Revisiting the 'L' word

This is the week I finally heard from the other side and it was -- gasp -- more than a whisper.

“I am a tax-and-spend liberal,” said the woman, nearly shouting to make her point. She is a friend of a friend who was visiting from Fredericksburg, Md. “And I’ll tell it to anyone who asks. The church doesn’t do it anymore. Someone has to.”

I’m not the one to comment on what the church does or does not do. But I will ask you this: when is the last time you heard anyone define him-or herself as a tax-and-spend liberal? For me it’s been ages.

It was one thing to say you would be voting against Bush -- Anyone But Bush and all that -- but to bring up the “L” word? In public? Never.

It’s easy to fall into the Republican trap and blame the Democratic party -- they’re lame; they’re scared; they’re disorganized -- but I don’t see it. Sen. Carl Levin, glasses dipping low on his nose, is still reading documents, asking pointed questions. John Kerry has not left, tail between his legs, although he could have. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein are feisty as ever, doing their jobs, dodging bullets, finding holes in the opposition.

It’s the rest of us out on the street who are lame. So my next question is: When did the liberal constituency lose its mojo?

It’s one thing when the mainstream media -- so easily manipulated by spin doctors and scare tactics of the administration -- hops from one not-button issue to another. But it’s another when we ordinary people forget to remind one another about what really happened in the last election.

It was not a mandate that elected Bush, not even close. It was an election dominated by reminders of 9/11, the quagmire of Iraq (and the introduction of a continuous “war” concept, brilliant marketing) -- a war that columnist Frank Rich calls “political Viagra” -- and the fear of terrorism.

Meanwhile, we still have serious social problems. We still have poor people who need help. Did we not learn that from Hurricane Katrina? You can’t tell people who don’t have a car or the money to fuel a car to leave town.

You can’t expect people with serious illnesses -- and no health insurance, no primary physician, no way to afford pharmaceuticals -- to transport themselves halfway across the country.

You can’t count on people with no support system but the people on their block, the church on the corner, the in-laws next door to find another place to live, overnight.

It just can’t be done.

If I didn’t occasionally turn to websites like, I would forget these things myself. I would forget we want smart but underprivileged -- there’s another word we don’t use anymore -- kids to go to college.

We want more student loans -- not less -- for middle class kids to study math and science. We want to recruit science and math teachers through scholarships (that they will pay back by teaching). We want to feed people who are hungry.

The day after hearing someone dust off and throw out the phrase “tax-and-spend liberal,” I heard Kate Campbell singing at Trinity Methodist Church before her appearance at the folk festival. In a Gordon Lightfoot tune, she sang a song of putting yourself out to the stranger who stands at your gate, if you don’t want your house fall down.

Help the stranger? Pity the needy? Align yourself with names like Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale? Shh.

Hearing Kate Campbell sing made two. Two people in a row who had the audacity to suggest -- OUT LOUD -- that the point of government is to help people, and not just rich people. Not everyone can be born on third base -- like Bush -- and claim a triple. Could we be on a roll here?

A few days ago I saw an exhibit at Starland Gallery called “Tug of War, Intimate consequences of political conflict.” For her piece, Natalie Bray, a young and impressive curator for SCAD, laid a large rope in the middle of the room with a noose at one end. Penny Brice and David Jeffreys offered a series of suggestive and anxious photos bathed in red (for blood, I’m assuming) titled, “I Like America but America Doesn’t Seem to Care.”

Michael Scoggins presented pictures simulating children’s art on large lined children’s paper. One read, “F Your War.”

But my personal favorite was Matthew Mascotte’s installation, a sign in red letters on Bull Street that says, “Number of U.S. Military Dead in Iraq.” An arrow pointing to the window of the gallery, where, last week at least, the numbers -- in large black print -- totalled 1,986. It’s his way of raising people’s awareness, he said, of getting people to talk about what’s going on.

Could that be a third person who is speaking out? This is good, very good. But not enough. We need to hear from more people of the “L” persuasion.


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