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Forget political labels, let’s think for ourselves

Essay by Michael S. Smith

Politics – March 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

I RECENTLY FILLED OUT A SURVEY from an environmental group but got stumped by the question about my political affiliation. The right of the scale was labeled “conservative” and the left side was “radical.”

I bristled. Compare the two words: Conservative has a pleasant root, conserve, as in not squandering money or resources. Radical evokes bomb-throwing Russian anarchists. If we must categorize people, “left” or “right” are far less pejorative.

I find it difficult to categorize myself as conservative or, heaven forbid, “liberal.” If the current administration — which quickly converted a large surplus into a larger debt, and wants to open up much of the West to extract hydrocarbons, and favors pre-emptive war — is considered conservative, then surely I must be a liberal. Further, I believe in helping Americans who are poor, lack a voice, and can’t afford basic health care, housing or higher education. Indeed, I’m surprised the word liberal is considered suspect, since President Bush used a common root, when he first proposed “liberating” Iraq.

True, liberals often favor “onerous” regulation, but I’m hard-pressed to think of an industry that has effectively regulated itself. Remember Enron? Have you been reading about corporations backdating lucrative options for already highly paid executives?

But I’m conservative, too, for I feel wise use of our natural resources is patriotic. I am disturbed that too much debate on energy centers on finding new sources, rather than using effective conservation measures. As a Naval officer, I visited Corregidor and the American cemetery in Manila and thought, “We have a right to be here. We paid for it in blood.” That’s a conservative view.

I am at odds with liberals on immigration, for I believe our future is in jeopardy if we fail to control our borders. We have one of the highest birth rates in the industrialized world, and we will not keep wilderness for future generations if our growth remains poorly checked.

I am both liberal and conservative, and I see too much co-opting and frank misuse of these labels. If I must be categorized, let it be for the habit of using words properly.

I have no issue with same-sex marriage, since I think sexual preference is hard-wired, not a matter of choice. But as “the child born on the Sabbath day,” I have long resented the changed meaning of the descriptive word “gay.” We’re told about Intelligent Design, rather than God made it, because the latter hasn’t a prayer (sorry!) of getting approved by most school boards. The “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forest” initiatives were neither. As a former practicing neurologist who treated hundreds of comatose patients, I resented those who tried to place the label “minimally conscious state” on Terri Schiavo, when persistent vegetative state was the proper term, borne out by the autopsy.

We say Right to Life, rather than Right to be Born, even though many are more concerned about intrauterine life than postpartum poverty. The No Child Left Behind law leads to poorly performing schools losing federal money, certainly a curious way of helping schools reform. A disturbingly large number of Americans refer to the Iraq conflict as the “War on Terror,” true only if one considers that our invasion unleashed more of that terror. A developer who builds on “raw” land sounds benign, unless you are concerned about sprawl.

THAT BRINGS ME BACK to the word “radical” in the environmental group’s survey. Perhaps the surveyor was around back in the ’60s, when left-wing radicals were prominent. But radical merely means taking an extreme position. There are radical environmentalists, such as the Vail and Phoenix arsonists, but attacking those who oppose our involvement in Iraq as radicals marginalizes just about anyone who thinks this country is going in the wrong direction.

Next time you listen to the news or are in a conversation, notice the use of catchphrases to over-simplify complex people and issues. We need to carefully analyze not only what’s being said but also how it’s expressed. That takes effort, time and critical-thinking skills. Those who wish to convince us of their opinion hope we won’t make the first, don’t have the second and won’t apply the third.

Is it a radical idea to hope we will change?

Michael S. Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes in Tucson, Arizona.