Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Liberal: Defining Our Terms

In a recent post, I made a quick comment that I was finding it ironic that I generally describe myself as a "liberal" on this blog despite the fact that I'm aware that I'm much more conservative on a handful of issues than many of my friends. I find that this is especially true in the blogosphere, where I find it difficult to find sites that cater to my peculiar mix of conservative and liberal ideals. I've often said that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" depend entirely on what particular issue one happens to be talking about at the time.

Voltaire was once quoted as saying "Sir, if you would converse with me, please define your terms" (or something similar. He wasn't speaking in English, for one thing....). So it seems worthwhile to spend a little bit of time defining terms.

This past weekend, viewers were able to watch a live episode of The West Wing in which the Republican Arnold Vinick and the Democratic Matt Santos (played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, respectively) "junked the rules" in order to "have a real debate" that really dealt with the issues. I should add a disclaimer that, although the hour was enjoyable, both candidates struck me as stereotypical representatives of their party, rather than as distinct individuals within the parties. However, one particular section of the debate was especially useful for framing this issue of what a liberal is, and why I'm not generally uncomfortable using the term. Here's a section quoted from the debate:
Santos: Republicans have tried to turn “liberal” into a bad word. Well, liberals ended slavery in this country!

Vinick: A Republican president ended slavery!

Santos: Yes, a liberal Republican, Senator. What happened to them? They got run out of your party! What did liberals do that was so offensive to the liberal party? I'll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did conservatives do? They opposed every single one of those things. Every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, “Liberal,” as if it was something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, Senator. Because I will pick up that label and wear it as a badge of honor.
This speech nicely demonstrates all that is good about liberalism. Almost by definition, a liberal is someone who advocates for change, and a conservative is one who advocates for the status quo. And change is important. The list of changes in Santos' speech above were all changes that needed to happen. Good changes. But clearly not all change is good. And conservatives do serve a valuable role in society to the extent that they keep negative changes at bay.

This, of course, leaves us at the place where we debate what changes are good and what changes are bad. While some of the answers to such questions will be obvious to all but the most extreme, there will be considerably more grey area on other issues. As a society, we have not been approaching these issues with the appropriate amount of tolerance and humility. Debate, real debate, is a good thing, but only if we allow ourselves to understand why our opponents feel so passionately about issues on which we differ without demonizing them.

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