Wednesday, October 11, 2006


My old prof, Geoff Stone, has an editorial in the Chicago Tribune about being a liberal. A few comments on his comments:

For most of the past four decades, liberals have been in retreat.

Not really. I think they turned a corner four decades ago when they decided people should be judged by their race, but many of their greatest successes have come since then. Not only affirmative action, but numerous government programs and judicial decisions. And there's been a corresponding change in consciousness regarding many issues where they've won so big that no one even thinks about it any more. For instance, gays not being allowed to marry is considered a defeat, whereas 40 years ago homosexuality was an illness. If there's been a "retreat," it's mostly because they're victims of their own success.

Part of the problem is that liberals have failed to define themselves and to state clearly what they believe.

If this is true, I'd say it's mostly due to two reasons. 1) "Liberalism" takes in a lot of ground and has a lot of factions--there is no simple definition. 2) Many of their favorite ideas are quite divisive and perhaps they'd rather not say them too loudly.

I fear when reading this that Stone doesn't want a true definition (assuming it's possible) but rhetorical boosterism. You know, the "if being decent and loving your kids makes you a conservative then I guess I am a conservative" type of thing.

In that light, I thought it might be interesting to try to articulate 10 propositions that seem to me to define "liberal" today.

Good, I like lists.

My goal, however, is not to end discussion, but to invite debate.


1. Liberals believe individuals should doubt their own truths and consider fairly and open-mindedly the truths of others.

Maybe this is a liberal idea, but in action I see no difference between conservatives or liberals on this point.

Liberals are skeptical of censorship and celebrate free and open debate.

Would that it were so. In fact, liberals are on the forefront of most imaginative new forms of censorship (speech codes, sexual harassment, hate speech, campaign finance reform, etc.). In the 1950s liberals (perhaps out of self-interest) strongly opposed censorship, but they embrace it today.

As far as listening to others, I don't see liberal websites, or editorial pages, or even politicians particularly open to that many new ideas outside a limited range.

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. It is liberals who have defended and continue to defend the freedom of the press to investigate and challenge the government, the protection of individual privacy from overbearing government monitoring, and the right of individuals to reproductive freedom.

I don't see it. Liberals love huge government programs involving heavy monitoring of individuals, and even direct interference with their capacity to live life as they wish.

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

By spending other people's money, damn the expense.

Conservative judges and justices more often wield judicial authority to protect property rights and the interests of corporations, commercial advertisers and the wealthy.

So it's the government's job to ensure all enjoy rights, except these rights shouldn't be extended too far or the wrong people will enjoy tham.

9. Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, for without such protection liberalism is impossible. This, of course, is less a tenet of liberalism than a reply to those who attack liberalism.

I see. Despite certain outward appearances, liberals support our safety and security as much as conservatives--but in a different way. I agree. Just as I agree that conservatives support tolerance--but in a different way. And helping the poor--but in a different way. And due process--but in a different way. And so on.

It's not a bad piece, actually, but rather than a list of beliefs, it's an argument for those beliefs.

Columbus Guy says: Not a bad piece? It's self-indulgent,self-important twaddle that he can get published only because of his status.

And you forgot part of it: "Consider this an invitation."


"Are these propositions meaningful?" No.

"Are they helpful" In what? Analysis of the distinction between liberal and conservtive? No. In displaying an odd interaction between the conventions of legal writing and newspaper writing? A bit. In exemplifying the self-importance of the elites? Manifestly. In training editors how to slash text? Perfectly.

"Are they simply wrong?" How can they be wrong? They are too general to be falsifiable.

"As a liberal, how would you change them or modify the list?" I'd love to find someone who would admit to being a liberal. In fact, the meat of his piece is this line that he skps right over: "In many quarters, the word "liberal" has become a pejorative." "Many quarters"? Yeah, how about any quarters where people hold elected office or speak publicly to anyone whom they've not already vetted for conformity. Doesn't Geoff know "progressive" is the term, and even that is whispered? Were I Stone's editor, I would have slashed the whole thing and asked him to submit 700 words on those quarters where it's cool to be a liberal and people admit it out loud. That's the meat of his story, and he glosses over it--no, skips it entirely. Find those quarters, find what those people believe and say, and you'll know liberalism as it is. And you'll be puking into a bucket because it will be so frightening.

"As a conservative, how would you draft a similar list for conservatives?" I would only do it if I were having a bad, hubris-filled day, as indeed I too often do, and as Stone did here.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

(One that you missed)

Part of the problem is that liberals have failed to define themselves and to state clearly what they believe. As a liberal, I find that appalling.

Excellent. I like it when people are clear to state what they really believe. I look forward to your fearless statement of your principles.

It is liberals who have opposed and continue to oppose school prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools and who support government funding for stem-cell research, the rights of gays and lesbians and the freedom of choice for women.

Aha, so you support the freedom of women to choose to own slaves!

Hmm. You're shaking your head. I must have misunderstood. So you must mean the freedom of women to choose to give any amount of money to a political candidate!

You're shaking your head again. Hmmm, why women in particular? I get it -- women, on the average, are less physically strong then men. So to protect themselves, you boldly support a woman's choice to carry a handgun!

You still are shaking your head. I give up. But thanks for being honest with your beliefs. After all, it's by boldly saying what you mean that you'll win hearts.

11:32 PM, October 10, 2006  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Well done, Mr. King.

4:23 AM, October 11, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over at Jane Galt's blog she's got a great list of what being a conservative means. It's most their to show how still the Geoff Stone list is.

9:14 PM, October 11, 2006  
Anonymous Over 40 and irrelevant said...

I wonder what he would have written as defining "conservative" today. I find it hard to find anyone who actually admits to this label.
Do these labels mean anything to anyone under 40 who is not angling for a career in "politics"? (BTW loved Kinky's debate definition --"poli" refers to the Greek word for "many" and "tics" are bloodsucking parasites).

1:48 PM, October 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know where you're from, Over 40, but there are plenty of people who proudly call themselves conservatives. There are many millions and they're easy to find. Not so easy to find liberals.

As to what Stone would write to call conservatives, no doubt it would be another useless list, but this time tendentiously negative, like "We don't care how much money you make or how many poor people we have, it's always good if you make more and the government gets less."

2:33 PM, October 12, 2006  

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