From Liberty Street: Labels

John Turner

Some find it disturbing to be confronted with such intellectual independence and have gone to extraordinary lengths to file away Johnson's literary criticism neatly and safely in a pigeonhole marked "Neoclassicism," as they have his religious views  in one marked "High Churchmanship," and, as we have seen, his political views under "Toryism" and "Jacobitism."

Donald Greene, The Politics of Samuel Johnson, lvii.

I start with this epigraph not because I'm going to write about Samuel Johnson, much as I find him fascinating, but because it makes points about labeling that are pertinent to our own time.

The first is the assertion that some people find intellectual independence disturbing. If that's true, and I think it is, then we should ask why. Laziness is obviously part of the answer. It's easier to stick a tag on someone than it is to describe who he or she is. Intellectual laziness is the principal vice of our public discourse. It has got so bad that much of the time when journalists or politicians speak, it is impossible to know what they are talking about. They throw labels around recklessly, usually not so much for the sake of defining their own positions as for defiling others. In many circles, it's enough to say that someone is a "liberal" or a "conservative" thoroughly to despoil his reputation. This is a conspiracy between lazy writers and lazy readers.

People in search of clubs or battering rams are disturbed by independence because it lessens their ability to wield someone as a weapon. If a man is "clearly" a conservative he can be used to batter a liberal, and vice versa. And it works that way whether or not either the club or the person being clubbed has taken clearly defined ideological positions.

Probably, though, the most potent reason independence is bothersome is that it points to the possibility of assessing a program or a position without knowing its sponsors. Independence allows one to say what a program will accomplish, and who will be hurt by it and who will be helped. And it's that possibility which modern political operatives most want to squelch.  The mode of political argument in vogue now lies in claiming that a program will be either good for everyone or bad for everyone. The obvious impossibility of being either is no barrier to the increasing use of the argument.

Neat and safe pigeonholes are the tools of pedestrian minds. Not only do they offer a good place to park other people, they provide a easy place to park oneself. If one is in the pigeon hole he doesn't have to bother with thinking about anything. He simply spouts the pigeon hole message and then goes off to happy hour. And many people are content with that sort of security. They console themselves with the thought that, all in all, party discipline is a good thing, so why let your thoughts wander outside what the party has decreed?

The more labels are used the less meaning is able to emerge from political dialogue. And when they dominate, political dialogue becomes merely babel. All talk becomes raw emotion. Politics is simply expressed anger. Nefarious interests are able to cover up what they're doing. The nature of the nation is transformed into something that is never expressed. The rights of individuals are trampled by vague goals.  We're pretty close to that position now in this country.

It's probably all right to say that most politicians have tendencies and to use party labels to identify those tendencies. Right now, in America, "Republican" stands for the belief that money and power should be accumulated and used actively by those who amass it. "Democratic" supports spreading both wealth and power as widely as possible and therefore reducing the possibility of transforming conditions through individual wealth and power.  Each is a political principle which can be discussed meaningfully. But beyond using principles of that sort to clarify where a person stands, labeling perplexes our actions more than it enables them. If we could begin to step away from them, political reason would be enhanced. Also, we would begin to know who our political power-brokers actually are.

Furthermore, if independence became permissible it might be possible for independent minds to achieve political influence. When we survey the governmental scene in America now, we see, immediately, that nothing is more needed than that.

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