Things That Tick Me Off

By Paul Gottfried

As the year comes to an end, I feel compelled to call attention to certain silly usages. Those that have annoyed me of late are “politically in the middle,” “right of center,” and “moderate liberal.” Those who are fond of these phrases never tell us where exactly the “middle” is situated or in relation to what center someone is on the right. I hear President Obama described as a “moderate liberal,” although academics of my acquaintance insist he’s really a “moderate conservative.” I have to wonder what “moderate and “conservative” mean in this context. The “moderates” whom Mitt Romney courted in his disastrous presidential campaign turned out to be largely on Obama’s side. 

Both presidential candidates this year stood well to the left of where Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy might have been on social issues. As far as I know, neither of these earlier presidents was a feminist, an advocate of abortion rights, or favored or even hinted at favoring gay marriage. Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are now expected to be “sensitive” about social causes that were barely on the scene fifty years ago. This is true for the designated “conservatives” as well as the designated “liberals.” 

But that wasn’t always the case. Eisenhower’s response to the growing presence of illegal Latinos was to deport as many as he could.  Presidential candidates are now expected to amnesty illegals—or at least put them on the path to citizenship. If Obama is a moderate liberal or moderate conservative, where do we put past presidents who were considerably more conservative by current standards? And many of these figures like Lincoln, FDR, Truman and Kennedy enjoy liberal credentials, thanks to journalists and historians. My critics may counter that we’ve “grown” morally since the 1960s. This may or may not be true. But as a longtime observer of the political scene, I’ve noticed this growth has moved almost entirely in one ideological direction. 

Another verbal tic that drives me up the wall is “our culture is just changing.” This phrase is usually made to explain why in less than ten years Americans have gone from being overwhelmingly against gay marriage to being in favor of it, by a slight majority. The key here, we are told, is the lifestyle openness of American youth. Those polled who fall into the 18 to 30 age group support gay rights, including gay marriage, by substantial majorities. That’s because these young people hang out with gays and try not to be judgmental (except for self-identified bigots who disagree with them). 

A more complete explanation would take into account socializing institutions. Those over 65 generally came out of communities where parental authority and traditional moral positions were still intact. Adolescents and young adults are now socialized by forces that are committed to radical social change, starting with public school teachers and administrators, university professors and popular culture. Peer groups in the case of adolescents are usually more important for their social development than parents, both of whom are usually at work, and all members of the peer group in question have been socialized by the same agencies. Cultures just don’t change, as a form of spontaneous generation. Well-placed elites have moved Heaven and Earth to bring about those changes I’m presently observing.

Another irritating practice is to talk about expanded civil rights and enhanced freedom when what the speaker really means is coercing the unwilling. I remember when a new civil rights bill was signed by Bush, Sr.in 1991 and the media assured us that our freedoms would thereafter increase exponentially. What happened is that a tighter or more intrusive system of determining discrimination was introduced, with increased punishment for those deemed to be discriminating. How good it was to be alive then and to breathe the sweet vapor of liberty—or was it the stench of being jerked around by government bureaucrats? 

Moreover, a number of states that have introduced gay marriage, such as New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Washington, have made it illegal to discriminate against gay couples in commerce and accommodations.  Should religious and cultural traditionalists celebrate this restriction on their conscience as a widening of their freedom? I couldn’t imagine why. Let’s call coercion by its proper name.

 I would also suggest that as an obvious cultural conflict makes itself felt, it might be best to recognize what’s going on. Some accommodation will have to be reached among the combatants; and the worst way to do that is by applying misleading terms to changes that some Americans consider inimical to their liberties. Millions of Americans, mostly on the right, are not amused when they are told that, contrary to their impressions, they’re enjoying more freedom of choice than ever before. They have ceased to believe this and believe even less that they’re living in a “right of center country.”