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"'Shut up,' he explained." Those words are from Ring Lardner's short story "The Young Immigrunts." They're an exasperated father's response from the driver's seat to his child's question, "'Are you lost, Daddy?' I asked tenderly."

They also can be taken as the emblematic response of today's liberals to anyone questioning their certitudes. A response that at least sometimes represents the uneasy apprehension of the father in the story that they have no good answer.

It was not always so. Today's liberals, like those of Lardner's day, pride themselves on their critical minds, their openness to new and unfamiliar ideas, their tolerance of diversity and differences. But often that characterization seems as defunct as Lardner, who died at an unhappily early age in 1935.

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