Examples of Label Abuse

Stylebook Rules
Quotable Quotes
Relevant Articles
Before & After
Media Bias
About the Editor
"Examples of Label Abuse
are Never Ending"
By Mark Coleman

Editor's note: This was the sidebar to Mark Coleman's article "Just Say No to Political Labels."


Examples of label abuse are never ending:

* On Nov. 22, 1991, an Associated Press writer in Vienna, Austria, reported that, "The rightist Freedom Party, which made big gains in recent municipal elections ... , has nominated a woman to run for president next year."

This brief report did not explain what this "rightist" political party stood for, only that it was headed by Joerg Haider, 41, "who was forced to resign in June as governor of Carinthia after praising Nazi employment policies."

* On Nov. 20, 1991, an AP writer in San Salvador, El Salvador, informed us that, "The army on Wednesday accused leftist rebels of violating their unilateral truce and reported fierce combat in the north in which it said 11 guerillas were killed."

This report did not elaborate on what the "leftist" rebels stood for, or what political system the army represented.

* Also on Nov. 20, 1991, an AP writer reported from Ankara, Turkey, that veteran Turkish leader Suleyman Demirel -- "following his triumph in last month's parliamentary elections" -- had formed a new political coalition within the government, naming to government posts "20 ministers from his center-right True Path Party and 12 from the center-left Social Democrat Populist Party."

These descriptions were left undefined, though we were offered a few generalities about "party corruption, nepotism and lush living by the family of President Turgut Ozal and an inflation rate of 70 percent" having figured in the October vote against Ozal's Motherland Party.

We also were told that, "Observers see few big differences between True Path and Motherland, although the Social Democrats may balk at major economic austerity programs."

* In a similar report involving several political parties, an Associated Press representative in Bern, Switzerland on Oct. 20, 1991 reported that, "A rightist party espousing radical measures to halt illegal immigration (the Auto Party) scored the largest gains in parliamentary elections Sunday."

The chief losers of the election, according to this dispatch, were "the right-of-center Radical Democrats and the Christian Democrats ... The two other partners (in the governing coalition), the left-of-center Social Democrats and the conservative Swiss People's Party, were forecast to have largely held their own."

This report did not explain what each of these political parties stood for, except, again, that the Auto Party favored "curbing the flow of asylum seekers."

The essence of these recent news clippings was that in Austria a "rightist" apparently is someone who favors Nazi employment policies (whatever those are). In San Salvador, "leftists" oppose the army, while in Switzerland "rightists" apparently oppose immigration. Switzerland's "center-right" and "center-left" political parties presumably don't oppose immigration, or at least they don't oppose it as vigorously as the "rightists." And in Turkey, "center-rightists" and "center-leftists" apparently are against corruption and inflation (which, of course, doesn't leave much moral high ground for their opponents).

As we can see, these examples offer little supporting information to justify the use of the political labels, especially if we're trying to determine how public policy positions in general line up on the political spectrum.

What, after all, is the difference between "rightist " and "far-rightist", between a "leftist" and an "ultra-leftist"?

Why would the New York Times (in April 1991) refer to Germany's Red Army Faction as "far-left", while the Wall Street Journal referred to the same group as "radical leftist"?

Why would Reuters say that San Salvadoran intellectual Edgar Chacon (apparently assassinated by "leftist" guerillas in June 1989) was "head of a Salvadoran right-wing think tank", while Associated Press explained that Chacon was the director of a "far-rightist" think tank?

In yet another example of label abuse, AP diplomatic writer Donald M. Rothberg reported from Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 12, 1991 that, according to U.S. officials, "Right-wingers (in China had) issued documents warning that the Bush administration seeks to overthrow communism in the country."

Rothberg explained that -- again according to the officials -- the theme of these "right-wingers" was that, "Communism was overthrown in Eastern Europe in 1990, in the Soviet Union in 1991, and that the (Bush) administration hopes to overthrow it in China next year."

Rothberg's dispatch obviously was taking the institutional approach, whereby calling these hardline Communists in China "right-wingers" alluded to their resistance to change, rather than their strict adherence to a so-called leftist philosophy.

But then consider this Nov. 19, 1991 dispatch from a New York Times correspondent in Beijing: "Purges in China used to be simple: the Communist Party pounced on a 'rightist,' denounced him and forced humiliating confessions from him, and then either imprisoned him or else hacked out his dignity and left him cowering silently. So these days, much of Beijing's intellectual and cultural world is transfixed by the remarkable spectacle of a victim fighting back, particularly because he is one of China's most celebrated writers and a former minister of culture."

And who was the "celebrated writer" fighting back against?

According to the dispatch, it was Communist Party "hard-liners," who, presumably, no longer could denounce the writer (Wang Meng) as a "rightist" because as "hard-liners" they themselves now presumably were the rightists.

The implication of this report was that prior to the Wang Meng incident, Chinese dissidents were branded as rightists, making those in power -- leftists?