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It's Time for Liberals to
Take Back Liberalism

I'm a liberal. I was born that way and reared that way. It's in my bones, in my genes, in all my sensibilities.

Perhaps you're asking, "How do you define liberal?" So ask; I can answer that. And I don't have to wax philosophical to do it; I only have to open a dictionary. I seldom open just one, though, so here is a summary of key parts of the definition from several well reputed dictionaries (I've used definitions for the adjective rather than the noun, because they're more complete.):

lib·er·al adj. Not limited by traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, or dogmas; free from bigotry. Favoring reform, open to progress. Tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. Tending to give freely; generous.

Read those words. If you're a liberal, is there anything in there for which you should apologize? Not me. I'm proud of aspiring to those ideals. I especially like the part about being free from bigotry. I've sought that all my adult life—freedom from inflicting bigotry on anyone, in any form. I hope someday to have such freedom in totality.

OK, that part was pretty easy. Maybe now we should similarly define conservative:

con·ser·va·tive adj. Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change. Traditional or restrained in style. Moderate; cautious. Tending to conserve; preservative.

Hmmm. Read those words again. I don't know about you, but there's nothing in that definition that I find abhorrent. I even have some of those values, right alongside my liberal values. The only place I shrink away from that definition of conservatism is the part about being opposed to change.

But the people on the political landscape who call themselves conservatives tend to raise in me a level of ire that seems extremely illiberal. My tolerance of their ideas, my broad-mindedness tends to vanish when I hear them talk—especially when I hear them talk about liberals and liberalism.

And now it comes home to me. I think I see this problem more clearly. It isn't conservatism I despise; it's anti-liberalism. Let's look at the definition of conservatism again, and question conservative ideals.

If someone favors traditional views and values, I don't have a problem with that. I can even respect it.

If he or she tends to oppose change, that's OK. I happen to think change is often necessary, and often good, but I can understand someone who is less embracing of it than I am.

Suppose a person is traditional or restrained in style, is moderate and cautious. That works for me. I may not always be that way myself, but I can have a beer with that person, and probably even talk about Social Security without blowing my top.

How about someone who tends to conserve and preserve. Hey, we can even play on the same team, now; I like those values!

So conservatism isn't the bogey man here. Now let's look again at the definition of liberalism, and think about someone who is opposed to those ideas.

How would I feel about someone who chooses to be limited by authoritarian attitudes and dogma? I feel myself slipping into defensive mode in such a presence. After all, authoritarianism and dogmatism have caused a lot of pain in this world.

And consider a bigot. I can't defend or even tolerate bigotry. (I prefer the word bigotry, by the way, to words like prejudice or discrimination. Bigotry is indefensible; the word itself is ugly enough to fit the thinking and behavior it describes.)

How about a person who opposes reform? That sounds like a person who is profiting from something that injures others. I have a real problem with that.

How about someone who is closed to progress? I can't understand that way of thinking. Change may not always be good, but real progress, by definition, is good.

Then, look at someone who is intolerant of the ideas and behavior of others, who is narrow-minded. That isn't someone I want to have around me very often.

How about someone who is stingy and miserly, or takes from others rather than giving? Of course, I don't want to be with him either.

This analysis rings pretty true to me. It isn't conservatism I hate, it's opposition to liberalism that I can't stand. This gives me some new tools. When people are assaulting liberalism, I'm perfectly justified in asking which of its values they find so abhorrent. Is it tolerance? Is it freedom from bigotry? Is it reform? And when they twist their answers to try and make me and my philosophy into the enemy, all I have to do is to restate the principles in which I believe. That's all. I don't have to defend the values of liberalism; they are intrinsically good values.

But I feel perfectly justified in forcing an anti-liberal to defend his opposition to my values. I'll be waiting for a good defense of authoritarianism, dogmatism, bigotry or narrow-mindedness. I don't expect to hear it.

And I feel pretty confident in asking fellow Americans—the real patriots—to join me in becoming free of bigotry, or working for meaningful reform. In those quests, I can walk in lockstep with dyed-in-the-wool conservatives—as long as they're not also anti-liberal. I'll even be glad to help them conserve some stuff—like forests, or libraries, or schools.

So if you're a liberal, join me in taking back liberalism—not from conservatives, but from the anti-liberals who would destroy us by defining us in their terms. When conservatives attack us, make them declare what they're attacking. Make them say which of our principles they oppose. Make them decide whether they're truly conservative, or truly anti-liberal. If they're anti-liberal, make them live with that stance; make them defend it.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of anti-liberals in the political universe. They oppose us with every fiber of their beings. But few of them have been willing to say what they are. Few have been willing to say, for example, that they don't oppose bigotry because they're really bigots. Those who have said it have immediately limited their constituency to a significant, but small minority, and isolated themselves from mainstream American thought.

So it is with all our liberal principles. Some people really want to inflict their authority and their dogma on others; make them say so. Some oppose reform or progress because they enjoy benefits at the expense of others—often at the expense of the majority or of unprotected minorities. Make them declare their dependencies on those advantages. Some people have no desire to tolerate views different from their own; make them be clear. Some really want to take from others—from those weaker or less advantaged than themselves; make them show it.

When these anti-liberals are made to openly declare their agendas, they will either have to abandon them, or they will be made to clearly separate themselves from the principles of liberalism and the huge numbers of people who believe in those principles. So separated, they will factionalize, and lose their power. Liberal thought will win, as will genuine conservative thought. What will be lost will be the bigotry, dogmatism and intolerance that has divided us from each other and from our great democratic ideals.

Sew the principles of liberalism in bright colors on a new standard, and proudly hold it high for all to see. When someone takes a shot at that standard, it will become clear who we're dealing with. Clear to all.

Principles of Liberalism:

  • Freedom from authoritarianism
  • Freedom from dogma
  • Freedom from bigotry
  • Meaningful reform
  • Progress
  • Tolerance
  • Broad-mindedness
  • Generosity
copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson