If Liberal Talking Points Could Speak
Aug 17, 2010
By Gode Davis, political staff columnist – August 17, 2010
On political news programs in our contemporary America, liberal ideologies, or talking points, are often mentioned or discussed, often in contradictory or misleading ways. Although liberal values are sometimes elaborated upon by an assortment of pundits, hosts, and guests, the moniker of “liberal” is proudly worn by fewer and fewer Americans. In fact, liberalism of the sense perceived even decades ago has greatly changed, inexorably shifting to the “right,” if not also morphed into a complicated creature of thought never envisioned by American liberals from bygone eras. Today’s liberals are often pitted against conservatives in simplistic ways unfair to both, and polarization has become the norm. But what does being a liberal mean? If liberal talking points could speak, what would they say?
Conservative and neo-conservative Americans who happen to be Republican like to call themselves the party of Lincoln, but in his time, the incipient Republican Party was considered the “liberal” party, bringing into existence such a contentious and wrenching reform as the “emancipation of slaves.” It is unlikely that many contemporary conservative Republicans would have embraced Abraham Lincoln if they could journey back to circa 1860 in a time machine.
A time machine exploring the history of liberalism would be traveling the world. First stop might be the 15th century when a Renaissance was brewing and rigid adherence to societal institutions was beginning to waver. An interest in science and in the Classical Antiquities (mainly Roman and Greek) was being fostered by liberal thinkers – historical personages who were open-minded to something besides Catholic dogma. Our time machine might then proceed forward a century while remaining in Europe. By the 16th century, enlightened thinking had festered into something more dark and hideous but perhaps more inevitable – a mindset that viewed the Roman Catholic Church as an oppressive oligarchy of priestly hierarchy and helped to topple the established feudal order. History then gives us the Thirty Years’ War and in England, a civil war that brought about the execution of King Charles I in 1649, so that the British Parliament could beget its Glorious Revolution of 1688 which birthed a constitutional monarchy. From these preceding events, the principal facets of liberal ideology – liberal talking points if you will – first emerged.
Our time machine might now arrive upon the doorstep of the English philosopher John Locke. Sometimes called the Father of Liberalism, his seminal work Two Treatises (1690) engendered the liberal idea that government acquires the consent to rule from the governed, not from supernatural authorities – a tenet that Rush Limbaugh might concur with on one of his more enlightened days – even if Pat Robertson or Glenn Beck might not. In essence, our time machine would now speed merrily along beyond the visage of Locke to the 18th century Enlightenment, a period of profound intellectual vitality that questioned old traditions and eventually was to have an “enlightened” effect upon the burgeoning societies in North America and in France.
Our America, comprised of United States now polarized into blue and red, probably would not have been if it weren’t for liberals. Historians will tell you that the American colonies had been loyal British subjects for decades, longer than Rip Van Winkle lay dormant under a tree, as alleged in the Washington Irving tale. In 1776, some colonists were dissatisfied with a lack of representation in the governing parliament across the pond, especially regarding taxation policies. If our time machine arrived in Boston in that season of discontent, a male colonist of a liberal bent might have said, “These taxes are a violation of my constitutional rights as an Englishman! It’s time for a tea party!”
Our time machine moves on. It’s now the 19th century, an era when liberals wanted to develop a world free of government intervention, or at least free from too much of it, and many championed the ideal of negative liberty, which constitutes the absence of coercion and the absence of external constraints. These liberals believed governments were cumbersome burdens. Like the so-called “tea party” adherents of 2010, they wanted governments to stay out of the lives of individuals – in essence, out of their lives.
Fast forward in our little shuttle, a marvelous contrivance yet to be invented even by Sarah Palin — to the Great Depression and the emergence of another influential liberal thinker, the immortal John Maynard Keynes. Suddenly business, and its offspring money — show me the money – was center stage. In all deference to Ludwig von Mises – Walt Disney’s inspiration for his miserly character Ludwig von Drake – who believed that completely free markets were the most desirable economic units for dispersing wealth and promoting full employment and economic security, in other words, “trickle down economics,” was not an invention of Ronald Reagan – in direct contrast stood Keynes. He heretically proclaimed that free markets were not ideal, and that hard economic times required government intervention and investment – like the New Deal proposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I grow nauseous from time traveling. I’m “time machine sick” and won’t dare peek out the tiny windows. It’s 2010 and I’m standing on dry land again, a little dizzy but ready to witness the word ‘liberal’ defined as an adjective. It relates to government, politics, and diplomacy – is compatible with social and political views that favor progress and reform, advocates individual freedoms, and is generally tolerant of other people.
But since the 1970s, since Feminists and Sexual Liberation and much ado about abortion and red and blue states and military entanglements engaged in by volunteer armed services peopled too often by young have-nots seeking to at last have something – and I’m wondering where have all the liberals gone? I’ve lived through the Great Recession (or at least part of it) and also the Kafka-esque events of September 11, 2001, and don’t see Noam Chomsky on the tube except for on You Tube, and didn’t see Howard Zinn either, or Senator Wellstone, and Dennis Kucinich will never be president if the Corporacracy has everything to say about it, which they do.
Instead in 2008 we had Hilary and Barack to choose from, both referred to as “liberals,” but well right of center on any political spectrum that isn’t skewed by right-wing bloggers. Will the real liberal man (or woman) please stand up?
I’m ready to time travel again, so that I can finally become enlightened. Hear that Rush Limbaugh? I AM a liberal talking point, there, now you know the truth, and in this world of Babel, I can’t get a word in edgewise.
5.) Harper’s Magazine: August 2010; Fastidious Albion by Jenny Diski
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