Labels and Libels
September 4, 2001
States and Israel have walked out of the United Nations conference on
racism to protest other countries delegates use of the label
racist to describe Israel.
Israel racist? Just because it
assigns different rights to different people, depending on whether they have
Jewish ancestors? Come now!
Of course it all depends on your definition of
racism. And in fact, most people who use the word as an invidious label
dont want to define it at all. As long as it remains undefined, its
handy for smears and, of course, for justifying expansions of government
power. How can we defend ourselves against a charge that has no fixed meaning?
When a charge isnt defined, even the
accused person doesnt know whether hes guilty or not. Nobody can
say for sure whether the charge is true or false. But in practice, those in power
will decide. The state will decide. And its decision will be arbitrary.
If, in a country with free institutions and the
rule of law, you are charged with murder, you may get a fair trial. The word
murder has a clear definition; its not just a malicious label. A jury
can determine whether the evidence supports the assertion that the defendant has
committed an act meeting the definition. If the evidence is insufficient, he can be
acquitted. And, just as important, anyone who knowingly brings a false charge of
murder can be prosecuted.
But with charges like racism,
there are no such safeguards. Nobody can be acquitted, standards of evidence are
lax or nonexistent, and false charges go unpunished. Have Jesse Jackson and Al
Sharpton ever paid a price for loose accusations of racism? Of course not.
Thats why they feel free to throw the word about with abandon.
Some people do use the
word racist conscientiously. In their minds, at least, it has a clear
meaning, and because they take it seriously they no more want to accuse innocent
people of racism than of murder. But such scruples are exceptional, and no man
who holds them will ever make it as a civil rights leader.
Speaking of labels, one commentator has
observed recently that the old labels liberal and
conservative dont mean anything anymore. Only a liberal
would say that.
Sure enough, the pundit tried to prove his
point by quoting an old definition of a conservative as one who is opposed to
change. Then he noted triumphantly that todays so-called conservatives
want to change all sorts of laws and institutions! Not very conservative of them,
he gloated. Apparently he thought hed scored a clever point.
Well, why not argue that by the same
reasoning, todays liberals arent very liberal? After all, they oppose
changing all the things the conservatives want to change.
The real point, which should be obvious to a
moron, is that liberals and conservatives have reversed their strategic positions,
not that they no longer differ significantly. There is one point of contrast:
conservatives are happy to be known as conservatives, whereas liberals no longer
want to be identified as liberals. Thats why liberals
disparage labels. In this case, the liberal pundit was disparaging labels in order to
The liberal label is itself misleading. A
liberal used to be one who favored minimal government and maximum liberty.
Today we have to call such advocates of the limited state classical
liberals in order to distinguish them from the modern collectivist liberals who
have usurped the name. But having given liberal a bad name, the
collectivists now want to switch labels again. They prefer to be called
In Europe the collectivists are frankly called
socialists and communists. But in this country they
complain that they are being maligned when they are so identified, and even
liberal, having lost its power to mislead (nobody today thinks liberals
favor liberty), makes them squirm.
Like a disreputable product that needs a new
brand name, our liberal friends have to find yet another new guise for what
theyre peddling: yet further increases in the ratio of force to freedom.
Government, after all, is organized force a simple fact of life that never
seems to sink in with most people.
But then, most people are educated in
government schools. No wonder they never learn.