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The Liberal Art of Redefinition

It's up to our generation to retool a poisoned political vocabulary

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

Last year, I wrote that the American left is losing a struggle for language, as conservatives masterfully redefine the political lexicon. Now, going into an election year, many don’t see a “message” in the rhetoric of the Left’s titular leader, the presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Perhaps that message would be clearer if it were framed in a vocabulary that seeks to reclaim the meanings of words that have been poisoned by years of insincerity and extremism. Establishing a new vocabulary is not the point; we need to take the old vocabulary and make it make sense again. Here are a few suggested entries for a recovered dictionary:


I’m not talking about George Bush compassion—or, for that matter, Bill Clinton compassion, which had more to do with style than with policy. Compassion needs to be redefined for what it is—the human capacity to feel another’s suffering as one’s own. In a startlingly divided nation and a broken world, compassion forms the basis for some kind of unity. It means that I, bleary-eyed from studying for exams, have something in common with the underpaid janitor I step past on the way to the dining hall, who is bleary-eyed from working two jobs to support his family. It also means that I have something in common with the Iranian student, also exhausted from preparing for exams, but with more on her mind than tests because she is as involved in a youth democracy protest movement as I am involved in the Institute of Politics. Politically, it means that we take those to task who cause suffering, whether they are treating their employees unfairly or suppressing protest in the streets. The latter is a principle that should motivate our dealings with states as varied as Israel and Saudi Arabia, to take one exemplary region. The former is its domestic counterpart, the belief that human suffering occurs in the everyday, literally in the spaces we share, and that it can be prevented by intelligent taxation and regulation. Whoever tells you this is class warfare is a class warrior of the worst kind: the point of compassionate policy is to regard people as people, without regard to class, having an equal claim on fairness and prosperity.


Again, this has nothing to do with neoconservative strength, the strength to use force wherever we’d like to see change. In fact, the test is often whether we have the strength to not use force. Think of the strength it would have required, in the winter months of 2003, to hold our troops ready outside Iraq until we were dead certain that Saddam had weapons capabilities that threatened our nation. And think of the strength it would have taken to pull the troops back once Hans Blix’s UN inspection team confirmed that a combination of inspections and the threat of force had succeeded in disarming Iraq without a shot being fired. How’s that for a steady hand in times of terror? The point is not to ignore threats, but rather to ignore fear, especially when fear itself becomes a threat to peace. Real strength also means finishing what you start—a call going unanswered in the deteriorating nation of Afghanistan. Our greatest success in Afghanistan is that its chief export is once again drugs instead of terrorism. The President, Hamid Karzai, is effectively the mayor of Kabul, beyond whose borders power lies in the hands of warlords and, increasingly, the Taliban. (Did you know the Taliban still exists?) The world knows that one of the best ways to evaluate strength is to see if a power can keep its promises: Afghanistan stands today as a monument to American weakness.


No word has been more regrettably hijacked in politics than “morality.” Somewhere along the line, its political meaning came to encompass only private morality, the morality of sleeping only with one’s spouse and, if possible, not being a lawyer. It is an enduring outrage of the Clinton era that men who spent their careers undermining human rights, international order and social justice made their names in Congress by positioning themselves as defenders of a morality defined exclusively by sexual conduct. These cannot be the boundaries of morality. There is such a thing as civic, public morality, and it belongs in the vocabulary of any serious politician because there can be no more serious motivation for public service. Because it is characterized by real compassion and strength, public morality includes acknowledging the humanity and rights of homosexuals, though peddlers of hate invoke it to do the opposite. Morality demands consistency in making human rights a guiding premise of foreign policy, not just a retroactive justification for fear-driven combat adventures. And it means that images and evidence of our moral failures should be taken as a stimulus for conscience, not a sign of the need to restrict cameras and protect against leaks.

If you think this outline is about as specific as President Bush’s plan for rebuilding Iraq, forgive me. Columns are short. But time is expansive, and I know of nothing more worthy to fill the approaching years than the project to turn these principles from clichéd and overused words into effective political values. That project should consume the energies of thoughtful, smart people within and beyond the Harvard community who are determined, despite the wearing effects of attending college and reading the news, to approach public problems with hope.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.

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