Tuesday, April 12, 2005


I am a Liberal

Just this week I was thinking of posting an explanation of why I am, in fact, a Liberal in the classic sense. And lo and behold, Joel Engel writes "Take Back the Word; Liberalism isn't what it used to be," for the current Weekly Standard Online.

Engel begins by describing the definitional drift of the term:

So what are we to make of the word "liberal," whose current meaning is likely beyond the ken of both Albee and Shakespeare? In the not-so-distant past, liberal FDR believed that the enemies of other democracies were, by extension, America's enemies--and liberals eagerly joined him in taking on the America Firsters here before fighting fascism over there. In his footsteps followed liberal Harry Truman, whose doctrine reflected the view that Soviet expansionism was insidiously anti-democratic and therefore innately illiberal. Then came JFK, the presidential avatar of modern liberalism, which he defined on his first day in office when he announced that America would "pay any price, bear any burden . . . in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." His statement seemed interwoven into the fabric of the burgeoning civil rights movement that was to become liberalism's high-water mark at home--the one issue that ipso facto determined whether you were indeed a liberal. And it was ennobling to be one, sharing Martin Luther King's dream that "all of God's children" would someday be free.

BUT ALAS, somewhere over the last two decades or so, liberalism lost its root as the word liberal was perverted to the point of Orwellian inversion--and therefore rendered meaningless.
Engel goes on to highlight numerous so-called "liberal" positions taken in the recent past, and dares to allege that "the emporer has no clothes," and by example convincingly denies modern "progressives" (that's no doubt another maladapted term) the right to bear the term.

I am a proud Liberal in the finest traditions of that word, and will seek to regain that label. And I, like Engel, strongly encourage like minded lovers of freedom and democracy to do likewise. To leave this term in the hands of reactionaries, racists, socialists and the like is the cruelest of insults on the noble history of liberal traditions. That, and it makes current political terminology look ridiculous.

Is this any way to train up future generations of Democracy's children?

[UPDATE] I meant to include some of Engel's examples (but read the whole thing):

For example, rooting against the United States and for "insurgents" who delight in slaughtering innocents is many things (stupid, for one, also sad, evil, and short-sighted), but it is assuredly not liberal.

Calling 3,000 workers who died when the buildings fell "little Eichmanns" is many things (vile, as well as repulsive and morally repugnant), but it is not liberal.

Marching against war every time the United States is involved--in fact only when the United States is involved--regardless of the war's purpose, is many things (reactionary for sure), but it is not liberal.

Crying that you're being persecuted for exercising your right of free speech, when what happened was that other people less famous than you reacted to your ill-considered and offensive comments by exercising their own First Amendment rights, is many things (solipsistic comes to mind), but it is not liberal.

Pretending that the abuses committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison were on a par with the wholesale torture, rape, and murder committed there over decades is many things (overwrought, unenlightened, an insult to intelligence), but it is not liberal.

Decrying the human-rights abuses of regimes like Saddam's Iraq and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and then protesting against the wars that actually rid these countries of their murdering leaders, is many things (childish and willfully blind), but it is not liberal.

Excusing Kofi Annan and the United Nations for the worst palm-greasing scandal in history--one that lengthened the reign of a tyrant and led to the deaths of countless thousands--is many things (inexcusable, also shameful), but it is not

Engel's list is longer, and a potential list could fill pages, but suffice it to say that the current use of the term "Liberal" is being wasted on the wrong people. Call it a malappropriation of meaning.

[UPDATE #2] Anonymous pointed me towards a TechCentralStation article on Libertarianism and Liberalism (link: http://www.techcentralstation.com/072804H.html), and I wanted to share a few paragraphs:
Liberal Order and Liberal Neutrality

Liberalism in general may be understood as the answer to a question: What is the best way to produce and maintain a stable social order? Liberalism submits that the best kind of social order is one in which each individual is given the widest berth in the pursuit of her personal aims and the realization of her basic human capacities, limited only by the equal freedom of others. A liberal order is neither imposed from the top by coercive authority nor settled in the middle by a common worldview prescribing the pursuit of a uniform aim. A liberal social order is one that wells up from the coordinated actions of a multitude of individual persons acting to advance their separate and individual ends. A liberal society is, in Rawls's words, "a cooperative venture for mutual advantage." A stable liberal order is sustained by our willing compliance to fair principles of association that we each take to be instrumental to (and perhaps partly constitutive of) the satisfaction of our personal ends.

Liberal order is superior to the alternatives because, among other things, it takes seriously that free people will not always agree, and makes as much room as possible for our differences. It turns out that liberal order, in which people are able to live by their own lights, is especially robust -- able to smooth out local disturbances and bounce back from external shocks -- because people who benefit from society develop an allegiance to it and are motivated to mend tears in the web of cooperation. Liberal order is not brittle, but it is by no means unbreakable. Sustained liberal order does require certain general patterns of individual initiative and constraint based in shared beliefs, desires, or habit. Some beliefs, desires and habits, if consistently indulged, cut against the patterns of behavior upon which order emerges.

Because we have the best chance to peacefully realize our goals alongside others within a liberal order, we each have reasons, internal to our own aims, to help sustain it. Beliefs, preferences, and habits contrary to liberal order are unreasonable just in the sense that they are inconsistent with our reasons to sustain a social order that tends to benefit everyone, usually including the people with contrary commitments. These commitments therefore fall outside the umbrella of protection offered by liberal neutrality and toleration. If we say that liberalism cannot tolerate its own demise, what we mean is that individuals in pursuit of their happiness cannot tolerate the breakdown of the conditions under which that pursuit is most likely to succeed.

As defined here, I decidedly trend Liberal, in the classical sense. Thanks, anonymous, for the link!

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