May/June, 1999 Volume XIII Number 6

Still radical after all these years -- but not on the fringe

by Paul deParrie

Phylology becomes me.
As one who works with words, I have to love them and study them. As Mark Twain was fond of saying, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”
Popular language sometimes changes the uses of words -- even reversing their meanings in the way they are used.
We see this in the use of the word “moot.” We hear people say dismissively, “It’s a moot point” as though the “point” were inconsequential, or has been preempted from discussion. The dictionary gives a whole other definition. Something that is moot is “subject to argument or discussion, debatable.”
There isn’t even a secondary dictionary definition to fit this usage -- yet.
That’s how it begins, though. First the common usage changes, then dictionaries, to stay “in tune with the times,” begin to surrender to the usage. This is particularly troubling when Latin, Greek, or other foreign-language adaptation of a word begins to mean the opposite of what the foreign word’s historical meaning.
I’m not opposed to language “growing,” but it should do so without becoming Orwellian.
Well, it struck me the other day as I waded through media reports about me and my fellow travelers, that the reversal was happening again. We have nearly lost the word “radical.”
Over and over, I read the term “radical fringe” in relation to people like me.
Now, I don’t mind being called names, but, for Heaven’s sake, do so with some accuracy!
Let us first take the word “radical.” It comes from the Latin meaning “from the center, root, source, or heart.” We see it used in such English derivations as ray (something emanating from a center or source), radius (the line which radiates from the center of a circle), and radiator (which radiates heat from a center or source). Add to that radiation, radio, radial, and radiant and you begin to get the picture.
This means that the “radical” should be someone who is at the center of an issue and whose activism radiates from that center. This, sadly, is one of the words which has been diminished in dictionaries because of popular usage.
Fringe is the last thing which is “radical.” A fringe is the outer perimeter of something, not its source or center.
Picture it this way: A point is a one-dimensional object. A circle is two dimensional because it is a line or series of points. Inside every circle, there is a point called the center. A line coming from that point to any point on the circle is called a radius, but it is the circle which is the “fringe.”
In the last century, the radical Abolitionists demanded nothing less than full recognition of the rights of all people -- including Blacks. Others who sought lesser solutions were the fringe.
In the anti-abortion movement, those whose center is the ultimate value of every innocent human being from the moment of fertilization until natural death are the radicals. Their actions radiate from that immovable principle.
People who believe in “exceptions” for abortion have a different point of origin -- one which may deem some innocent lives worthy of protection, while others are not. The criteria for worthiness, i.e., having a non-rapist for a father, having a certain level of physical normalcy -- vary from individual to individual, group to group.
Groups like National Right to Life are not “radical” -- and don’t want to be thought so. They are on the fringe of the anti-abortion movement. They wish to outlaw or encumber some abortions while other babies are deemed politically or socially expendable. Some babies are allowed to be killed with impunity while the group protects others. They argue that eventually they hope to outlaw all abortion. As foolish as it seems, they subvert the radical principle in a pragmatic effort to establish the principle. This results in the blindness that they display about the largest abortion mill around -- the pharmacy! They -- again pragmatically -- refuse to acknowledge chemical abortion.
Such groups -- and people -- are anti-some-abortion. Some may even be anti-most- abortion, but their principle does not radiate from the principled center -- the sanctity of life.
Deny it as they might, they are the real fringe of the anti-abortion movement.

"Still radical after all these years"
Wanted: Free Speech
Bye, Bye, Blackmun
Anti-abortion site doesn't cross the line