Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Being a liberal

I decided to focus this week on a few of my favorite things, as a way to stay positive and to concentrate on what I feel good about rather than devolve into complaining.

[Among the list of things I'm trying to avoid complaining or more accurately sounding whiny about is the start of the semester, which has been a rocky re-entry for me at Southern U. after 15 months out of the classroom--I'll write more about that later, but suffice it to say, I'm out of step and out of rhythm with a teaching schedule, although I must also confess that I really do love teaching--I really am a true believer in that respect.]

Anyway, after I read this Op-Ed piece by Bob Herbert in The New York Times I realized that one of my favorite things is being liberal. Although is it a thing, an ideology, or people who are liberal that I love? Not sure. But I will say that, for me, here are a few reasons I am a liberal and believe in liberal ideology and appreciate a liberal perspective in and about the world:

*To be liberal is to be open minded. Quite literally if you look in any dictionary or just do a google word definition search, you will see that the phrases associated with the world "liberal" are broad, big, free, and tolerant of change.

*As Bob Herbert noted in his piece, politically speaking, politicians who were and are liberal made huge civil rights gains for people living in the U.S. Civil rights laws, voting rights laws, environmental protection clauses (protecting both people in their environments as well as protecting the natural environment from people), gender equity and recently in terms of the states of MA and CA, gay marriage, all of these political accomplishments are a result of politicians of all types espousing a liberal ideology.

*Liberal means protecting freedom and democracy. We bandy these words about, especially during presidential elections, but one only needs to read The Economist or listen to BBC or read about the rest of the world to understand that U.S. citizens enjoy a fair amount of freedom and democracy, for all. Not just for those who can afford it, not just for those who can trace ancestry back a few generations (we are all settlers and/or colonizers, even those of us who were forced here through slavery or indentured servitude--only those who can claim indigenous status can really "claim" American sovreignty), not just for people of the right phenotype or correct sexuality or gender. Freedom isn't a finite quantity that will disappear with the first 100 users. Democracy isn't something you buy or sell. Both are available to everyone (or should be) and to believe in liberal ideology is to believe that freedom and democracy are values that should be available to all.

*To be liberal is to want people to have choices--choice of where to send your kids to school, to afford to go to college or choose not to go to college and get a job that is interesting as well as rewarding. I think too often we feel ourselves constrained to make certain choices, and perhaps when I say words like freedom and choice this should not be confused with hedonistically doing whatever it is we want to do--to live soley by a pleasure principle. What I'm trying to get at is that I consider myself a liberal in the sense that I want everyone to have the same access to opportunities--not to treat everyone as if they are the same and therefore equal, but to believe that despite our many differences in character, region, personality, life circumstances, etc...that we all should have equal opportunities and should not want to curtail those for others. This means people get to marry the consenting adult of his/her choice, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion, or a host of other factors. This means everyone has the opportunity to vote who qualifies (18 years old, citizen of the U.S., and in progressive states, this means that if you committed a felony but have served your time you have your full rights restored). And for me this definitely means that I can have a full range of choices available to me in terms of my reproductive cycle.

*But perhaps most of all, what I love about being liberal is that in being so open to possibility and broad-minded, I have the capacity to expand my understanding--to have my mind changed and to be able to changes the minds of others. To understand that one of the greatest challenges of being human is in the complexity that surrounds us. And that this complexity deserves as much liberal thought we can give it. Humans are messy and complicated creatures. We deserve to have big and broad and free thinking, liberal thinking, helping us to move forward in the world.


Anonymous said...

I was hoping you'd post something like this. :)

Let me say in advance I do not mean to be argumentative, and I hope you don't think I'm attacking you. I find your liberal ideals (as ideals, not necessarily in application) admirable, and in many cases agree with them...in principal.

I consider myself a liberal, depending on your definition. Most of the founders of America were considered "classical liberals", and I consider myself close to their ideology. That said, I don't think (my opinion, only) the modern liberal movement in America bears them much resemblance.

1.) Open mindedness. I wholeheartedly ascribe to this philosophy, and I find far too many conservatives are knee-jerk reactionaries, when they're not outright bigots. This is a failing of the right, and I detest it, and I apologize for it. A failing of the left, though, is that they choose what they are willing to be open-minded about, at times...many are not very open-minded about religion, or capitalism, or the morality of self-defense (among other issues).

2.) Civil rights. Again, agreement. I do have to say 90-95% agreement, as I do not consider environmental issues to be civil rights issues (in fact, I feel they run counter to property rights, in many cases). I prefer the terms "natural rights" or even "constitutional rights", myself...do we mean the same thing?

3.) Protect freedom and democracy. I like to think I believe in protecting both of these...to an extent.
Very few believe in complete freedom/liberty...except maybe anarchists. Most agree that one's freedoms are, at least, limited to the point at which they infringe on other's freedoms. The sole issue of debate is at what point this occurs.
Similarly, we don't practice pure democracy in America...and I don't want to. Pure democracy is a tyranny of the majority.
All I can say is that I support as much personal liberty as possible without infringing on other's freedoms, and a form of government that is as democratic as possible without infringing on personal freedom.

4.) Choices. This goes along with (IMO) the freedom/liberty mentioned above...but I note you qualify it (i.e. "freedom is not...doing whatever it is we want to do"). I actually interprety freedom in almost exactly that way, except that it need not be hedonistic. To me, the ability of people to make choices, without harming others, is the most central right of human beings. If one chooses to be charitable, kind, etc., that is a valid choice. If one chooses to be selfish and hedonistic, that is an equally valid choice...in the eyes of the law.
You mention many personal choices that you consider important...are there choices you feel should be denied to people? For instance, the modern liberal movement would generally deny people the right to own weapons of self-defense, the right to hire (or refuse to hire) whoever they want, the right to set whatever wages are agreeable to employer/employee, the right to use/dispose of property as they see fit, and so on. I consider all these choices important as well.
To me, denying choice by law is a dangerous act, that should only be done when there is clear harm and no other means of correcting it.

5.) Broad mindedness. This, to me, is very similar to the open-mindedness espoused in #1, and I find it equally vital and admirable. In fact, if (as aforementioned) freedom of action is so key to being a human being, it's worth mentioning that freedom of thought is just as much so.

I approve of and agree with nearly all of your ideals. I just don't think the modern liberal movement embraces them as much as you think. Naturally, your mileage may vary...and there are bad apples on the right just as much as on the left...which is why the use of partisan labels is so seldom useful.

Jennifer said...

It's funny because I think, from the things I've gleaned in your comments, that we may not have similar voting records (well, we don't live in the same state (I don't think) but I've got a hunch that we may not have voted for the same guys for president).

Yet I think that we also share similar values/perspectives (not on everything but perhaps on many things).

I guess it all boils down to details.

I have increasingly felt that environmental issues are human issues. Even if we believe that there are other worlds to conquer and human life can continue on other planets, I don't think that means we neglect our responsibility for the earth we now occupy. And I think that as a species we've done a pretty crappy job with things. Which is why I wouldn't make such a stark division between environmental issues and human rights issues--I see them as more entwined.

You raise very provocative questions/points about the limits of freedom and rights. No surprise--I am definitely in favor of equity in terms of race, gender, sexuality. People should be free to hold whatever values they want to hold. It's not my place to tell someone who they want to love, what religion they should practice (and thus what practices they should follow based on this religion) or who they prefer to spend their time with or even who to hate. If someone hates Chinese people, so be it. Where I draw the line is someone restricting my access to education, a restaurant, marriage, travel, based on my ethnic heritage.

I'm not a libertarian--someone has to fix the potholes. And I agree that democracy can be the tyranny of the majority. If we waited for the country to change their attitude towards women, believing in their full equality, the 19th amendment would have been passed in 1970 instead of 1920. And there are plenty of people who don't believe in full African American enfranchisement, but it was the right thing to do to pass Civil Rights legislation and to try to address the instutional and historic uneven playing field that African Americans had been subjected to for over 2 centuries. The basic inability to accumulate wealth and property and to pass that wealth and property onto the next generation has been a severe liability for African Americans.

Anyway, I'm open to having my mind change and ideas challenged! I mean, if I claim to be liberal I should practice what I preach, right?