DURING THE recent debate over the confirmation of John Ashcroft for attorney general, several loud voices of dissent led the 42 mostly silent Democratic senators who opposed him. Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota led the opposition.
Their opinions have been labeled "disgusting" by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and "divisive and distorting" by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Other leaders in Congress have condemned the opposing senators as falling prey to a "liberal agenda" and a "left- wing conspiracy."
An interesting thing has happened in the last two decades. The word "liberal" has become a pejorative one. Often linked with the term "bleeding-heart," it connotes one who is naive and deluded at best, downright stupid at worst.
Liberalism has gotten beaten up so badly over the years that many left-leaning people consider themselves "closet liberals," bowing under public pressure to exit their utopian dream world. The time has come for a reassessment of what being a liberal really means.
The word liberal means generous and giving. Liberalism, therefore, involves a certain sense of equity and a desire for the fair parceling out of the public's goods. So long as people go to bed starving, and without a home in this, the world's most prosperous country, there will always be a need for liberalism. There will always be a need for people to stand up and point out that the system under which we live must not always favor the haves at the cost of the have-nots.
Unfortunately, the place for these type of people in the public discourse has virtually disappeared. People like Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader -- men with lifetimes of accomplishments in the name of the public good -- are mocked and ridiculed.
The mainstream liberals of the 1960s and 1970s have gone the way of the dinosaur. But sadly, with them goes a certain idealistic optimism that pictures the future as a better place.
When war erupts, the liberal who opposes it is called unpatriotic, even if his stance derives from the patriotic opposition to American casualties. When intolerance toward a person's race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender flares up, the liberal's opposition earns him the distinction of being opposed to "traditional family values" instead of a champion of tolerance.
The prudent path, then, becomes one of abandonment of liberalism toward a more conservative shift. But it doesn't have to be this way. The time is ripe for the liberal to reclaim his place in the public discourse and plant himself once again under the battered flag that so many before him flew proudly.
Without the liberals, the civil rights movement would have been much delayed.
Without the liberals, the ill-advised war in Vietnam that tore this country apart would have probably continued indefinitely.
Without the liberals, common- sense protections for people that we now take for granted would scarcely have seen the light of day.
This does not mean that the liberals' day has passed. Quite the contrary, there are still problems in our society that do not need to be there.
Without the vocal reminders of the problems of unfairness and intolerance that plague us, they will continue unchecked. Though liberalism has fallen out of the mainstream, it need not die.
In the final analysis, the liberal person does what he does only through a deep-seated belief that we, as a nation and as a society, can be better.
The old liberal guard is aging, and we increasingly see that good people who tried very hard to give their communities the best of themselves have been chased into the shadows. But during these prosperous and peaceful times, we should be reminded that liberalism, far from being a silly, idealistic dream, can deliver on the promise to make us all a little better.
Evan L. Balkan teaches English at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore and is an adjunct professor in the English department at Towson University.