LAST YEAR I appeared on a television program, a kind of debate, with William A. Rusher, publisher of the magazine National Review. Mr. Rusher is a self-declared conservative. He is also precise about the definition and use of words. In the course of our meeting, he repeatedly made the point that he and his ideological compatriots are not "neoconservatives," but that they belong rather to the "new right." Since I had made no attempt to categorize Mr. Rusher, I could not quite understand his anxiety about "neoconservatism," and anticipated that possibly he was going to make further distinctions, possibly with respect to "plio-conservatism" or even "mioconservatism."
As it turned out, Mr. Rusher seemed to have some objection to the linguistic impurity of mixing the Greek "neo" with the Latinate "conservative," but this objection was moderate and almost incidental. The serious basis of his distinction was historical. "Neoconservatives," he said, lacked historical purity. The persons so labeled, either by themselves or by others, were former "liberals," he said, whereas the persons admitted to his group, the "new right," had always been "right," as distinct both from the "old right," which he did not define but implied might sometimes have been wrong, and from the "neoconservatives," who, in their previous incarnation as liberals, had never been "right." I was eager to let the whole matter pass as a quarrel among the various phyla of "conservatives," but then Mr. Rusher insisted on calling me a "liberal."
I objected, going back to an old contention of mine, that the word "liberal" should never be used as a noun, only as an adjective. Thus one may be a liberal Democrat or a liberal Republican, a liberal Catholic or a liberal Presbyterian, but never a pure "liberal." This was a posture I had taken up in the late 1950s, when "liberal," having just achieved status as a noun, was being festooned with derogatory prefixes. J. Edgar Hoover, in those days, was warning against what he called the "pseudo-liberals," William F. Buckley Jr. was writing about the "illogical-liberals," and others spoke and wrote about the "egghead-liberals," the "crypto-liberals," and so on.
IN THE DAYS AND WEEKS following my encounter with Mr. Rusher, I began to notice that the word "liberal" was again being subjected to prefix transplant operations. The crucial term in this process first surfaced in the "liberal" trade press (especially The Washington Monthly and THE NEW REPUBLIC), and then was picked up in the "conservative" trade press, beginning with an editorial in The Wall Street Journal entitled "The Neo-Libs." The Journal's distinction paralleled one made in an earlier article in The American Spectator, in January 1982. That article referred to New York City's Mayor Koch as "once a liberal purist." Obviously the author meant to label Koch as "once a pure liberal," in the old style. Strictly speaking, a "liberal purist" would be a purist who was rather loose in questions of purity, and thus would be too lax to practice what The American Spectator article referred to as "undiluted liberalism." In this article Mr. Koch is also called "a liberal with sanity," or, one might say, a "sane liberal," as distinguished from, possibly, an "insane liberal."
Both The American Spectator and the journal divided the "neo-liberals" into two classes. One is made up of "traditional liberals" who were once what William Rusher would probably call "the old left" (comparable to the "old right" of his world), but have changed some. Yet they do not want to be called the "new left," as Rusher's associates gladly call themselves the "new right," partly because the old "new left," which scarcely exists anymore, used to be so disdainful of "liberals" of any type, but especially "bourgeois liberals." The other division of "neo-liberals," the Koch type, includes persons such as Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts, who calls himself a "new liberal" and a "revisionist liberal," and Senator Hart of Colorado, who distinguishes himself as a "pragmatic liberal." Both of these wings, I gather, are agreed on one point, namely, that they are different from "unreconstructed liberals."
In the midst of all of these fine tunings, I have concluded that for some time to come the word "liberal" will be useless as a means of political communication and should be allowed to rest, pending rehabilitation.
What has happened to that good word is roughly comparable to what happened to the goat in history. From humble and useful beginnings, as a source of milk and meat, the goat gradually worked its way up through various orders of religious symbolism to the exalted position of scapegoat, bearing the sins of the tribe into the desert, or over the cliff. So, too, "liberal," which began as a modest and useful adjective, became a noun, the equivalent of deification. From there, the goat began a slow decline, and finally lost even its most ardent supporters, who began to question its powers, allowing it to attend only questionable revels. So, too, liberals are now questioning the power of their word. The goat finally became the object of derision, eating garbage, used as the image for lewd old men, and blamed for the loss of baseball games.
The word "liberal" has not fallen quite so low. It can be saved, possibly even restored to good standing. But until it recovers, those who need a covering term might consider the name of a new group, still in the early stages of organization. They are "The Neos"—pure, simple, pristine, unmodified, in no historical or ideological context.
The rules of the new order are simple. First, its members must resist any attempt to attach any modifier, whether prefix or suffix, to the key word, "Neo." Second, they must be willing to cast off fixed ideas, in politics, economics, and the social field generally every seven years. The seven-year period has been chosen for sound reasons. There is strong Biblical support for the number seven. Pagan and Christian civilizations alike have recognized the power of seven. Physiologists say that the chemicals and other physical material of the human body change completely every seven years. Moreover, because seven is a prime number, the "Neos" have a running start on survival. As in the case of the seven-year locust, the likelihood that natural predators will appear in dangerous numbers is scant. Predators with a two-year span would arrive in the second, fourth, and sixth year. Those with a three-year life span would arrive in the third, sixth, and ninth year, either too soon or too late to catch the "Neos" in the act of changing. Those with a four-year span would appear in the fourth and the eighth year, and with a five-year cycle or a six-year cycle miss by two and one years respectively. The "Neos," may propose, because of this principle, one seven-year term for the President of the United States.
The only organized group that has applied for acceptance into the "Neos" is the Pigeon Kicking Society of America, which has only two members, and which has a rule of action, that to remain an active member, one must kick a pigeon once every seven years, or submit proof of a serious effort.
Eugene J. McCarthy is a Washington neologist.
This article originally ran in the June 13, 1983, edition of the magazine.