Liberal, Conservative, or Zealot

The Montana I know, and love, was built on diversity, cooperation, collaboration, compassion and compromise

By Denny Kellogg

Well, the elections are over and now we wait for our elected representatives to represent us.

We often ask, “Do we have shared values and a similar world view? What do we have in common? Do our interests intersect?” and ultimately, “How liberal or conservative are they?” Notice I use the adjective forms of these words. As nouns they become labels and labels often lose their real meanings.

As adjectives, I refer to Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged, a 5-inch thick volume that defined our language before Wikipedia and social media interfered. The definition of “liberal” as an adjective includes:

1) Suitable for a free man, not restricted

2) Generous

3) Not narrow or bigoted, broad-minded

I like that.

The definition of “conservative” as an adjective is described as:

1) Conserving or tending to conserve

2) Moderate, prudent, safe

I like that, too.

As nouns, satirist Ambrose Bierce, in his 1906 compendium, The Devil’s Dictionary, defines “Conservative” as “A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

We all know people who spit out “Liberal” like they just bit into a skunk sandwich. We also know folks who use “Conservative” with similar condescending disdain.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is “intolerance.” Montana is not new as a breeding ground for intolerance. It has long been with us.

In 1919, after the passage of Montana’s Sedition Act, Earnest V. Starr was charged with sedition for refusing to kiss the flag when confronted by men in a general store who were pressuring him to buy Liberty Bonds. Starr was convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years and $500 fine (roughly $9,000 today).

When Starr petitioned for release, Montana’s only district judge, George Bourquin, wrote, “Patriotism, like religion, is a virtue so exalted that its excesses pass with little censure. But when as here it descends to fanaticism, it is of the reprehensible quality of the religion that incited the…tortures of the Inquisition and is equally cruel and murderous.”

Many years ago (circa 1970s) there was a hand-painted wooden sign in a front yard as you left the highway to enter Bigfork. It read, “A man’s best friend is his dogma.” I found it humorous but also a bit myopic.

Directly across the street was another wooden sign, carefully routed and prominently displayed. It read “Bigfork School” followed by a quote from early 19th century British Lord High Chancellor Henry Peter Brougham, “Education makes people easy to lead, but difficult to drive, easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.” I liked that sign very much and wish it was still there.

The Montana I know, and love, was built on diversity, cooperation, collaboration, compassion and compromise. These are qualities to be admired.

If you have to childishly stomp your feet and throw a tantrum when your opinion doesn’t dominate the discussion, then you are guilty of zealotry.

Blackfoot Valley writer Annick Smith who, with her friend and co-writer William Kittredge, coined the phrase “Last Best Place” wrote in her memoire Homesteading, “A zealot’s mission – the boring urge to make everyone be like you.” So, next time you’re subjected to some blowhard’s diatribe, ask “Are they liberal, conservative, a bit of both, or …  just another zealot?” Then look in the mirror and ask yourself the same question.

Denny Kellogg

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