An American Editor

January 6, 2012

Worth Noting: What do Liberal & Conservative Really Mean?

I am always interested in words and their etymology. But, I admit, I’ve not given a lot of thought to the question “What does it mean to say someone is [liberal, conservative, revolutionary, reactionary, counterrevolutionary, etc.]?”

As if answering my unasked question, the current issue of The New York Review of Books tackles the matter as part of a book review. “Republicans for Revolution” by Mark Lilla tackles the problem as part of his review of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin, a book that Lilla pans. (Interestingly, the book under review gets little attention in this article. Instead, the focus is on the meanings of the various labels.)

I think you will find the article interesting and worth reading and thinking about. (And, no, it is not a liberal diatribe against Republicans.) Once you get a grasp of what the labels really mean, the labeling of politicians changes. I particularly found it interesting how fluid the labels are depending on your view of human nature:

Is the unit of political life society or the individual? Do you view “society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for” and for which “we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights”?

Or do you “give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds” and “assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action”?

Hard questions with no firm answer, but questions that need resolution when applying a political label.

As always, if you are not a subscriber to The New York Review of Books but are a book lover, I recommend subscribing. I think it is the finest magazine of its type, and significantly better than the New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Review of Books is what the New York Times Book Review once was, decades ago, and what it should be today.

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