Friday, November 4, 2005

The “L” Word

Leonard Pitts on semantics.

Would you mind if we talk about Geena Davis again?

In my last column, I spent a few minutes discussing her new TV show, Commander In Chief, in which she plays the first woman president.

My aim was to explore what this said about changing gender roles, but that wasn’t how Frank, a reader of mine, took it. We had a brief exchange by e-mail which I share with you now in its entirety:

Frank: Commander In Chief is about a liberal woman president. What is new? Hollywood loves liberals. Hollywood does not understand conservatives.

Me: Just out of curiosity, what, precisely, has Geena Davis’ character done that has marked her as a liberal?

Frank: She is a liberal.

I’m reading that and I’m like, Oookay. But based on what? Has she introduced a bill to make abortion mandatory? Presided over a same-sex wedding on the South Lawn? Swapped Ronald Reagan’s portrait for Jesse Jackson’s?

Or is liberalism something you can just “tell,” the way some people say they always know when somebody’s gay?

Hey, I’m willing to concede the possibility that Frank is correct. But off the top of my head, I can’t recall anything the fictional president has done that gives much of a clue to her political leanings, right, left or sideways. Yes, the villain of the show is the Republican speaker of the House. On the other hand, the late former president, who was apparently beloved by all, was also a Republican.

Now, you may think this is a lot of energy to devote to the politics of a person who doesn’t exist. Actually, my aim is to critique what passes for political discourse in this country, particularly insofar as it involves what the first President Bush used to call “the L word.”

That was 15 or more years ago. I’d argue that in the intervening years, the L-word has become the new N-word.

No, I don’t mean that those who use it are bigots, but rather, that it has come to be used in much the way racial epithets are used, connoting not a political philosophy but a state of inherent defect so obvious as to require no further explanation.

What else was meant when talk show host Michael Savage named his book Liberalism is a Mental Disorder?

Somewhere, I’m sure, “Mr. You Liberals” is pleased. That’s the name a colleague and I gave an otherwise anonymous fellow who used to rant on our voice mails. I was awed by the guy’s ability to cast absolutely any topic in terms of liberal inferiority.

“Naturally, you liberals support the infield fly rule,” he would rasp.

Or . . . “Only you liberals would choose paper over plastic.”

Or . . . “‘Tastes great! Only one of you liberals would fall for `less filling!’ “

I exaggerate less than you think I do.

He was always good for a laugh, but the laugh was always chased by a sigh in recognition that he was completely earnest.

For him, as for so many others, “liberal” is the catch-all explanation for Everything Wrong, a one-size-fits-all terminology for Those Who Disagree. And this holds even when it does violence to logic.

Consider that the current occupant of the White House has spent like a sailor on shore leave, behavior that was once considered a signature failing of liberalism. Yet, his current troubles notwithstanding, he remains for many a darling of the conservative movement.

It’s as if the vitriol of our politics over the past 15 years or so has robbed the very words we use to describe it of meaning. Or, perhaps more accurately, as if they now mean whatever we need them to in a given moment.

So that we use the L-word (and increasingly, the C-word) the way we use all words of opprobrium and scorn. As if, having said this, you need say nothing else. Nor even explain yourself further.

Which must be convenient, but convenient is not a synonym for right. So I wish some of us would stop pretending that shouting “liberal” is a way to explain reasoning.

From where I sit, it’s a way to avoid it.

There’s a good reason that it works, though. It ends the argument. Once someone slaps you with a bumpersticker, the show’s over because there’s no room for further discussion. It’s because they either can’t or haven’t worked it out beyond the implacable point they’ve made. They can’t back down, and they can’t allow reason to prevail because that’s all they have. It certainly beats thinking. And yes, that applies to both sides.