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On Language: a Quick History of the New Left

by Roger Rick

The troubles that President Clinton seems to have with simple English words such as sex ("I did not have sex with that women"), alone ("No" in response to the question of an investigator of whether he was ever alone with Monica Lewinski), and is ("It depends what the meaning of the word 'is' is") have been attributed by some in the media to his training as a lawyer.

Sack cartoon

©1998 Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Click here for the complete cartoon

To be sure, lawyers often do parse the meaning of phrases, sometimes of words, but it is quite rare, even for a lawyer, to parse words that are so common in usage and plain in their meaning as "sex," "alone," and "is." A more straightforward explanation for the President's apparent lack of command of the English language is the fact that he views himself as a "liberal" or "progressive," people who believe that they own the language and can do with it whatever they please.

The words "liberal" and "progressive" themselves are fine examples of how the meaning of words can be manipulated. Liberal is derived from the Latin word "liberalis" which means "of or pertaining to a free man." The only political group in this country that truly advocates more freedom and civil liberties — the Libertarian party — cannot use the word "liberal" to promote their causes because socialists and social democrats have long since usurped the word and given it a new fuzzy meaning of "empathy with the little guy," or "free from traditional cultural constraints."

During the Rosenberg trials of the early Fifties, Stalin ordered American Communists to call themselves "progressives" to obscure the fact that the Soviet Union was spying on her former ally. Suddenly, there were no more communists in schools, colleges, news rooms, or Hollywood movie studios! Annoyed by their disappearance and intent on furthering his own career, Senator McCarthy tried to ferret them out from their hideouts, but the liberal media and the distaste of the American public for witch hunts quickly put an end to it.

When — after Stalin's death — Krustchev admitted to some of the atrocities committed by the Communist Party, progressives tried to distance themselves from the "real existing socialism" by acquiring yet another label, the "New Left." Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-Tung, and, at least for a while, Pol Pot became the new idols of the movement. The Black Panthers, a West Oakland gang of crack-dealing thugs, were hailed as the vanguard of the coming "Second American Revolution." Fortunate for most of us — this revolution never took hold.

While Castro and consorts slaughtered millions of their own people in death camps (a.k.a. "reeducation" or "corrective labor" camps), the New Left organized "sit-ins" and "teach-ins" to spread the new gospel. Meanwhile, Panthers killed cops ("off the pigs"), rival gang members, and even their own supporters. Attempts of the judicial system to bring Panthers to justice were denounced as oppression of the "Black Liberation Movement." So effective was the propaganda machine that, with the exception Joanne Chesimard [Assata Shakur] who escaped prison and who is now hiding in Cuba, no Black Panther was ever convicted of murder.

The veterans of the second revolution survive on colleges campuses, mostly in English and Social Science departments, busying themselves with writing speech codes and teaching new generations of students about the evils of globalization and the benefits of living a vegetarian lifestyle. Some have joined the chattering classes to raise our awareness of pressing social issues such as the shrinking habitat of the Western spotted owl. Still others work tirelessly in huge government agencies on regulations limiting the size of a toilet flush. And, yes, some are politicians.


Most people of public radio think of themselves as progressives. They do not necessarily say so, but the causes they support, the programs they produce, betray their political convictions. Whenever progressives are mentioned, they are admired as visionaries, people who we should emulate. Here are two recent examples:

  • audio fileScott Simon's thoughts on the deadly attack at Hebrew University [WE Saturday, 8/3/02]
  • audio fileJill Kaufman explores the origins of Thoreau's Walden as part of NPR's Present at the Creation series on American icons [Morning Edition, 8/5/02]
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