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The strange meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” in America

This was first published in Weekly Trust Newspaper on December 17, 2005. By Farooq A. Kperogi Even though I have always eschewed, even disda...

This was first published in Weekly Trust Newspaper on December 17, 2005.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Even though I have always eschewed, even disdained, glib and facile labels such as “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative,” etc I had nonetheless always thought of myself as conforming to what would seem to be the consensual notions of a liberal.

However, after nearly a year of being in the United States, I’m no longer sure I’m a liberal. So am I now a conservative?

Well, first who is a liberal? It was Voltaire, the French philosopher, who once said, “If you must converse with me, first define your terms”—or something to that effect.

Although there is admittedly a lot of definitional vagueness in the conception of what constitutes a liberal, my own understanding of the term, which I don’t pretend to be anything other than drawn from the resources of popular imagination, is that it refers to someone who is not limited to or by established, conventional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; who is free from bigotry.

It is also used to denote one who is amenable to proposals for reform, new ideas for progress, and is tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others. Generally speaking, it means one who is broad-minded and is not held in check by the tyranny of received wisdom.

In Nigeria’s political vocabulary, the most fashionable word for such a person is “progressive.” Now, most people in Nigeria who wear the tag of “progressivism” are some of the most backward characters I have ever come across.

Take, for instance, these Afenifere clowns who are a study in narrow-mindedness, gerontocractic arrogance, ethnic insularity—and worse—but who have blackmailed the Nigerian media (supposing the media are not themselves complicit with this intellectual fraud) into identifying them as “progressives,” and those who disagree with them as “conservatives.”

In the United States too, it’s traditional to draw a distinction between liberals and conservatives in every national debate. But unlike Nigeria where everybody avoids the label “conservative” like a plague, here people who think they are conservative not only accept the label but flaunt it.

And they have newspapers, TV stations and radio stations that popularize their ideology.

A conservative is generally understood to be a person who is resistant to change, who conforms to the standards and conventions of the upper-middle class, who has what Marxists would call “a bourgeois mentality.”

In America, however, it’s not that simple. Here, people who identify themselves as conservatives fall into two groups: The first group, often called the Christian Right, is made up of racist, inward-looking, xenophobic, Christian religious fundamentalists who resist, or struggle to reverse, the cultural turbulence of America.

The second group is composed of mean-spirited, ruthless and vulturistic capitalists who can suck the blood of a dead person if they are convinced that his blood has profit value.

The liberal crowd here is the natural attraction for all racial and religious minorities. But as most immigrants from non-Western cultural backgrounds find, there is a strange meaning to being liberal in America.

The main issues that appear to define the liberal agenda in America are abortion and gay rights and gun control.

To be considered a liberal, you must support the right of women to abort their pregnancies if they so choose (which is no longer called abortion right, but “pro-choice”) and for homosexuals to be allowed to get married.

The third is support for the abolition of the death penalty. But this is not as much a “hot-button” issue, as Americans say it, as abortion and gay rights.

I personally have no problem with the first one if the circumstances for abortion are justified by medical expediency or, in the case of married people, if the decision to abort is the consequence of the mutual consent of the husband and wife.

However, I have issue with homosexuality and abolition of the death penalty.

But, first, what do American conservatives think of abortion? As far as American conservatives are concerned, any abortion, however so defined, is murder.

But it is supremely ironic that the people who hold these opinions are the same people who not only support but mastermind the mass murder of innocent people in Iraq and elsewhere in the name of evangelizing the gospel of democracy and freedom.

Similarly, a popular conservative radio talk-show host (most radio talk shows in America are owned by conservatives) advocated that the most efficacious way to reduce crime in America is to abort all black babies!

And this man was not some unknown quantity on the lunatic fringe. His name is William Bennett, a former minister of education under Ronald Reagan and drugs czar under the first George Bush.

The self-described Christian moral crusader said in an unguarded moment during his talk show: “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose; you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” So, for this conservative, abortion is reprehensible only where black people are not concerned.

Another conservative Christian broadcaster and proprietor of the Regent University by the name of Pat Robertson this year called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. His reason: The president is turning his oil-rich South American country into “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.” Some conservative!

American liberals were, of course, very loud in denouncing the comments by Bennett and Robertson as despicably racist, insensitive and utterly condemnable. But while I despise these conservatives for their xenophobia, racism and their embrace of the cruelties of capitalism, I find myself strangely agreeing with their views on homosexuality and the death penalty.

In the United States, as in most Western countries, homosexuality is being increasingly glamorized and celebrated especially by so-called liberals. Conservatives despise homosexuals, and will rather die than see gay marriage given official imprimatur by government.

As for the liberals, anybody who as much as tries to express the faintest reservation about homosexuality is labeled “homophobic’—which is becoming as dreadful as being called racist or some other name of disapproval.

But I can’t help thinking that homosexuality is either a sick, aberrant sexual perversion or unbridled carnal narcissism. When I say this, my liberal friends call me “conservative,” and “intolerant.”

They claim that homosexuals can’t help being what they are; that they are inexorably wired bio-chemically to be attracted to people of their sex and that we should accept their sick fancies as just another legitimate “sexual orientation.”

Another argument is that homosexuals don’t hurt anybody. Why should it be anybody’s bother what they choose to do with their private lives? Fair enough.

But when I put it to my liberal friends that research after research has shown that men have a “natural” predisposition to have multiple sex partners, and therefore should equally be given the same privilege to marry more than one wife, they shrink to their “liberal” hell holes.

American citizens who are Muslims are not allowed by law to have more than one wife (they can, of course, be serial monogamists and philanderers), but homosexuals are on their way to getting the right to get married. It’s part of the American liberal agenda.

What of the death penalty? For me, it’s a simple issue of proportionality of justice. If you murder, you also deserve to die. The argument that the death penalty has not deterred the commission of murders begs the question about justice.

Believe or not, this is how the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are understood in this country, trivial as they seem, and people win and lose elections on the basis of these issues.

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