Berkeley, You, and Me

Sather Tower rises above the University of California at Berkeley campus. (Noah Berger / Reuters)

I’d like to quote from a New York Times report on Friday, and then from an essay I have on the homepage today. I’m interested in the words “liberal” and “conservative,” particularly.

Here’s the Times:

BERKELEY, Calif. — The city of Berkeley, long a bastion of liberal ideas, voted this week to purge gender from its law books.

Manhole will be replaced with maintenance hole. Sisters and brothers will be replaced with siblings. And he or she will be banished in favor of they, even if referring to one person.

Frankly, almost everyone around me uses “they” to refer to one person. This is especially true of the young. It has nothing to do with politics — with left, right, or center. It is the wave. “To each their own,” people will say in the future. Hell, they are saying it now, and “To each his own” sounds darn near archaic.

But let me focus on the word “liberal”: Is that what Berkeley is? Is liberalism what Berkeley is a bastion of? In one American sense, yes. But in other senses, and other places, that would be absurd.

Remember: The right-leaning party in Australia is the Liberal party. And as I say in my essay today, I have been knocked in the European press — the Greek press, in particular — as a “hyper-liberal” and a “neo-liberal.”

Funny: “Neo-liberal” makes me think of Charlie Peters. (He was about the only one.)

My essay is called “May I See Your ID? ‘Conservative’ and other contentious identities.” Let me do a little quoting, please:

I am aware — keenly so — that liberals lost their word, long ago. I’m talking about the word “liberal.” And I’m talking about people such as Friedrich Hayek. They lost the word to progressives, statists, leftists. According to conservative lore — and I believe this is true — the New York Times once referred to Angela Davis, the vice-presidential nominee of the CPUSA, as “ultra-liberal.”

Could conservatives lose their word, too? I mean, conservatives of the classical-liberal or Reagan stripe? Could they lose it to the nationalists, populists, and — I have just learned this word (I have to keep up) — integralists? I don’t know.

Words are shifting, ever shifting, and there is little that people can do about it, even if they want to. “Never let your opponents define you,” people say in politics. But, in practice, it can be very hard. I find that, in language matters, the majority rules — even if the majority, by my lights and yours, is wrong.

You have to deal with words as they are used in your time and place. If the ground shifts beneath you — tough luck, Charlie (and I don’t mean Peters). There is no fighting back — or is there?

Anyway, see what you think. (Again, here.) These issues are, if nothing else, interesting, I find.

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