I wrote this column in 2002. But I think it’s still relevant:
The word “egregious” comes from a Latin root that means “outside the flock.” Originally, and for quite some time, “egregious” meant “illustrious,” or exceptionally good. But ours being a brave new world, “egregious” now means exceptionally bad.
The word never meant “average” or “centrist;” not even briefly. It just flipped from one extreme to another with no stops in between – just like quantum physics. This phenomenon is odd, but harmless in common speech.
Quantum political speech, however, is another matter. In politics the stakes are wealth and poverty, life and death, peace and war. And in politics, words are law.
“Federal” used to mean a limited, distributed trust between sovereign states. What we call federal government now is actually its opposite; an all-powerful central force that should be called “unitary.”
“Liberal” used to describe our libertarian founders view of limited government; now the word means its exact opposite, socialism. “Conservative” meant a desire to keep status quo. But modern conservatives spend more money, and increase the size and scope of government to a degree and speed that “liberals” must surely envy.
JFK gave the rich their biggest tax cut ever. In 1932, FDR called Hoover a socialist and campaigned for fiscal restraint. The anti-communist Nixon was more socialist than Bill Clinton. Republican Teddy Roosevelt was a tree hugger. And Democratic Senator Byrd of West Virginia is called “Sheets.” …You know why.
Every label, every stereotype, every concept of party we apply to American politics has flip-flopped in the most egregious manner.
So with all the talk about “Democracy” in Iraq, I’d like us to pause, take a cleansing breath, and think before we leap into yet another brave new meaning.
Alexander Hamilton wrote of the early USA, “We are now forming a republican form of government. Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy.”
Benjamin Franklin was more to the point, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
I hope you know that we don’t live in a democracy. Democratic elections are merely the method by which we select our proxies in a Republic. And as any minority should know; real democracy, or majority rule, can mean slavery, Jim Crow, and that the angry mob gets its way.
After the democratic rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and a gaggle of tin-pot dictators around the globe, we really should ask ourselves which we’d rather have; democracy or liberty, because you can’t have both. We should ask if it’ll be democracy, or rule of law, because you can’t have both.
And as we speak the word “democracy” in reverential tones, let’s remember that less than half of our eligible citizens vote. So we may claim great wonders from our democratic process, but it’s only in ignorance of the real blessings of citizen freedom and might, and of all the wealth and opportunity made possible by a “liberal” form of government kept on a constitutional leash.
We need to restore the proper meaning of “liberty,” because even to the imperfect degree that we’d ever achieved it, liberty is what made the USA strong, prosperous, and egregious, in the best sense of that word.