Liberal as in Liberty and Freedom. Iranian as in Cyrus and Ferdowsi.
Politics, Names, and Meaning
Learning the labels of the political spectrum is one of the first steps of political awareness. The primary function of these labels is to distinguish between alternative and/or opposing factions and their ideas. But, politics is also an emotional affair and, unfortunately, more often than not such labels become code words for expressing these emotions, ranging from sympathy to anger and outrage. Devoid of their informative content, they take a separate life of their own, even ending up representing groups and ideas that are diametrically opposed to their literal and historical meaning.
One example is provided by what is today known in the US as "Liberal." Historically, the Liberal Party of England grew out of the British Whig Party
. They stood for constitutinal power, the rule of law and limited governmental powers, free market, free trade, etc. The consistent framework for these ideas is a system of minimum government based on "third-party effects" and "externalities". The main theme of such a program is individual liberty. However, the debate over freedom was muddled by Marxist ideas of economic freedom (mistaken for economic power
), and consequently the label "Liberal" was in effect hijacked by leftists and government-action advocates in the US. Today, the American Liberals often stand for the sort of politics that is the opposite of what the label should mean.
As a result of this situation the true liberals have become homeless. Some of them try to go by the name, Libertarian
. Others have been content to give and receive support from the other political parties who happen to include their concerns in their agenda. Depending on the subject (social, economic, etc.) both Democrats (US Liberals) or Republicans (US Conservatives) have played that role. (I have myself decided to stay the course and see how far I can go with the old label.)
Another example of this semantic detachment is the common mistaken perception of "Conservativism." In its proper meaning, conservatism must be the label for a political program based on conserving the past or current state of the society and/or system of government. As such, the practice of conservatism is without firm principles of an independent system of thought. Also, one would expect that its ideas and policies must be a function of locality and history. But, in today's politics, Conservativism seems to stand for simply the opposite of Liberalism. So the above confusion about the latter is projected to a similar confusion about the former.
Such misconceptions have also led to a paradoxical mapping between the political spectra of different countries. For instance, a commonplace mistake is to identify the labels of political groups in the US, a free society with a democratic government, with those of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a repressive and theocratic establishment. I have myself been guilty of thinking in terms of this mapping for a short time. As a result, we hear casual commentors as well as serious analysts talk about the "similarities" of Conservatives in the US and in Iran. Ahmadinejad is labeled a neo-con, and Khatami a Liberal.
Without reference to the political systems of these countries such statements are hardly different from gibberish. Conservatives in Iran aim at maintaining the traditional, pre-modern, and religious structure of the society and the government, whereas the Conservatives of the US strive to conserve a system which has been conceived as a democracy from day one. As such, they could not be any more different than tyranny and freedom. Such mappings and analogies stretch the meanings of the names so thin there remains barely any meaningful concepts in terms of which a coherent and rational thought could be formed or expressed.