Sunday, October 22, 2006
What it means to be a liberal
I typically don't like using labels like "liberal" or "conservative". These days they are so nebulous and generally used only as perjoratives by the other side. Plus there is the whole "package deal" problem. If you claim to be "liberal" on some issues, people will assume you must buy into the whole liberal worldview (whatever that is). Thus, if you are anti-war for instance, you are automatically assumed to be pro-choice, for gay marriage, and in favor of big government (never minding the fact that these days the Republicans seem to be the party of big government). That's why, personally, I generally prefer the term "progressive" to describe my politics. It's less defined, and thus there's more room for a diversity of viewpoints.

However, there may still be some value in trying to reach a clearer understanding of what exactly it means to be a liberal. This was the goal of the recent Chicago Tribune article "What it means to be a liberal" by Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago. You can read the whole article by clicking the link above, but in short, he listed 10 descriptors of what defines liberalism in America today. He says:


  1. Liberals believe individuals should doubt their own truths and consider fairly and open-mindedly the truths of others... [Thus] liberals are skeptical of censorship and celebrate free and open debate.

  2. Liberals believe individuals should be tolerant and respectful of difference.

  3. Liberals believe individuals have a right and a responsibility to participate in public debate.

  4. Liberals believe "we the people" are the governors and not the subjects of government, and that government must treat each person with that in mind.

  5. Liberals believe government must respect and affirmatively safeguard the liberty, equality and dignity of each individual.

  6. Liberals believe government has a fundamental responsibility to help those who are less fortunate.

  7. Liberals believe government should never act on the basis of sectarian faith.

  8. Liberals believe courts have a special responsibility to protect individual liberties.

  9. Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, for without such protection liberalism is impossible.

  10. Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, without unnecessarily sacrificing constitutional values.


If that's what it means to be a liberal then count me in. Of course, conservatives might protest that these statements are overly generalized and that they support such ideals too. However, if you read the expanded explanation of each of these in the full article itself, you'll see that Stone does a good job of showing how these get worked out in genuinely liberal policies and how they contrast with a conservative approach.

What I found most interesting however, was that in subsequent letters to the editor, some Tribune readers completely disregarded Stone's definition of liberalism, and instead resorted to quoting the most inane and unfair definitions of liberal and conservative that they could find. Here are few:

"A liberal is someone who wants to salve his guilt with your money."


"A liberal is a person who believes government is responsible for his well-being from birth to grave. A liberal believes he has no personal responsibility for his own welfare or actions. A liberal believes there are no limits to his rights.
A conservative believes the government is responsible for protecting him from foreign and domestic threats. A conservative believes in personal responsibility for his own welfare and for his actions. A conservative believes individual rights are governed by legal and moral law."


"The left does not tolerate any dissent whatsoever. One dares to disagree with the left's agenda is shouted down and reviled. Witness the speech codes on most college campuses.
Anyone who dares to describe affirmative action for what it is - thinly disguised racial quotas - is immediately denounced as a racist.
The left regards the United States as evil and hence unworthy of defense, which is why the left opposes the war on terror.
If the cases don't support the left's view of constitutional law, people like Stone simply pretend they don't exist.
The defining characteristic of the left these days is its intellectual dishonesty, nowhere more clearly evidenced than in Stone's definitions."

"A liberal is a person who is open-minded but only to his own way of thinking, and he thinks that anything goes as long as it benefits him. He is not into anything traditional because it may not go along with his way of life.
To a liberal, God is not in the picture because in essence he is god, he wants to do his own thing and he joins with peoploe who think like him...
A conservative is very traditional and cares about others. He seeks out other opinions and will join minds with those who want to make life better for him, his family and the country. To a conservative, God is important because he believes that God created him and the universe."


These definitions are so absurd as to be laughable if they weren't so offensive. This last one especially is just extreme. They should have just come right out and said that in their worldview liberals are all selfish, evil bastards while being a conservative means being a nice, caring human being.

What really gets me though is how they completely disregarded what an actual liberal, Geoffrey Stone, told them liberals believe. Instead of actually listening to the other side and engaging in meaningful debate, they simply reverted to their preconceived assumptions and prejudices. No wonder it seems impossible to have any kind of real dialogue in this country anymore. No one is listening to each other anymore.

There was one editorial letter that I like however, by an F. Marlette from Missouri. They write:

"I am conservative on some issues and liberal on others. I am a human being and cannot be labeled."


Amen

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posted by Mike Clawson at 8:38 PM | Permalink |


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