"Being termed a liberal is terrifying; it's terrifying."
- Phil Donahue on CBC-TV's the fifth estate, January 26, 2005
CBC-TV's the fifth estate probably won more international attention for its recent "Sticks and Stones" episode than any of its looks at political or corporate malfeasance.
That's because it examined the U.S. news media in the divided states of America, a place where political discourse has devolved into high-decibel denunciation, especially from the right.
Even in Canada, we can't escape the invective. Wander up the nosebleed section of the digital dial, and there's Fox News, in all its vainglory. Read the blogs, the Western Standard, some Sun and CanWest newspaper columnists, and it's a chill wind that blows hard on liberal — that's small-l — values.
But we're mere hosers compared to some of the professional pontificators south of the border.
Here's a sample from right-wing banshee Ann Coulter's latest bestseller, How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): "Liberals traffic in shouting and demagogy. In a public setting, they will work themselves into a dervish-like trance and start incanting inanities: `BUSH LIED, KIDS DIED!' `RACIST!' `FASCIST!' `FIRE RUMSFELD!' `HALLIBURTON!' Fortunately, the street performers usually punch themselves out eventually and are taken back their parents' house."
North of the border, they took the "progressive" out of Progressive Conservative. In the U.S., "progressive" is slipping in to replace the L-word.
No wonder. On "Sticks and Stones," both former talk show host Phil Donahue and Air America radio's Al Franken practically wept as they recounted how they had been demonized by the likes of Fox News gasbag Bill O'Reilly.
Talk about your girly-man reaction.
Yet, in an un-civil war, tears are not enough. You need fighting words. But liberals seem to have lost their voice, or their nerve, or both.
Make no mistake: Both sides, left and right, of the debate are angry. The paradox is, the one that's winning, the one with control of the government, the judiciary and most of the corporate world, including the media, is the side that plays the injured party, as if the left has its Birkenstocks on the right's collective throat.
Which is why, during the U.S. presidential campaign, we saw supporters of Vermont governor Howard Dean dismissed as a "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show."
In short, the "liberal elite."
It's also why Democratic candidate John Kerry was derided as "the second most liberal senator after Ted Kennedy."
Never mind that liberals fought for social security, civil rights, reproductive freedom, environmental protection, child labour legislation and the G.I. bill. Thanks to the right, its media mouthpieces, and a lack of cohesion on the left, knowledge of liberalism's benefits has slipped down the memory hole.
Instead, Americans think of "compassionate" conservatism.
"We have seen the right wage unrelenting war on the legitimacy of the kind of affirmative state with which modern liberals are identified," says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the progressive weekly The Nation. "So you had a moment in the presidential debates where John Kerry, who by any measure is a liberal, refused to be categorized by that term.
"That loss of nerve has allowed conservatives both to define and demonize liberalism."
The reality is liberals lost their way, insists Sam Smith, editor of the Washington-based Progressive Review (prorev.com). Liberals, he says, "spend more time thinking about Hillary's chances and executive glass ceilings than (they) do about sweatshops, the minimum wage or workplace safety."
That's why the right could paint liberals as out of touch with mainstream values, says Smith, and why liberals "got into this trap about abortion and gay marriage and hunting and issues like that."
Consider a fundraising email that arrived this week from Townhall.com, the communication apparatus of the powerful Heritage Foundation, a think tank worth $130 million (U.S.) and boasting a 24-hour media hotline ready to dispatch experts to talk shows.
"Watching the liberals in Washington is like watching a bad horror movie. Just when you think the monster is vanquished ... gone for good ... it jumps from the shadows for yet another attack," writes billionaire Steve Forbes, who goes on to say that liberals lie, attack and distort.
That is classic propaganda, says psychologist Neil Wollman, a senior fellow with the Peace Studies Institute at Indiana's Manchester College.
"Conservatives push the idea of a liberal bias in media, academia and Hollywood," he says. "This keeps the focus on areas of real or apparent liberal strength, without acknowledging conservative or pro-corporate influence in major social institutions."
Right now, liberals are snapping up a slim volume by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. Titled Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, it attempts to counter "the right wing's stranglehold on political dialogue."
"The conservatives support their intellectuals," he admonishes. "They have media studios down the hall in institutes so that getting on television is easy. Eighty per cent of the talking heads on television are from the conservative think tanks. Eighty percent."
The Nation's vanden Heuvel sees hope in grassroots organizations such as MoveOn.org and ProgressiveMajority.org, which are not only reaching more mainstream Americans but are also working the media.
"These are groups that are building; it will take time," she says.
As for the attempt to drop the L-word and replace it with "progressive?" In the strictest political sense, it is not the same as "liberal;" it's just a way of reframing the debate. After all, if the opposite of progressive is "regressive," how can they lose?
But already, the right is taking the word from liberals' — or progressives' — mouths.
"It seems the only way in which liberals are truly progressive is when it comes to shredding the moral fabric that has previously held our society together," countered one right-wing commentator last month. "On issues such as partial-birth abortion, gay marriage, easy access to pornography and a general assault on the traditional, nuclear family, you can leave it to the progressives to show us the way to an enlightened and improved future — or so they say."
So how do liberals win the word game?
"The answer is populism," Smith proposes. "You have to get people thinking about the right things."
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