labels again. They prefer to be called “progressives.”
       In Europe the collectivists are frankly called “socialists” and “communists.” But in this country they complain that they are being maligned when they are so identified, and even liberal, having lost its power to mislead (nobody today thinks liberals favor liberty), makes them squirm.
       Like a disreputable product that needs a new brand name, our liberal friends have to find yet another new guise for what they’re peddling: yet further increases in the ratio of force to freedom. Government, after all, is organized force—a simple fact of life that never seems to sink in with most people. But then, most people are educated in government schools. No wonder they never learn.