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"The Old Labels"

     This must surely be the month in which we notice the
quadrennial election.  I'll try to remain calm.
     Traditional labels for how people regard "the public thing,"
and what to do about the difficulties that come up, have been in
use for a long time.  It's time we re-examined them, and their
background and origin, to see if they are still useful at all.
     We'll start in the middle and work our way to the two
extremes.  We'll have to be careful -- this is very tricky
     The Middle.  These are called Centrists.  "We have no plan
of action and no goals.  We're good at compromise.  It's hard to
generalize about us, but we like to be in charge.  Don't ask for
theoretical explanations.  We'll try almost anything and we'll
hope to muddle through as best we can."
     A Little to the Left of the Middle.  These are called
Liberals.  "Let's loosen up things a little, and be helpful to
those who obviously need help.  Let's try a few new ideas
tentatively from time to time, and be willing to change things
somewhat.  Our label contains an old word meaning ~free.'"
     A Little to the Right of the Middle.  These are called
Conservatives.  "Let's preserve the old values.  Let's not
discard everything.  Let's preserve our traditions and be sure
that we reward those who have worked hard and saved something.
Our label means ~saving.'"
     A Great Deal to the Left of the Middle, beyond the Liberals.
These are called Radicals.  "The whole system stinks.  Let's tear
it down to the very root and build from scratch.  Our label means
~root.'  We need to change everything.  Get rid of all the old
traditions, privileges and distinctions."
     A Great Deal to the Right of the Middle, beyond the
Conservatives.  These are called Reactionaries.  "Let's push the
clock back and make everything the way it all was before all
these new-fangled ideas came up.  Our label means what it says.
Dismantle most of the bureaus, especially those that try to help
lazy people.  Strengthen the old traditional aristocracy.  Resist
change, unless it's change back."
     We can observe in nature that successful species embody some
of the characteristics of both liberalism and conservatism, and
none of the characteristics of radicalism or reaction.  Old
functions and abilities tend to be preserved generation after
generation, while some adaptation to new situations is allowed to
take place.  Freedom to change is combined with an inclination
not to change too much or too fast.
     These old labels come from politics, however, not nature.
Political observations, especially in this century, reveal that
the two extremes, farthest from the middle, become more and more
like each other, as if on the far side of a circle, rather than
the infinitely separated ends of a straight line.  Neither group
hesitates to trample on the rights and lives of people who seem
to be in the way of either "program."  Both radical and
reactionary extremes take ideological views of reality, rather
than realistic or practical ones, and neither one cares much
about individual liberty, in spite of what they may say.
     It's not certain what use these old labels have anymore,
even though you hear the name-calling every day.  "Tired
liberal!"  "Mindless conservative!"  "Dangerous radical!"
"Jurassic reactionary!"  The labels are used very carelessly,
generally.  Anything other than pure centrism is now regarded
with suspicion, and easily laughed at and shunned.  There is a
centrist bias afoot, please note.  It is also worth noting that
reactionaries will call centrists "liberals" or even "radicals."
Gingrich thinks Clinton is a liberal, but he isn't.
     Personally I find myself gyrating rather wildly from one
sector of the spectrum to another.  For a while I was a kind of
liberal, especially regarding the matter of equality, and equal
opportunity for all, but the liberals in power over recent
decades lost my support because of all the wars they got us into,
thinking that could help matters when it can only make things
     I have always had some conservative notions, too --
especially that a person should be allowed to keep and use as he
saw fit the fruits of his hard work.  The abuse of the collective
"right of eminent domain" has always troubled me.  But modern
conservatives don't seem concerned at all about the plight of
those who have nothing at all, even after working hard, and who
now have no work either.
     I was a radical for a while, believing that the system was
irremediably corrupt, and needed to be changed from the root.  I
still think it is rotten, but I no longer think a group of humans
can fix it.  I have no great plan to put in the place of the
current collapsing putrescent structure.  Sometimes I am somewhat
bemused at the privilege we have these days of watching a huge
empire collapse and decay before our eyes.
     But at heart, I find I am, in spite of most of the others to
whom the label is applied -- a reactionary.  Beyond conservatism,
I want to preserve, and go back to, the ancient conditions of
human existence.  I want us to breathe clean, non-toxic, non-
radioactive air.  I want us to drink clean, unpoisoned,
plutonium-free water.  I want us to eat unpolluted, naturally
grown food.  I really do want to go back -- back to a time when
we weren't spending our wealth and ingenuity on weapons that make
the planet uninhabitable, back to when the planet didn't have on
it several times more humans than it can support.
     My reactionary plans are too simple to be tried.  Leave off
the inventing and manufacture of more and more horrible weapons.
Renounce war as a means of furthering any national policy.  Do
away with nations altogether.  Wean humanity from the automobile.
Encourage, no -- enforce population control.  The old methods of
population control were very messy -- famine, pestilence and war.
They are nature's methods, and they will yet be used.  But there
are modern, humane, much less messy methods.  They could help us
get back to sanity.
     The names of today's admitted card-carrying reactionaries
cause an unpleasant visceral reaction in me, when I hear them.
We don't allow their images to come into our living room.  And
yet, if we're to use the old labels, it's the only one that fits
my understanding of our problems and our prospects.  My problem
with those other reactionaries is that I do not believe they
really do want to go back to anything that ever really existed,
unless it would be masters and slaves in Anti-Bellum Dixie.
     I want to get back to something that can't be reconstructed,
I realize.  Life before atomic energy.  Life before the
automobile.  Life before the destruction of the forests.  Life
before the arrival of the Europeans.  Life before the triumph of
patriarchy.  That goes back quite a while.  But yes, I am a
reactionary, after all, -- perhaps a different kind of one.
* * *
Copyright © 1997 Harry Willson

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