Jonah Goldberg

Aargh.

Before I explain what's so aargh-worthy, let me offer a very, very brief history lesson. There used to be this terrible country - an empire, really - called the Soviet Union. It was a repressive and cruel nation, which, under Stalin, killed more people than Hitler's Germany. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, and freedom of immigration were essentially unknown. The United States, once allied with the Soviets in order to defeat Nazism, became the leader of a mighty coalition that held the Soviets at bay until one day that evil empire's own internal contradictions forced it to collapse. That, as Bill Murray says in "Groundhog Day," was a pretty good day.

But that's not really the relevant part. You see, in the United States and the West generally, the issue of how to deal with the Soviet threat (Moscow was constantly trying to undermine Western governments, including our own) largely defined how we thought about politics. If you were sympathetic or in any other way "soft" on the Soviets, you were considered a person of "the left." If you were anti-Communist, you were a person of "the right." If you were what many called anti-anti-Communist (i.e., you weren't pro-Communist, but you disliked anti-Communists) you were still considered on the left, but you might have been merely a "liberal." Such was the gravitational power of the Soviet Union's utopianism, that these rough categories stayed for the most part frozen from, say, 1930 to 1989.

OK, back to the "aargh." That's what I say every single time I hear would-be Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko described as a "liberal" and the Moscow-backed Ukrainian prime minister called a "conservative." Almost every Western news agency and outlet has used this formulation. Indeed, this sort of thing happens all the time. In Russia, the folks who believe in liberalizing the economy and the political system are "liberals," while those who want to return to a Soviet style planned economy are "conservatives."

Now, the frustrating thing isn't that such characterizations are inaccurate when discussing someplace like Russia or the Ukraine. It's that most commentators don't understand what it means to be a conservative. When you listen to newscasters or read newspaper accounts of such matters, it seems that "conservatives" are simply the people who want bad things and the liberals are the ones who want good things.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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