By Selwyn Duke
Writers such as myself devote a lot of ink to the species known as liberals. And when you carry your banners openly on the field of battle, you define yourself and relinquish any pretense at that most illusory quality, impartiality. This places you in the crosshairs, although you can take solace in knowing that your adversaries will always miss left.
Some of the liberals who contact me spew callow vitriol, at times peppered with language that would make a guttersnipe blush. But there’s another type of “liberal” respondent. This person is almost always civil, even when indignant. He’ll query me and wonder how I could ascribe all the qualities I do to liberalism, mystified that I would impugn an ideology possessed of but the most ethereal of virtues. Then, either confused or fancying me so, he’ll provide a dictionary definition, something always to the effect of:
“lib-er-al-ism . . . a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for tolerance and freedom for the individual from arbitrary authority in all spheres of life.”(1)
Well, I’ll be. Only Darth Vader would oppose such pristine philosophy. The problem here, though, is that using a dictionary to understand your politics is much like using one to try to understand your religion. “C’mon, Duke, aren’t you just a conservative trying to rationalize away inconvenient facts?” ask the naysayers. Well, read on.
Okay, so you’ve read the above definition and it sounds like what you would like to be. So you’ve got it all figured out. Are you sure?
First, understand that the meaning of the word liberal is fluid. In the World Book Online Reference Center, 2006 it states:
The exact meaning of liberalism varies with time, place, and circumstance, and with who is using the term. The term can apply to government, social behavior, religion, economics, or other areas. It can refer to a set of personal values or to a system of political beliefs. Ideas regarded as liberal in some cultures may not be considered liberal in others.
In fact, it even varies on the same page of a dictionary. While Dictionary.com does have a definition equivalent to the aforementioned, it also has,
“a movement in modern Protestantism that emphasizes freedom from tradition and authority, the adjustment of religious beliefs to scientific conceptions, and the development of spiritual capacities.”
In fairness, that’s also similar to the first definition, but then there’s this,
“A 19th-century Roman Catholic movement that favored political democracy and ecclesiastical reform but was theologically orthodox.”
Now, today’s liberals don’t exactly cotton to theological orthodoxy, so we’re starting to see separation. “But this isn’t the 1800s,” you say? True enough. Of course, though, the real world isn’t a dictionary, either. But let’s take the next definition.
“An economic theory in favor of laissez-faire, the free market, and the gold standard.”
Well, hell’s bells, what have we here? I, oft-described as a wingnut by some of my un-fans, embrace this principle enthusiastically. Yet, those liberal critics eschew it. Hmm, are they the true liberals or am I?
Are you still sure you know what liberalism is? I’m not done yet.
Truly ironic is when you find that in real life, in keeping with the World Book quotation, the definition of liberalism varies depending on location. For instance, while conservatives in cold war America were ardently anti-communist, their philosophical soulmates in the Soviet Union were known as liberals. Behind the iron curtain, the conservatives were the communists.
The reason for this is as simple as the issue it raises is complex. More constant definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” inform that, simply put, a conservative believes in “maintaining the status quo” while a liberal believes in changing it. Thus, Joseph Stalin and Joseph McCarthy both were conservatives – in their respective environments, that is. Moreover, each one had liberal opponents in his country and liberal allies elsewhere.
But this raises very interesting questions. If a liberal succeeds in implementing his changes to the point where they become the status quo, doesn’t he, by definition, become a conservative? And doesn’t the erstwhile conservative, after losing this cultural war and assuming that he endeavors to change the new status quo, in a way become a liberal?
And this phenomenon can be seen clearly if we examine our political history. The ideology that animated the hands of the Founding Fathers and became prevalent in the young United States was known as “Classical Liberalism.” Embraced by Thomas Jefferson and the other signatories to the Declaration of Independence, it espoused limited government, property rights, laissez-faire economics and freedom from government intrusion. And inherent in it was the belief that man derived his rights not from government but from God.
What’s important to realize, however, is that the designation “classical” was only added to this original liberalism upon the subsequent emergence of modern liberalism. This was to distinguish it from the latter, which had become a different ideology altogether.
Today’s liberalism prescribes government action – in the form of a law, mandate, regulation or program – in every sphere of life, from child-rearing (anti-spanking laws) to hiring (EEOC) to school admissions (quotas) to sports (Casey Martin in golf, Title IX) to diet (banning trans-fats). Its adherents on the Supreme Court gave us the Kelo decision, an attack on property rights. It preaches that government has a place in religion (forcing Catholic hospitals to provide contraception), but religion has no place in government, quite the opposite of Jefferson’s conception of the separation of church and state. Now its minions have gone so far as to attack freedom of speech with hate crime/hate speech laws and even seek to redefine marriage and allow homosexuals to adopt children.
Because of this transformation, today’s rough equivalent of classical liberalism is Goldwater conservatism. (Note: I believe it is a myth that these ideologies are the equivalent of today’s libertarianism, as is commonly held.) And it should surprise no one that individuals of the latter stripe have long embraced the former’s principles. Once the founders’ liberalism became the status quo, it was no longer revolutionary. Then its proponents quite naturally became known as the protectors of the status quo, or, conservatives.
Of course, some liberals would say they’re evolving. But as I have demonstrated, both liberals and conservatives evolve; the question is, how are they evolving and is some atavistic adjustment in order? Let’s examine this with a parable.
Imagine America as a ship. The people aboard are a motley crew, liking different positions and forever arguing over whether it’s best to place the helm in the right, middle or left portion of the vessel. Now, in this tug-of-war, the helm shifts left and right as the strength of one side or another waxes and wanes. Of course, a passenger can occupy any area he wishes. But the further you stray to either side, the lonelier you become, so most stay within earshot of the band and buffet table. Overlooked by virtually all, however, is that the ship is off course and steadily drifting left because engineers working below, out of plain sight, are manipulating the rudder.
What this means is that those who wanted to be on the left still do, oblivious to the fact that the “left” is now further left than before the ship left its previous position. And those who wanted to be on the right are still happy to be there, not realizing that the “right” is now also further left than before. For each group to be closer to where it initially thought prudent, the left would have to move to the right side, and the right would have to untether a life boat and go over the side.
This explains the so-called “neo-cons” and “compassionate conservatives.” On the starboard side of a boat whose latitude and longitude have changed, they’re just the liberals of twenty-five years ago.
And this is why I’m ever more reluctant to brand myself a conservative. Conservatives are satisfied to occupy the “right” side of the political spectrum, not realizing the spectrum has been positioned by the “positioned” (Antonio Gramsci). Liberals are never happy unless they’re on the left side of the spectrum, even though, had they lived a generation before, arrival at society’s present center would have been their greatest ambition. In other words, conservatives tend to be defined by a defense of liberals’ previous conquests, while liberals are defined simply by a desire to change what conservatives are defending.
And this is the problem with modern liberalism: It is an ideology bereft of principle. Because nothing is sacred to liberalism, not even its own provisional principles, it may change society but then is changed by it. When will liberals ever say we have enough laws, regulations, mandates, taxation, bureaucracies, programs, and rending of tradition? Conservatism’s limitations are obvious. Even if it sought to, it couldn’t reduce government to less than nothing. But liberalism in our time has no fixed platform, no end game. It forever seeks to alter the status quo but is always defined by its opposition to it. It is not an ideology as much as it is a process, one by which change is effected but never cemented. It is a rebel without a cause, having long ago forgotten that change is meant to be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Thus, it is perennially in flux, with its only constant being change itself.
So, if you would tell me you’re a liberal, I would ask what I did of a kind-hearted but credulous soul who uttered the same proclamation to me many years ago: By birth or by choice?
Party affiliation or ideological orientation is not synonymous with ethnicity. Some people are so wedded to the word liberal that they behave as if being so labeled is an immutable characteristic. Often very traditional, it’s as if these folks are saying, “Ma’ pappy was a liberal, and ma’ gran’-pappy was a liberal, and ma’ great-gran’-pappy was a liberal. . . .”
But being married to liberalism is to be with a woman who changes with the fashions. One year she’s an alabaster complected flower holding a parasol, then she’s burning her bra. Later still she’s dressing like a pop-tart with her midriff exposed. Then she’s frequenting a workout gym, a tanning salon and a martial arts dojo. Finally you receive divorce papers and learn she’s living with her friend “Rosie” in San Francisco. In the end, as you wonder what happened to the lady you married, you realize that she was never really a lady at all, but a chameleon.
Now, if you are a person this piece is aimed at, don’t misunderstand me. You don’t have to abandon your ideology – it abandoned you a long time ago. This is not your grandfather’s liberalism.
Of course, you may not listen to me. But just know that if you misunderstand what liberalism has come to represent and are loyal to the designation, you may vote for a candidate billed as liberal in the thinking that he is one of your number. But invariably this means voting for leftist politicians who you may, quite correctly, associate with liberalism. Your mistake is that you don’t associate “liberalism” with liberalism.
The end result, however, is that you find yourself ruled by leaders who don’t truly reflect your values.
As for me, I will echo the sentiments of late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “He who marries the spirit of the age will be a widower in the next.” One thing you can be sure of is that the next age’s liberalism will be different yet again, an imposter that cannot boast any consanguinity with Jefferson’s brand, which still exists but bears a different name. Perhaps it’s time to say, its name is my name too?
1. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary