Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The L Word

(This is the twelfth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning. It's also the most nakedly political post I've ever written. So, for the record, a disclaimer: all ideas contained herein are my own, and come out of my head more or less on the spur of the moment. They are not intended to be definitive, but to be exploratory. They should not be construed as being endorsed by my employers, my family, or my friends, or by any other persons living or dead.)

It has been in my mind for some time to attempt to collect my thoughts on the decline and fall of liberalism. I have watched with discouragement and some alarm the way that liberalism as a political philosophy and has been subjected to disparagement and disdain not only in the chummy atmosphere of Republican clubhouses but in the supposedly "liberal" media as well. The "L word" has become the word that no one wants to say out loud, least of all those who might reasonably be accused of liberal inclinations.

Well, I'll say it out loud. I'm an unapologetic liberal, for what I consider to be more than adequate reasons. And frankly, I'm pissed that the most recent leaders of "progressive" inclination, from Al Gore to John Kerry to Barack Obama, have so readily caved in to the right wingers, ceding the terms of the debate to the conservatives and making concession after concession in the hopes of establishing common ground for a dialogue which their adversaries have no interest in conducting.

To a certain extent, of course, that comes with the territory. The very idea of liberalism is rooted in a potentially debilitating assumption. It's the same assumption that grounds the notion of a democracy and endangers democracy in the face of autocratic foes: the notion that diversity itself is a good thing. That assumption plays out in many arenas, personal and political and educational. It implies that two (or three, or many) heads are better than one, that no one has a purchase on the whole truth, that for one person—whether a fascist dictator or a tinhorn sheriff or a religious fundamentalist of whatever stripe—to dictate the nature of "truth" to another or to force decisions upon another is not just a failure of compassion and respect but a fundamental violation of human rights, that to get a "liberal education" is a good thing precisely because it is broadening and has the potential to teach us about what we don't know we don't know and thereby give us valuable instruction about intellectual humility.

A democracy, faced with a declaration of war by a hostile dictator, will always be at an initial disadvantage. A Hitler or a Hirohito can strike first, without even appearing to go through the motions of marshalling public opinion or political support for the move. (My father in law, a WWII veteran, used to say, with some justification, that the United States had never started a war, but we had always ended them. In the post-Vietnam and post-Iraq world, that idea now seems merely quaint, although there's an argument to be made that in both those cases the war would never have been initiated without explicitly deceptive manipulation of public opinion by the politicians in charge. But that's another essay for another time.) But at least theoretically, a democracy requires that matters of public policy require public debate, and that therefore precipitate unilateral action is unlikely to occur except in circumstances of dire and immediate danger to the country. You want to go to war? We're going to need to talk about it first, which takes away the advantage of surprise. That's a disadvantage we accept because we see a greater strength in democracy in the long run. We believe that a system based in dialogue and trust and collaboration and individual initative will ultimately prevail in a contest dictatorial forces of darkness. It's our foundational mythology, told and retold in our pop culture narratives: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Hunger Games.

Likewise, in any conflict between, say, a liberal congressmen and conservative conservative congressmen, the liberal is acting at several disadvantages. The first is that while the liberal is willing—either by disposition of character or by long experience or by virtue of receiving the kind of education that people like Rick Santorum correctly suspect has the potential to lead them away from passive acceptance of received wisdom— to concede the fact that he might be wrong, the conservative can remain smugly and self-righteously assured of his own correctness. Any concessions on the part of the liberal, any move toward a common ground, as Barack Obama has had many opportunities to learn, can only be viewed by his self-righteous rival as further proof of weakness and lack of conviction. (It's a not surprising but certainly telling indicator of the tenor of the times that even such a transparently beneficial mental trait as the ability to change one's mind—something that educators everywhere hope to encourage in their students—gets translated, in today's toxic political and intellectual environment, into "flipflopping," and is seen as disqualifying factor for a candidate for public office. Which is patently ridiculous. Do we really want people running our country who will not ever consider the possibility that they might be wrong?)

The second is that while the liberal is likely to concede that there may be shades of grey and in fact may be inclined to explore the grey territories in hopes of learning something there, the conservative, seeing things very sharply in black and white, has neither motivation nor inclination to engage in dialogue or consider compromise. (This is did not used to be a necessary attribute of a conservative. It has only become so in recent years.) The third is that due in part to the failures of our educational system and in part to the omnipresent anaesthetic effects of sound-bite oriented news coverage, neither the news media themselves nor the general public any longer seems to have any appetite for nuanced commentary or prolonged, painstaking analyis. If you can't say what you want to say in ten words or less, nobody is going to listen to you any more. Phrases like "Pro-Life" or Pro-Choice" or "climate change" or "Tea Party" or "Occupy" suffice to elicit Pavlovian, grunt-level responses on one side or the other. In a presidential campaign in which the most central issue is our economic sustainability, both sides are spending millions upon millions of dollars on 30-second television spots that try to reduce complex ideas to slogans that can be force-fed to the populace. That's an irony that any thinking citizen, liberal or conservative, would likely decry. But I'm not hearing the cries out there.

What is it that liberals stand accused of? Let's leave aside the core beliefs of the lunatic fringe who have allowed themselves to be convinced that, say, Obama is the Antichrist; or that global warming doesn't really exist. What's left are points of view which have been central to our political debates for decades, but have only recently become areas of disagreement in which one side tries to negotiate compromise and the other side makes its members pledge never to compromise. Which is why, in today's world, when you talk about conservatives and liberals, what you're really talking about are Republicans and Democrats. There are still some conservative democrats left, Obama being an example, much to the dismay of his core constituency. But no liberal Republicans need apply. So what are some of the core disagreements?

Republicans accuse Democrats of being in favor of big government. True, at least by comparison with the Grover Norquists and Paul Ryans of the world who would prefer to see no federal government at all. But seriously, do any of us really want to go there?

Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to raise taxes. True, if you want to have any chance of eventually being able to balance the budget. Even if we cut all government services back to next to nothing, it wouldn't be enough. And it wasn't the Democrats who put us in the hole. The last time we had a national budget surplus was at the end of the Clinton administration.

Republicans accuse Democrats of being willing to accept the fact that the United States is not the Chosen Nation uniquely in God's favor. (True again. We're not, no more than were the Greeks or the Romans or the British, nor will be the Chinese when their period of ascendancy arrives. America is certainly unique. But it is, as a matter of historical accuracy and simple common sense, not Exceptional. It is not and should not be exempt from the same rules of conduct we expect of other nations.

What have liberals stood for? What have they brought to pass? (I'm not talking Republicans and Democrats here. I'm talking liberals vs. conservatives. I'm talking about those with a vision of making things better and fairer for everyone versus those who try to hold on dearly to what they already have and resist change on principle.) The end of slavery. The right of women to vote. Labor Unions which improved working conditions for everyday people. Civil Rights Legislation. Social service programs like Peace Corps, Teacher Corps, and Head State. Social Security. Medicare. The end of the Vietnam War. The end of the draft. Antidiscrimination policies in business and higher education. Environmental legislation. Regulation of predatory business practices.

Every one of these accomplishments, and this is a very partal list, came as a result of hard fought efforts by liberals in the face of rigid opposition from conservatives who did not want things to change, who had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were because it was to their strategic and financial and psychological advantage to do so. Ever one of them included at least some degree of government intervention to force people to do the right thing even when they were defiantly resisting that mandate. And by and large, they are all now accepted as having been integral steps in the Story of America, the branding of America as a land of freedom and justice and opportunity.

So here's what I don't understand. I don't understand how anyone in this country who is working person or a woman or a person of color can look at the history of social change in America in the last 100 years and NOT support at least some part, if not all, of the liberal agenda, based as it is on a societal (and constitutional) commitment to equity and fairness and mutual respect. I don't understand how a group of self-appointed know-it-alls can routinely dismiss the rights of women to make their own decisions about abortion, or can say with a straight face that there is no such thing as global warming, or that the short-term goal getting Barack Obama out of the White House or getting Mitt Romney in is more important than the long term goal of re-creating a legislative environment where elected representatives can listen with some degree of respect to one another and commit themselves, not to partisan posturing, but to arriving at realistic compromises that will be in the long-term best interests of everyone in this country and on this planet. If that feels hopelessly optimistic to you, blame it on the liberal in me.

No comments: