I PROPOSE, for the sake of putting handy labels on history, that this country adopt the Chinese system of naming years after things -- year of the dragon, for instance -- and designate this the year of the oxymoron. An oxymoron is not a dumb ox nor an animal of any sort. It is instead a figure of speech in which contradictory ideas are expressed -- thunderous silence, for instance, or to cite the currently fashionable one, "liberal on social issues and conservative on economic ones."
This is a phrase that is turning up with some frequency. It is repeatedly used in the newspapers, sometimes as a way of describing a political figure, sometimes as the way the political figure describes himself. A version of it was recently for instance, as a way of describing the political philosophy of Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) who described herself as a combination of "perfume and steel" meaning, we are told, a conservative on economic issues and a moderate on some social issues.
In Hawkins' case, this moderation on social issues is exemplified by being opposed to both abortion and the equal rights amendment and by proposing a news blackout about President Reagan's alleged assailant, John W. Hinckley, lest others emulate the young man. (On this principle, someone might propose a news blackout of Paula Hawkins.)
Hawkins' "perfume and steel" may seem more steel than perfume, but whatever it is it is more consistent than the true oxymoronic politician who would stake out a position in favor of abortion (liberal on social issues) and yet refuse to fund a program whereby poor women could get one (conservative on economic issues) or who would thump his chest in the name of racial equality and integrated education, but then sit on his wallet when it comes time to fund programs that would implement those lofty ideals. In the waning days of the civil rights struggle, for instance, there was many a politician who was both for civil rights and states rights -- one of the great oxymoronic propositions of our times.
I am not sure, really, what is meant by the oxymoron about liberal on social issues and conservative on the economic ones -- just exactly what the people are really thinking. Words are often imprecise ways of expressing sentiments. For instance, a friend of mine, when asked to provide a list of oxymorons, rattled off "military intelligence, airline food, speed mailing, jumbo shrimp, contemporary music. Bob Hope Comedy Hour, television news and religious tolerance" -- thereby expressing at once a political point of view and a certain endearing cynicism which accounts for our friendship.
But it seems that the people who want at one and the same time to be both liberal and conservative are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to appear pragmatic, yet not heartless; sensitive, yet realistic. They very much want to shed the traditional conservative image about not giving a damn about the poor or the underprivileged -- for thinking, in fact, that all these people are getting exactly what they deserve. (You would be surprised at how many people who don't believe in evolution, believe in Social Darwinism.)
But the trouble with political oxymorons of the liberal-on-the-social, conservative-on-the-economic variety is that they mask reality. It sounds fine. It sounds reasonable.It even sounds as if there is some sort of moderation involved -- and we Americans are supposed to love moderation.
Yet we all know that the hard choices are not about sentiment, but about bucks. This is why we are fond of the expression "put your money where your mouth is." The failure to do that puts the lie to whomever might want to have it both ways -- liberal on social issues, conservative on economic ones. One cannot balance the other. Money is what counts, not good intentions. You cannot eat intentions and you cannot retire on them and they will not, I promise you, fill your gas tank.
No matter, Washington is full of people who want to do the right thing, but won't spend the money to do it. You might want to label their statements oxymorons, but the people themselves have a much more common name. They're called hypocrites.