The go-to word this week for people seeking to demonize their opponents is “radical.” It’s a handy way of saying a person is going too far, in the wrong direction, in the speaker’s opinion.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver flung the word at opponents of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat. “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” he said in an open letter, referring to aboriginal leaders and others who fear the pipeline will result in calamitous oil spills on the B.C. coast.
In Toronto, columnist Marcus Gee noted that some city councillors had lobbed the word at Mayor Rob Ford. He quoted Adam Vaughan: “What we have here is a radical conservative agenda to shrink our capacity to pay for things and as a result force us into making cuts.”
Radical is not the root of all evil, but it started with a root. The word derives from the Latin radix, root, also the source of radish. When radical entered English in the 1300s, it meant concerned with the essentials of life. Only in the 1600s did it acquire the sense of going to the root of things, as in the medical sense of radical surgery. The political sense of cutting a system back to its roots emerged in the late 1700s.
Radical is in the eye of the beholder – one person’s reformer is another’s revolutionary menace – and fashions change. Ambrose Bierce wrote in The Devil’s Dictionary that radicalism is “the conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.” Gilbert Seldes, in his 1961 compilation The Great Quotations, described a then-recent poll that asked people to comment on paragraphs from the U.S. Bill of Rights. “Several were so frightened by the ‘radical’ ideas that they refused to go on record, and the majority of those who did declared them dangerous, un-American, even ‘red.’”
Radical (or rad) even enjoyed a stretch as a synonym for excellent and cool. California surfers used it in the 1960s, the San Fernando Valley picked it up in the 1970s and it entered general slang, flaring up in 1990 with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for whom “radical” and “awesome” were mantras.
Those who see radical as a positive word are in the same camp as 19th-century religious leader Phillips Brooks (“In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a radical”), U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (“I am in every fibre of my body a radical”) and president Woodrow Wilson, whose words a century ago have an ironic ring in the context of an oil pipeline: “I tell you the so-called radicalism of our times is simply the effort of nature to release the generous energies of our people.”
Those who see radical as a dirty word are in bed with president Franklin D. Roosevelt (“A radical is a man with both feet firmly planted in the air”) and, um, gangster Al Capone, who said in 1929, “Don’t get the idea that I’m one of these goddam radicals. Don’t get the idea that I’m knocking the American system.”
Before Joe Oliver grows too fond of bandying about the word “radical,” he might consider that it has been interpreted in ways that would not flatter the governing Conservatives or the cause of the pipeline. U.S. historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., whose son of the same name advised John F. Kennedy, defined a radical as “a person who, in contrast to the conservative, favours a larger participation of the people in the control of government and society and in the benefits accruing from such control.”
But let us end on a philosophical note, from 19th-century humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw, pen name Josh Billings. “If a man is right, he can’t be too radical; if he is wrong, he can’t be too conservative.”