Progressive? Conservative? Naming rights, wrongs

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Thus spoke Juliet to Romeo, in Act II Scene II of the play by Shakespeare chronicling their demise. There is considerable controversy in academic circles as to whether Romeo and Juliet qualifies as a tragedy. For some scholars, the “star-crossed” teenaged lovers didn’t qualify as tragic figures. Some critics consider the play to be an anomaly and relegate it to a special category called “romance.” But then again, what’s in a name?

In today’s world, public discourse has become difficult because language has been compromised, nay, co-opted to the point that there often is no common ground upon which to debate. The English language is tough enough. There are words we use every day that are actually their own opposites. Take the word sanction – it means “to give official approval” or conversely it means “to impose a penalty upon.” “Oversight” means supervision, and it also means having been lax in said supervision – as in having committed an oversight. Fast can describe movement at high speeds, or being stationary as in “holding fast.” I think you get the point.

Then we come to politics, with terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” Stripped of their political connotations, what do those words mean? According to one definition offered in the Urban Dictionary, liberal means “a lot,” and conservative means “not much.” I guess that’s a cutesy way to put it. Along those lines, I have liberal friends that dress very conservatively, while I have conservative friends that put liberal amounts of dressing on salad. Another difference, according to an article at philanthropy.com, when it comes to charitable giving, liberals tend to do so conservatively while conservatives tend to be more liberal in their giving.

So how can we define liberalism? Like the examples I cite above, it is a word that is its own opposite. There are two kinds of liberalism, modern and classical. The 17th century philosopher John Locke is often cited as “the father of classical liberalism.” He had a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers of our republic. To my mind, Jefferson was channeling Locke when he wrote in The Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While classical liberalism was born of the Enlightenment and focused on the rights of the individual, modern liberalism not so much. It focuses more on “social justice” for groups and sub-groups instead of the individual. It is comfortable with a powerful state apparatus to enforce its collective ideas and beliefs. As Wikipedia states, modern liberalism is different from classical liberalism because “it is the belief that liberalism should include a social foundation implicitly on a collective basis.” Their definition further states that modern liberalism is synonymous with social liberalism and progressive liberalism.

When I Googled the word “progressive” the first reference that appeared was an insurance company. What’s in a name – indeed? Kidding aside, it is the so-called progressive movement that hijacked the word liberal and literally changed its meaning. Today, as Wikipedia affirms, progressivism equates with collectivism and “the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party.” However, lest we forget, it was put on the map by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive Republican. While progressivism derives from the word progress, we all know that things can get progressively better or progressively worse. Take for example, a progressive illness, which is defined as a disease or physical ailment whose course in most cases is the worsening, growth, or spread of the disease.

As for the term conservative, I was amused by this offering again from the Urban Dictionary: “The definition of a ‘modern conservative’ is someone who doesn’t know the definition of the word conservative.” Of course, some conservatives call themselves neo-conservatives, or “Neocons.” Over the last decade or so there has emerged the term “big government conservative,” a de facto oxymoron. Some people call classical liberals conservatives. Some people call classical liberals libertarians.

So, what’s in a name? Not much. A rose is a rose, no matter what you call it, and as beautiful as it is, it has thorns. Whether or not Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy or a romance, it ended badly. Whatever “ism” coincides with your belief system, they all ultimately boil down to two: individualism vs. collectivism. They are not compatible; there is no compromise between the two and over the longer term, collectivism is a tragedy.

— Elliot Simon writes from

Harpers Ferry

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