Reading the comment thread under Ann Applebaum’s bizarre defense of Roman Polanski, I noticed that some of the commentators who – like me – wanted Polanski punished attacked Applebaum’s apologia as an instance of “liberalism.” Since Applebaum is hardly a liberal, and since to my knowledge no liberal political leader or thinker (as opposed to some Hollywood types who are practicing guild loyalty) had in fact defended Polanski, this struck me as rather unfair.
Then Tuesday night I gave my crime-control pitch at the California Endowment. It was fairly warmly received. But two of the people who came up afterwards to tell me how much they’d liked the talk said something like, “I’m glad they decided not to have some liberal talk about crime.” When I told them that I was an unreconstructed liberal and card-carrying Obamaniac, they were deeply puzzled.
But I was puzzled, too. The people who spoke to me didn’t seem like the sort of rabid Tea-Party haters who think Obama is Hitler. But they clearly had an idea about “liberalism” that was inconsistent with the sort of speech I had just given.
I hadn’t been trying to tilt that speech to appeal to conservatives. I assumed – correctly – that the audience would lean left, and spoke accordingly. I emphasized that crime control was a central part of any policy to help poor African-American communities. I made a big fuss about the cruelty of unnecessary incarceration and unnecessarily harsh prison conditions. I attacked the defenders of torture. I made fun of the Heritage Foundation for opposing nurse home visitation. I made fun of politicians who support the death penalty. I offered support for the legalization of cannabis on non-commercial terms.
Had I been less tired, I might have asked my two new acquaintances what it was about my talk that they found non-“liberal,” and what sort of creature they thought a “liberal” was such that I didn’t qualify.
All I can figure out is that conservatives have managed to create an imaginary “liberal” who isn’t opposed to crime but is opposed to any sort of punishment. Or perhaps these folks used “liberal” to designate, not a political viewpoint, but simply a lack of moral standards. Scary.