Sunday, August 26, 2007

Truth in Labeling

[This was originally written on July 26.]

If Hillary is calling herself a “progressive” now, I guess that makes me a plain old-fashioned "liberal".

I say this without a trace of sarcasm - in spite of the fact that, until very recently, I considered myself “lefter than liberal”. Back in college, I ran with the radical crowd, and liberals were derided as almost worse than conservatives. Although they were better than the right wing on specific issues or ideals, liberals were considered enablers of the establishment, more dangerous than conservatives because they offered the illusory promise of meaningful reform through the system. We radicals, on the other hand, wanted to smash the state so that we could start over with a clean slate.

Well, ideals notwithstanding, I grew up and I’m invested in the system now. And I now believe in the possibility of meaningful reform. A self-serving belief, no question, because I have so much more to lose, but it’s also a belief informed by an extra 35 years of experience - and a tolerance and pragmatism rarely found in youth.

So why am I embracing the term “liberal” when most of the mainstream political world has thrown it off like cooties? Because I think the only way out of this fog of anger and despair is through clear thinking, and clear thinking requires clear speaking.
The right wing has made a concerted effort to cloud minds through disciplined manipulation of language. The pertinent example here is the moment during the 1988 presidential campaign, when Bush the elder made “liberal” a dirty word by tagging it with the epithet “the l-word”. Democrats have run from the word like frightened rabbits ever since.

There’s no point in gong into the etymology of the word “liberal” or defending its philosophical integrity here -- others have already done that more extensively and effectively. But now Hillary says she prefers the label “progressive”, claiming it has a more “American” heritage - going “all the way back” to (soon-to-be-Republican) Theodore Roosevelt’s “Progressive” Party. “Liberal,” Hillary complains, has meant “so many different things”. Well, you can’t get more “American” than George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who praised our constitutional government for promoting “liberal” Enlightenment values. Hillary is simultaneously courting the left wing of her party (which adopted “progressive” as a code word for liberal instead of defending it) and inoculating herself against continuing attacks from the right (she’s no liberal, either).

I find value in both conservative and liberal principles and practices. I do not think they are mutually exclusive, but rather contextually chosen. And for this reason, I find “liberal” and “conservative” are extremely unhelpful as polar opposite labels for describing political parties. The current version of the Republican Party is hardly conservative in many significant ways -- fiscal and military being only the most obvious dimensions of their disconnect. The original Republican Party - the so-called “Party of Lincoln” - was the liberal party of its day.

Why I wish I weren't a liberal: liberals are often deservedly excoriated for being wishy-washy. But if this is a weakness, it cannot be separated from the core strength that is its source: tolerance - an openness to new ideas and an acknowledgement that one does not know everything and, on any given point, might possibly be wrong. This quality is essential for survival: it supports adaptation. But it is also frustrating when it causes good people, who are essentially correct in their political analysis, to waver in the face of unyielding opposition. Tolerance is an important principle, but perhaps not the most important one. Tolerance is a liberal principle, but certainly not the only one. When does tolerance slip into blindness (blind justice?) and when is it a mask for cowardice?


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