Conservatives, Liberals, Brillig and Slithey Toves

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"When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." So said Humpty Dumpty to Alice, suggesting the egghead had the making of a true politician.

Consider the Dumpty-like deformations of "Liberal" and "liberalism."

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the latter as "a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and on the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties." Yet ever since they took us through the looking glass in the early nineties, our own federal Liberals have been busy dismantling the social safety net, starting by extinguishing the Canada Assistance Plan. In what conceivable sense are they Liberal? I suppose in the same sense British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell is.

The same dictionary defines conservatism as "a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change." Yet Canadian conservatives aren't particularly enthusiastic about conserving the framework of Canadian civil society. Neither they nor the Liberals are opposing deconstruction of the public sector by transnational corporate interests.

Meanwhile, in the Excited Sates of America, "conservative" has taken on a slight smell since the collapse of Newt Gingrich's Clinton-era cabal. Hence the appending of "compassionate" to "conservative," giving wings to the quaint idea that volunteerism and philanthropy are all that's necessary to back-engineer Ronald Reagan's 1984 Morning in America. "Compassionate conservatism" is like one of those self-cancelling phrases beloved by comedian George Carlin, such as "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence."

Not that "liberal" has done much better in American parlance than "conservative." In fact, being pegged a liberal is the mark of Cain in American political commentary. An office-seeker down south would sooner describe himself as a communist or sodomite. However, don't confuse "liberal" with "neoliberal," which describes those favouring liberalization of markets over liberalism for citizens. According to media critic Noam Chomsky, libertarians, conservatives, and Clintonites - neoliberals all - are the "real radicals," having largely undone the gains of a half-century's worth of environmental, labour and civic legislation in the United States.

Chomsky himself is fobbed off by critics as a Marxist, though the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor prefers anarcho-syndicalist, a term that conjures up black-clad protesters in the popular imagination, along with dim recollections from English class of the bomb-tossing maniac in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent for some. Yet self-described anarchists seem to be the only people who aren't playing with semantic silly putty. As far as I know, there are no "neo-anarchists," or "compassionate anarchists." There are probably not too many Starbucks coffee drinkers among them, either.

This brings us to "Reform." Now there's a good, solid word, one that most of us take to mean putting things back into their original condition. However, the condition the Albertan Reformers hearkened back to wasn't the boomer never-never-land of free love and multiculturalism, but rather a Shangri-la of church rummage sales, hayrides, and Hee Haw reruns. When "Reform" eventually morphed into the "Alliance," the new party's current leader, Stockwell Day, began to claim squatter's rights on the word "conservative." This lead to a dust-up over semiotics between Day and paleoTory Joe Clark. It was a scene resembling two bald men fighting over a comb.

By the time Alliance MPs were accepting the pensions they once rejected, and Day was eyeing Stornoway - long months before the shiny new leader fell from grace - the word "reform" was as whimsically spectral as the dead grandfather's ghost in the Family Circus cartoons. As for the Alliance, the name sounds faintly ridiculous given the party's divisive state. The dissidents have adopted the new term "Democratic Representative Caucus " for their group, leaving "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" available to Day and his supporters.

And finally there's the word "democrat." In the U.S., this verbal football has been bashed into something resembling a Rorschach blot. Read anything you want into it. I don't have a clue myself how it differs from "republican." Go ask Alice.

Geoff Olson is a Vancouver-based political cartoonist and writer. His previous article for rabble news was "The Gift of Guerrilla Giving," May 28, 2001.

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