Labels don’t stick

The New York Times‘ “Public Editor” Clark Hoyt points to the dangers and frustrations of using shorthand descriptors in public communication, especially when religion plays a role.

Welcome to the unending battle over political and ideological labels: Christian, conservative, liberal, libertarian, populist, progressive, neoconservative, moderate. Times writers intend such labels as shorthand to give readers a fast sense of where players in public life are coming from. But sometimes the words can be so simplistic as to be almost meaningless: Can someone in the Tea Party movement who favors letting states nullify federal laws really be called a conservative? Or they can be too vague: What is a “liberal-centrist?” Occasionally a label seems flat wrong: Al Franken a “moderate”? And sometimes, readers see not-so-subtle signs of bias in them: Why is the American Enterprise Institute almost always called “conservative” in The Times, while the Brookings Institution seldom gets a label, although it has been described as a Democratic government in exile during Republican regimes?


Maybe you should let a newsmaker provide his own label, said [Book Review editor Sam] Tanenhaus, who describes himself as a historian of conservatism and was chosen by William F. Buckley Jr. to write his biography. But self-selection raises other issues.


And what would you call Scott Brown, the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, who was elected with Tea Party backing, supports abortion rights and bolted his party to support a jobs bill? “A work in progress,” said Richard Stevenson, the deputy Washington bureau chief.

It’s a good reminder for Lent, or anytime we pray the Great Litany. It’s in that liturgical form, after all, that we are bid to pray to be delivered

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and

hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want

of charity

May it be so.

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