January 07, 2024

The liberal virtue standard: words rather than action

 Sam Smith – Although your editor graduated from Harvard magna cum probation, I do feel compelled to say a word on behalf of that college’s president who is currently under attack for committing the current greatest liberal sin: saying something the wrong way. As the son of a man who worked for the Roosevelt administration and helped to end 69 years of GOP rule in Philadelphia back in the 1940s, I have a sense of how liberalism has changed as its forces have become better educated. Central to this change has been a decline in effective politics and a rising emphasis on the proper verbal perspective.

One of the ways I became aware of this was living most of my life in DC, about four decades of which in a city that was majority black. It was here I I learned that if you wanted to bring cultures together you didn’t just say things, you found things to work together on in common. In the case of DC that included home rule, statehood, and the most successful anti-freeway fight anywhere. In the latter example, an early protest meeting I covered included two speakers: one from the overwhelmingly white Georgetown neighborhood and a black guy who headed something called Niggers Incorporated. I early sensed we were going to win.  And in my fifty year friendship with Marion Barry he called me everything from a “cynical cat” to a “son of a bitch” but we could still find common ground on which to act.

Now we find liberals arguing over whether four college presidents said the right things about Jews and Israel when testifying on Capitol Hill. One has already resigned.  Yet their topic wasn’t Zionism or anti-Semitism but the actual things that were happening in and around Gaza. If you want, for example, to see how complex the word Zionism is check Wikipedia for it and for “Anti-Zionism.” But if you want to to deal with the current crisis, you won’t find the answer in the right definition.

If you’re the president of a university you have to deal with a lot of language junkies but if you want to create change you have to come up with actual actions and projects that appeal even to those who don’t have the right words.  The current liberal crisis is due in no small part to being unable to speak to, and converse with, those  who don’t share elite language. As my high school math teacher used to say, “Speaka United States."