“Liberal” as a term of abuse

Some voters seem to think that liberalism names a character defect rather than a political orientation.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

16 thoughts on ““Liberal” as a term of abuse”

  1. Professor Kleiman, I worked for you briefly back in 2003 attempting to do research for you and then going off to intern at the now defunct CA senate committee on corrections. I have since been following your blog and, having dabbled in the criminal justice arena in NYC, am back here looking for work. I attended your lecture on Wednesday and chatted with a few folks after. Having attended so many conferences, talks, lectures etc on a wide array of criminal justice topics, I found this audience to be unique in that maybe they weren't representative of criminal justice reform advocates in LA. As soon as your talk was over, people were quick to ask questions about drug legalization and the death penalty and I felt as though they were missing the point of your book, since you said twice that you did not cover the topics in your current book. But I think this speaks to how the general public, the kind that likes to be informed, sees the issue of crime: through the lens of the popular issues of the day. I feel that the vast majority of problems are a result of overcrowding in the system, and so many problems could be alleviated by de-bloating our prisons/jails. Anyways, I feel as though your speech was warmly received because it made sense and that you articulated your points well, leaving out of the discussion the oft repeated complaint of racism, education and poverty being the source of all our criminal justice woes. This issues will be resolved the 12th of never, right 🙂 Unfortunately racism education and poverty are frequently cited as part of any conversation on reform and many conservatives don't want to hear that, and for the most part, neither do I, because it gets us nowhere. I came away completely invigorated and hopeful about Project HOPE and the possibility of nurse visits for poor unwed mothers. The latter has an unbelievable success rate in VT I believe. I think that the fact that you were warmly received by a choir you were not preaching to is a good sign and I look forward to reading your book once it becomes available at the public library, because I am broke!

  2. I think it goes back to a widely held notion (from the 1970's) that liberals didn't believe in punishment for crime. To oversimplify: All crime was the fault of society*. All criminals were good souls that could be rehabilitated. And cracking down on crime was, in some instances, unfair to minorities.

    And then there are those "Hollywood liberals" who generally align with what we'd consider liberal values (abortion rights, redistribution, civil rights, pacifism), but in the case of Polanski there is a huge disconnect.

    * – There was even a Monty Python >a href="http://www.ibras.dk/montypython/episode29.htm">sketch that made that explicit (Man:"It's a fair cop, but society is to blame" Policeman: "Agreed")

  3. Can't speak to your particular case, necessarily, but to conservatives in general "liberal" is just an epithet – like "socialist/fascist/communist/pinko/traitor/baby-killer/etc/ad infinitum." They don't know what they mean by use of the word, because they don't know the historic or dictionary definitions of any of the oft contradictory meanings of those epithets which they use so interchangeably. Again, can't speak with certainty to your particular encounter, but it's not hard to imagine a similar scenario wherein the statement is “I’m glad they decided not to have some asshole talk about crime.” (Or fucktard or shithead or snotty-nosed pile of parrot droppings or other disparagement.)

    Conservatives love to brag about how great the United States is based on the laws and policies established by liberals over the decades, who had to combat vigorously against conservatives at the time in order to accomplish them. Conservatives love Medicare now, for example, although they fought it tooth and nail when it was introduced; they point to civil rights or women's right to vote or genuine freedom of speech (void of sedition laws) as hallmarks of American Greatness, despite having viciously fought against those very things before liberals succeeded in establishing them as bedrock principle. (Of course, a lot of the respect and admiration they voice for those principles is mere lip service, as they routinely seek to undermine them, but the sad/pathetic/scary fact is they actually don't recognize the difference between their beliefs and their behavior any more than they know the meaning of the word "liberal."

  4. I don't know, I think conservatives probably have about as clear a notion of what a "liberal" is, as liberals do of "conservatives", which is to say, not very clear, and hardly a definition the opposition would willingly agree to, but scarcely content free.

  5. Can we chalk it up to the fact that there seems to be a strain in so-called conservatism that is, if not exactly anti-intellectual, largely free of intellectual curiosity? It sounds as if your interlocutors hadn't been exposed to liberalism past the 70s or so, and even then only in a fairly cartoonish way. I think there may be a useful parallel here with the current "saltwater/freshwater" spat in economics, where many of the freshwater school (see Brad Delong for quotes) seem to have decided that the arguments of their opponents were so thoroughly discredited that keeping track of new developments would just pollute their minds.

    (Of course, there's a certain amount of sense in that: if you truly are convinced that government intervention in the economy is meaningless, then learning about the addition of new epicycles is not going to interest you.)

  6. Brett,

    Conservatives don't know what they are, at least according to John Dean (in Conservatives Without Conscience.) If they don't know what they believe in (other than saying, "No") why should I expected to know what they are?

  7. I remember the days when the Democratic Party harbored a fair number of Rosseauvian fools, to whom every criminal was a noble savage, and every cop a squadristi. Remember Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers? Or the Village Voice, when it still pretended to charge money?

    There are a few fools who still fit this description–the Ward Churchills of the world. But the Democratic Party (and by extension, the liberal movement) threw them out in the 1980's and 1990's. I'd like to know how old Mark's interlocutors were. If they were in their 50s or older, maybe they are just working off stereotypes that had a grain of truth when they were young and first learned them.

  8. The problem is that a fair number of liberals *are* reflexively anti-cop and anti-punishment. Ask any liberal prosecutor about the kind of blank stares they get introducing themselves at an American Constitution Society event…

  9. "[R]eflexively anti-cop and anti-punishment" is an absurd charge. Nobody is anti-cop or anti-punishment. Some of us, however, are more concerned than others about abuses by cops (such as tasering people for talking back to them), and by wrongful punishments (such as 50 years for three petty thefts or the execution of someone who is innocent. Some of us are also more concerned than others that a substantial percentage of the people arrested and punished have committed acts that should not be crimes, such as drug possession. If you disagree about liberals' concerns with these matters, then debate them on the merits rather than engaging in ridiculous name-calling such as "anti-cop and anti-punishment."

  10. When I referred to "50 years for three petty thefts," I should have said "50 years for a third petty theft." This was under California's three-strikes law; the defendant had already been punished for his first two crimes. The Supreme Court upheld the law, with the so-called "conservative," "strict constructionist," "non-activist" justices essentially reading the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments out of the Constitution. (When a corporation injures thousands with a dangerous product, these same justices strike down "excessive" punitive damages awards against them under "substantive due process," which they don't even believe in.)

  11. DCuser:

    Depends what you mean by "reflexively anti-cop". I'd say that many or most liberals are reflexively anti-cop worship, which is a pretty common disease out in Wingnuttia. That's not anti-cop, just as being anti-militarism is not anti-military. The anti-cop liberals became pretty rare after the Clinton administration.

  12. "All I can figure out is that conservatives have managed to create an imaginary “liberal” "

    This is exactly correct. If you read Rush Limbaugh's books he states this expressly, and mentions this on his show often. He picked a small group of left winger folks in California and propped them up as a strawman of all "liberalism", and proceeds to knock it down on a daily basis. Ann Coulter and the new group of conservative pundits have followed his lead and basically do the exact same thing.

    To a conservative all "liberals" are the sort of folk you might see in Southern California with a big pink Hummer in the driveway with a sign saying "this Hummer is being driven for breast cancer awareness". Basically they paint all liberals as Hilary Banks.

Comments are closed.