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Rescuing a Tattered Word--'liberal' View other pieces in "The New York Times"
By Mark Danner January 08, 1989

Having ferreted out the ''sophisticated rebels'' of Europe from Cardiff to Cracow, H. Stuart Hughes found himself rather nonplussed when asked to suggest their counterparts in the United States. ''I simply don't see any real rebels about,'' he finally said, speaking by telephone from his home in La Jolla, Calif. ''There is a parallel in that the dominant, political tone here is also conservative, but there is no parallel as far as the presence of sophisticated rebels on the horizon is concerned - there are critics here but not important movements.''

Why so? ''For decades now,'' he said, ''the political spectrum here has been skewed to the right. Partly it may be that the Europeans did not have the Vietnam War to feel traumatic about. I think it's clear by now that most Americans learned the wrong lesson from Vietnam: instead of seeing in it an example of military values gone wrong, they decided that what the war proved was that America must, in Reagan's words, 'stand tall again.' ''

A former antinuclear activist who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate as an independent candidate in 1962, Mr. Hughes learned his politics at the dinner table - from his grandfather, among others, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. ''My grandfather was more a 'liberal of the right,' I more a 'liberal of the left,' '' he said. He professed ''amazement'' at the way the word ''liberal'' became a term of abuse in the Presidential campaign. ''I think the Democrats must rehabilitate it,'' he said, and begin laying ''greater emphasis on the gap between rich and poor. The 'lower third' in America doesn't vote. If it had, the results of the last election would have been very different.''

© 2021 Mark Danner