The New York Times

August 17, 2003

The Defanging of a Radical Epithet


The left-right distinction was born in revolutionary France, but Americans didn't adopt it until the New Deal era. It seems to lay out the political topography along a conveniently symmetrical spectrum. But like any map projection, it can distort the landscape it depicts.

Take "leftist." As a pair with "rightist," it had a long history as a purely descriptive term before the McCarthyites adopted it as a label for Communist sympathizers and subversive organizations.

Just before the 1952 election, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy accused Adlai Stevenson of being unfit for the presidency because of his association with "leftists" like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who had defended the right of Communists to teach in universities. (Schlesinger had qualified his position by adding, "so long as they do not disqualify themselves by intellectual distortions in the classroom," a clause McCarthy ignored.)

That same year, Americans for Democratic Action indignantly denied charges that it was a leftist group, pointing out that it had worked at "purging the American liberal movement of individuals with loyalties to Communism."

Leftist was not a word to be used lightly, even by the right. In a 1954 editorial, The Wall Street Journal worried that McCarthy's "slam-bang denunciations of . . . `leftist' influence" were making him a "depreciating asset" to the Republican Party, with the quotation marks around "leftist" holding the word at arm's length.

By all linguistic rights, the leftist label should have disappeared from the lexicon as McCarthyism faded, and as labels like "communistic," "fellow traveler" and "Communist sympathizer" (or "comsymp" for short) were going the way of the poodle skirt. But leftist lingered, shifting its reference to antiwar demonstrators. Only after the Vietnam War did the word begin to decline as an epithet, though it was still routinely used in foreign news reports.

Then, in the late 1990's, leftist underwent a sudden revival. The word is 50 percent more frequent in major newspapers and magazines now than it was five years ago, with almost all the increase a result of its use as a label for domestic groups and individuals. Apart from the odd reference to Angela Davis or the Spartacist League, leftist nowadays is almost never used for old-style radicals or Marxists. In fact it was the eclipse of the "movement left" and the fall of Communism that left the word a phantom finger that the right could wave in the culture wars.

In 1954, the Girl Scouts of America was labeled a leftist organization when the American Legion and the House Committee on Un-American Activities accused it of permitting an ex-Communist to serve as a troop leader and of using a handbook that preached "U.N. and World Government propaganda." When the leftist charge is repeated now, it's because the scouts permit lesbians to be troop leaders and support programs like Title IX.

A few years ago, a contributor to National Review urged Republicans to purge "leftist influences" from the party, citing the support of Gov. Jane Swift of Massachusetts for legal abortion. An opinion article in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., called Senator Arlen Specter a leftist for his support of cloning research and gay rights, and other commentators have applied the word to senators like Lincoln Chafee, Byron L. Dorgan and James M. Jeffords, not to mention liberal evergreens like Senators Charles E. Schumer and Edward M. Kennedy.

On the Web, Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon are more likely to be labeled leftists than Fidel Castro is. And Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal has attached the word to the Dixie Chicks an odd choice to inherit the mantle of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

These days, it's hard to tell leftists and liberals apart without an agenda. Hence the increasing popularity of "liberal-leftist," which merges categories on the model of compounds like "toaster-oven" and "owner-occupier." (Linguists call those "dvandvas," a term invented by the Sanskrit grammarians.) Peggy Noonan has used the double-l word to describe abortion-rights groups, and during Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate race, the conservative commentator John Podhoretz described her as "running as an unapologetic liberal-leftist."

But liberal Democrats never describe themselves as leftists, not even apologetically. (For that matter, there aren't many who are willing to describe themselves as liberals, either.)

That's the fundamental asymmetry of the left-right distinction in American politics. Historically, the left commences where liberalism ends. But conservatives have never demurred from placing themselves on the right, letting qualifiers like "mainstream" and "extremist" do the work of sorting out the bow-tied Alsopians from the fatigues-wearing abolish-the-I.R.S. crowd. True, many conservatives are uneasy about the label "right wing," and though a few call themselves rightists, the word sounds too exotic for most to put it on their business cards. But no one feels the need for a compound like "conservative-rightist" there's no distinction to blur in the first place.

The new uses of leftist exploit that asymmetry. They're aimed at nudging the political center to the right, by portraying social liberals as radicals outside the mainstream. But that's a risky semantic maneuver. In any tug of war between a label and the things it's attached to, the label ultimately loses. Sometimes it's simply diluted to the point of meaninglessness. That happened with the "fascist" label after the left threw it around indiscriminately in the 1970's, and it may very well be the fate of "imperialist" now. But the leftist label is less likely to be superannuated than drawn back into the center. Describing the Girl Scouts or Arlen Specter as "leftist" doesn't demonize them so much as make the epithet itself sound less alarming.

You can already sense a weakening in the meaning of leftist in the way some conservatives use the liberal-leftist combination, treating liberal as an adjective. The Republican minority leader of the South Carolina Senate described a Democratic legislator as "one of the most liberal leftists that we have in the House," and a letter-writer to The Palm Beach Post decried the influence of "extremely liberal leftists" in academia. Fifty years ago, those phrases would have sounded dyslexic don't you mean "extremely leftist liberals"? Now they suggest that "liberal" outflanks "leftist" in many people's minds.

Some will be unhappy about seeing "leftist" become a mainstream category, not least people who still wear the label defiantly. But there's this to say for it: the center divider would line up with the middle of the road.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard regularly on NPR's "Fresh Air" and is the author of "The Way We Talk Now."

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