LET'S see if we can help the students of Michael D. Gray's social studies class at Bracken County High in Brooksville, Ky.
Mr. Gray writes that he is assigning his class to "determine the meaning of the terms 'liberal,' 'conservative,' 'radical' and 'reactionary' by sidestepping bland, basic dictionary definitions" and consulting people who use them nowadays in political discourse. Will we help?
Why not? Explaining what these four words mean in present-day political jabber is not much harder than reading the Hammurabic code in Babylonian cuneiform, which is the kind of assignment teachers gave you when I was in high school. High school was odd in those days. I remember being sent to the principal's office one day for punishment and made to give an extemporaneous account of Hannibal's strategy in the Battle of Lake Trasimenus in classic Ciceronian Latin . . But I wander.
Liberal, conservative, radical, reactionary, eh, Mr. Gray? Well, you see, as somebody in "Alice in Wonderland" says, those words mean precisely what I want them to mean. What's worse, they also mean precisely what anybody else wants them to mean.
Does it follow, then, that they mean nothing? Or, since each and every speaker knows precisely what they mean, while no two of these self-assured speakers agree on their meaning, does it not logically follow that they mean -- everything?
This is the kind of philosophical conundrum with which high school used to challenge students. Mastering Euclid, teachers always said, was splendid exercise for minds that would some day have to decide whether words that mean all things to all
people are utterly meaningless or, to the contrary, totally meaningful.
Notice, Mr. Gray, that simply mentioning these four words plunges us into the eerie world of political disputation. In this world we are engulfed in torrents of words that seem to make everything perfectly clear while making us feel lost in impenetrable fog. Enough, though, of the theoretical approach to your exercise. On to the practical. When your four words are used by people who talk politics nowadays, they mean something more or less, though not invariably, as follows:
"Liberal" generally means "bad," much as "communist" meant bad in the old days, but not quite that bad, since liberals don't have the atom bomb. Still, there's the smell of evil on the word. In President Bush's time it was considered such a nasty word that the Bush people didn't like to say it. Instead they spoke of "the L-word." If you've followed tha Los Angeles scandal about "the N-word," you can imagine what vileness "the L-word" must connote.
President Bush linked "the L-word" to the kind of person who was "a card-carrying member of the ACLU." The initials stand for American Civil Liberties Union. The "card-carrying" modifier of "member" seems superfluous -- who cares whether he has his membership card on his person? -- but isn't. Its task is to make the ACLU sound subversive by evoking old Red-hunt fears of "card-carrying communists."
"Conservative" does not mean conservative. It means "let's destroy the system of domestic government created over the past 60 years." The "conservative" believes that businessmen know best and should, therefore, be allowed to redesign government to suit themselves. "Conservatives" also want less government interference in American life, except in religious and sexual matters, where they want more.
"Radical" means "really wants to shake things up, maybe violently." It's from the Latin word for "root," which also gives us radishes. Radicals want to tear things out by the roots and do them over right.
"Radicals" terrify conservatives, but not "conservatives," whose desire to rip the welfare state out by its roots is being satisfied by the newly elected "conservatives" in the House of Representatives. Their "radical" urges are being dampened by conservatives in the Senate.
"Reactionary" means "likes things the way they were so doesn't mind if 'radicals' tear up the pea patch." Provided, of course, the "radicals" stop their uprooting when they get down to the level where the "reactionary" knows seeds were planted exactly right for the very last time. All these meanings may change by the weekend.
Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.