Commentary: That dirty word 'liberal'

The Miami HeraldMay 9, 2010 

Maybe you remember Pavlov.

For those who slept through Psych 101, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian physiologist famous for his research into what came to be called the conditioned reflex. Pavlov taught a hungry dog to associate the ringing of a bell with the sight of food. After awhile, that sound would cause the dog to salivate even when there was no food in sight.

Pavlov proved an animal could be trained to respond automatically to a given stimulus. American Spectator is about to prove it again.

As reported by Media Matters, the liberal media watchdog group, that conservative magazine recently sent an e-mail to subscribers, begging for $26,000 to cover a "shortfall created by the perverse incentives of the liberal agenda." The note never bothered to explain what perverse incentives it meant, so I asked publisher Alfred Regnery, who wrote it. He told me the price he pays for paper is about to rise to cover increased labor, health care and tax costs anticipated under the liberal gang now running Washington.

Higher paper prices? I ran that by The Miami Herald's Vice President of Operations Craig Woischwill, i.e., the guy who buys the paper. "Pricing's not too bad right now," he said. "Little bit of upward pressure. It was higher about a year and a half ago."

How much higher? "At the end of 2008, newsprint was around $700 [a metric ton]. At the end of 2009, it was around $480. Right now, we're around $515."

And what of the role of perverse liberal incentives in that fluctuation? Woischwill laughed. Paper prices go up and down due to supply and demand, he said.

In other words, the free market at work. Imagine that. Not that I'm here to argue the price of paper. No, I'm here to parse Regnery's incantation of one word: liberal.

Conservative pols and pundits have done an astonishing job of rendering that word a synonym for a kind of birth defect that leaves one effete and nonsensical, even as they made "conservative" interchangeable with the healthy patriotism of the common folk. If you didn't know better, you'd never know liberals fought to end segregation and child labor — or that conservatives opposed them.

This is not to say conservatives have never been right (Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall) or liberals wrong (Let's bomb Afghanistan with butter). Rather, it is to note how successful conservatives have been in redefining those terms for their own use -- and in getting people to respond to them in predictable ways.

The byproduct of this chicanery is seen in the troubled political fortunes of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Arizona Sen. John McCain, conservative Republicans forced to, on the one hand, leave the party and on the other, reverse long held positions. Because in an era where ideology equals identity, their tendency to sometimes think an independent thought is heresy.

The byproduct is also evident in American political discourse, which increasingly takes place in alternate realities, spewing forth great clouds of words that say nothing. But if these are hard times for independent thinkers and political discourse, they are boom times for politicians, pundits -- and publishers -- who have mastered the simple-minded Pavlovian politi-speak of the day: conservative, good; liberal, evil. It's telling that even liberals don't use the word liberal any more.

It's also telling that American Spectator felt no need to mount even a dubious argument about paper prices in asking readers for $26,000; it was sufficient to say the magazine was under siege from -- ugh -- liberals.

And I have no doubt the readers will come through. One is reminded of Pavlov's poor dog, salivating helplessly whenever the bell was rung. Though I suppose the comparison is unfair in a way.

After all, dogs can't reason.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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