Saturday, December 24, 2005

Liberal Is Not a Dirty Word

Let's try some free association. What do you think of when you hear the word "liberal"? If you listen to Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, or Rush Limbaugh, you will probably free associate from "liberal" this way: "hates America", "liar", "commie", "coward", "godless", even "traitor" or "the enemy".

This type of "thinking" is on the level of playground namecalling. It's roughly the equivalent of a 6 year old calling someone he doesn't like a "doodyhead". It is highly generalized, nonspecific, and unsupported by evidence (the same may or may not be true of the 6 year old's insult). But it has been effective. Democrats are afraid to identify themselves as liberals, and liberal haters (I won't call them "conservatives" because I think the title doesn't fit, as I'll explain in another post) use it only as an insult and/or tend to blur the word's meaning with "Democrat" i.e. all Democrats they disagree with are hated "liberals".

The liberal haters rarely talk in specifics and rarely discuss real liberals. What do they even mean when they use the word? I will discuss some real liberals here and explain what the word really means.

Here are some real liberals who, most Americans would agree, don't deserve to be slandered as traitors or cowards. Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln (of a very different Republican party), Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Kennedy, Most current Democrats don't qualify as liberals because the political spectrum has moved so much to the right in recent years. However, a few modern liberals include Russ Feingold and the late Paul Wellstone.

What is a "liberal"? The dictionary defines "liberal" as broadminded, not bound by authoritarianism, free from bigotry, open to new ideas for progress, tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others.

Abolitionists who fought to eliminate slavery before the Civil War were liberals. Those who fought for women to gain the right to vote (including Stanton, Anthony, and Mott), were liberals. Opponents of racial segregation who rejected "separate but equal" and risked their lives (and sometimes lost their lives) in the Jim Crow South standing up to bigots were liberals. Progressives who instituted the five day, 40 hour work week and ended child labor in factories were liberals. Men and women who declared, and declare, that women have the same right to be doctors, lawyers, and CEOs that men do are liberals.

Few Americans would see ending slavery, giving women the right to vote or eliminating segregated schools, lunchcounters, and drinking fountains as radical ideas today. At the time, of course, they were quite radical ideas. Today they are firmly American ideas, but no less liberal.

Our Constitution, including its Bill of Rights, is a liberal document. Again, at the time, it was a radical idea to declare that political power was derived from the people, as opposed to god or king. It was radical to enshrine as law the principles of free speech, the religious Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, due process, or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishment. Today, of course, these are thoroughly "American" principles we all embrace (well, at least for now--reports of warrantless surveillance and openended detentions present a direct threat to some of these basic principles). Democracy itself is a liberal idea--the proposition that everexpanding members of the population (first property holding white men, then all white men, then all men, finally and men and women) choose their representatives and leaders was a radical rejection of authoritarian rule, now an accepted American value.

Here's what being liberal means to me. It means making the values enshrined in the Constitution real. It means speaking up when you disagree with the government (no matter which party is in power). It means wanting the best for all Americans. It means demanding that our government tells us the truth. It means fighting for equality and fighting against bigotry. It means being open minded-- not just accepting different viewpoints, but listening to and learning from different viewpoints and being able to change. It means denouncing torture, no matter who is doing the torturing. It means believing in the universal human capacity for reason, the force that led our country's founders in an Age of Reason to question the divine right of kings. It means rejecting leaders who ask us to surrender our liberty to their agendas. It means making sure the needs of ordinary Americans are not subordinated to the desires of the wealthy and powerful. It means, in short, striving to fulfill the ideals central to this nation's founding. To be liberal is to be American.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

try lotfog or lotfug the state of america today land of the free under god an impossible thought process or land of the the free over god only in the time sense of I have gotten over it

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well said

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My definition of a liberal is someone who tries to rewrite history...You proved my def well!!

7:06 PM  
Blogger Chris Edelson said...

what an intelligent comment. what exactly did I "rewrite"?

12:30 AM  

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