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Labels have meaning — often the wrong meaning

A View From the Edge

The word liberal means open-minded, open-handed, generous. But in today’s America it is either a compliment meaning you feel for a more common purpose rather than the self or it can be used as a derogatory statement meaning you are artsy, or against the state, the flag and a host of other neo-conservative values. The dictionary definition no longer means very much in the vernacular use in the media or political discourse.

Similarly, the definitions and understanding for socialist and socialism now vary wildly. When first used in 1830, socialism meant that ownership of property or values could be controlled, held, by social contract among peoples. In a sense, household insurance was originally a social compact: we all put some money into a pot in case one house burns down, thereby our contribution has social value to the one who lost their home. Seen as an extension, the military we have today is a social compact, as are most of the items we take for granted like roads, schools, airwaves, etc. We all chip in, fulfill our social contract for the social benefit of all, not merely the self.

Now, if I were to say this is socialism (with a small “s”), many people could feel threatened and would call me a Marxist or Commie. And, in their interpretation, they could be right since socialism has been redefined through insult and vernacular use to mean control by the state over the will of the people. Of course, tell that to someone in a social democracy like Germany, France or a host of other civilized countries, and you would be insulting those people who have spent decades fighting and opposing all forms of communism, Marxism and absolute socialism.

So, does the person who uses a word incorrectly, like liberal or socialist, have a new definition we all must adhere to? Are they right? Since they absolutely believe they are right, that liberal is anti-establishment and socialist is commie — and belief is practically impossible to reason with — we have to accept that to maintain a dialogue with those who are so dead wrong requires us to change. So, rather than affirm they are wrong in their belief, which obviates any dictionary definition, let’s find a different handle to keep the dialogue going.

I propose that anyone who is anti-liberal must believe the historical values of the state is right when set against the newer morals and values of the open-minded. But we need to be able to discourse with those who are anti-liberal without insulting or denigrating their wrong beliefs of who or what a liberal really is. So, I am no longer going to be labelled a liberal. I will redefine myself as open-minded. “Open-minded” is not against any statist beliefs — I profess no side except by reason — and I retain the right to question everything.

I also propose that I am not a socialist in today’s world, especially not a Socialist with a capital “S.” I do believe in, it would be fair to say, a socially democratic way of life. I do enjoy roads. I do benefit from air traffic control, I do need medical standards (especially now), I revere the social sacrifice the military, firemen, police and others who protect us make every day. It is fair to say that as I receive the social benefits from those I help support and who, in turn, help to support me, that we have a social compact, linked together in the fabric of the nation’s needs. As such, it is fair to call me a democratic socialist within that context. In short, I believe in the needs of all my fellow citizens over the self. Let’s call that selfless instead of socialist.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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