I used to detest labels. Still do. They’re shortcut to thinking, given to stereotyping, and generally speaking, demeaning when referencing this individual or that. Some of them, however, I recently found out, are useful, alas, indispensable. One of them is the term “liberal.” Imagine everyday political discourse without recourse to this all-convenient label. You can’t!
Now, what do I mean by a liberal, or more generally, by a liberal mindset? Obviously, the term of old, as defined by John Stuart Mill and followers, no longer applies. One would have to be steeped in those writings in order to preserve a sense of continuity and the integrity of the original conception – a tall order indeed for today’s Everyman. Even a fairly recent usage is not only inaccurate but downright misleading. Our political landscape, if not evolving, is everchanging, which renders the term deliciously vague and ambiguous. What used to be a liberal policy, stance or administration only fifty years ago (Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, even Nixon), nowadays is deemed a conservative, if not ultraconservative, position. Which would seem like a desirable trend, the entire nation becoming as it were, increasingly progressive. Instead of rushing to judgment, however, let me state the obvious: for all these detours and obstacles along the way, liberalism has an uncanny ability of reinventing itself.
What else don’t I mean by it? For reasons which shall soon become apparent, I don’t associate it with the New Left, let alone with the Radical Left such as we’ve witnesssed in the sixties during the height of the antiwar protests, the civil rights struggles, the sit-ins, the flower generation, the counterculture revolution and Joan Baez. Nor do I associate it with the civil rights workers shot down in Mississipi for their valiant efforts to institute the voter-registration program on behalf of the NAACP in the segregated South, or the farmworkers’ movement led by César Chávez. Perhaps I’m wrong, but somehow none of these strike me as anything even remotely connected to, or reflective of, today’s liberal mindset. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that the recent gains in the area of gay rights or sexual harrasment legislation have nothing to do with today’s liberals (or any other polical affiliation you may think of), though I’m certain they’d like to take credit. These gains were won as a result of a bitter struggle by the oppressed people against a presumably equitable system which denied them basic human rights.
The point really is, the term “liberal” means nothing to an African-American who is forced to sit in the back of the bus or drink from a separate water fountain. It means nothing to a farm worker who works by the sweat of his brow from dawn to dusk under subhuman conditions and for substandard pay. It means nothing to women who fight for equal pay and a workplace that’s free of sexual harassment. It means nothing to gays and lesbians who insist on their consitutional rights to be treated as full-fledged citizens. These are individual struggles by the the oppressed people the world over, in our own society or any other, and we recognize them as such. To assume otherwise is lunacy.
Lastly, I’d hesitate to equate the modern-day version of liberalism with (the platform of, or the affiliation with) the Democratic Party. For one thing, that would be a category mistake. More importantly, however, I should hope there’re still some bright lights out there – Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Tom Harkin, the departed Russ Feingold – who are the true champions of the people after the manner of the Roman Tribune of old, the advocate of the plebs. But these are exceptions, I say, the few courageous souls who dare speak out against injustice regardless of political consequences or whither the wind blows. And I certainly wouldn’t want to taint their good name by association.
What do I mean, then, by the modern-day liberal mindset or, to stop beating around the bush, the modern-day liberal? Rather than venturing on a hard-and-fast definition, let the portrait emerge from detailed examination of what I regard as a typical liberal response. Look forward to “Animal Farm revisited” soon to appear, part two of this three-part series.