Mature Liberalism


“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”  –Winston Churchill?

Actually, no. Winston Churchill never made the above statement. Regardless, it is universally attributed to him and is a foundational quote in support of one of America’s most ridiculous paradigms. You see, in the United States it is taken as a truism that liberalism represents childish naivete while conservatism is the mature position of adults who, to paraphrase quite a few conservatives within my personal and social networks, understand the bottom line.

Sure, according to my more mature conservative friends, it is understandable that young people want to change the world, pursue idealistic dreams of…you know…freedom, clean environments and peace and stuff. But eventually, children have to grow up and accept the real world as it is. At some point you have to give up your activism, bra burning, fist shaking and chanting. You have to take a bath, get a job and forget all of that mamby-pamby change the world stuff.

From this perspective, older liberals are simply those who refused to grow up. As such, their opinions can be ignored.

This rather clumsy attempt at silencing voices for change is simple nonsense, easily discredited by even the most cursory examination of social change throughout history. Think of the leadership of our great liberal movements, abolitionism, women’s suffrage, populists and progressives fighting for farmers and workers, the Square Deal, New Deal and Great Society, civil rights, peace, the environment. It was often later in life that liberal activists pursuing social change actually witnessed the fruits of their labors. Hell, even Winston Churchill held on to many of his liberal positions upon switching to the English Conservatives.

But the false narrative is even clear even without looking at the historical context. It’s flawed from a basic, discursive, analysis.

Consider the basic premise of what it means to be an American conservative. American conservatism is premised on the notion of rugged individualism and the dogged pursuit of self-interest. In other words, selfishness. The goal is to take care of oneself first above all else. This is really what my conservative friends mean by “bottom line.” They mean low taxes. Of course, they want to be able to enjoy the benefits of a society…they just don’t want to pay for it.

The liberal position is that we have to look out for each other. We have to provide for the less fortunate. We have to share in the bounties of our society. And those who benefit the most from what our society has to offer have a responsibility to pay more into the system. We see this as part of our responsibility.

Hmmm. Let’s see. Looking out for oneself or taking responsibility for the plight of others. Which is the more mature position? It seems to me that the conservative emphasis on the bottom line is not only immature, but infantile. At what age do we start teaching our children to share?

Another centerpiece of conservative thought is group closure. Some of us are real Americans, the rest are socialists, communists, Muslims or some other manifestation of “the other” that we don’t want infecting our nation. Does this sound a little like “stranger-danger,” a trait we try to help our children grow out of? Compare this to the much maligned liberal propensity for toleration, multiculturalism and inclusion.

As I was planning this blog I could not help but think about Robert Fulghum’s famous book, All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten. The book came with a famous list that I thought I would compare to the conservative “bottom line.” Let’s see all that conservative maturity:

  1. Share Everything…Um…yeah. Next!
  2. Play fair…Have you heard about the Caucus Room Conspiracy?
  3. Don’t hit people…been to a Trump rally lately?
  4. Put things back where you found them…what do you mean “find?”
  5. Clean up your own mess…Rick Snyder!
  6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours…Ammon Bundy
  7. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody…being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.
  8. Wash your hands before you eat…Okay. This is bi-partisan–as far as I know.
  9. Flush…but carefully, after all, we can’t go spending money on infrastructure, now can we?
  10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you…but don’t go trying to use your SNAP card on these luxury items you welfare moochers!
  11. Live a balanced life–learn some…so long as it’s not that un-American AP curriculum…drink some…just not in Flint…draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play…but don’t expect to go into any of this meaningless liberal stuff in college, the market needs STEM skills…and work everyday some…there you go! No more weekends! Finally, a conservative idea we can all embrace!
  12. Take a nap every afternoon…unless you make minimum wage, then you better go and get a second job if you want to pay your unsubsidized rent you lazy good-for-nothing!
  13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together…Sounds gay!
  14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that…Wonder? It’s because God wants it that way! Duh!
  15. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup–they all die. So do we…and the hamster with the most consumables at that point wins!
  16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned–the biggest word of all–LOOK…All left-wing, feminist propaganda if you ask me!

Okay, so I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but I think my point is apt. Much of what we understand as American Conservatism are those qualities which, if we see them in our children, we correct them. Liberalism, taking responsibility not just for ourselves, but for others who share our world, acting not for the present, but for the future, is that quality which we want, no “need” to see in our adults if this long experiment with civilization is to continue.

Because the bottom line is that we have growing numbers of people who are working harder in an increasingly insecure market and yet are finding it more difficult to get by, while obnoxious amounts of wealth are increasingly locked in the coffers of the few. Eventually, those getting the short end of the stick will give up on this version of civilization, possibly to catastrophic effect.

The bottom line is that we are all responsible for making sure that society works for everyone, not just the few. Yes, we are our brother’s keeper.

The bottom line is that we cannot continue to ravish our environment without regard to its sustainability. At some point the environment we exploit will be unable to sustain us.

The bottom line is that if we do not act on our scientific understanding of global climate change civilization, including capitalism, is done. Maybe not in ten years, or even twenty, but eventually. We are no longer talking about the distant future. Climate change may be our children’s challenge. It will certainly be our grandchildren’s tragedy if we continue to do nothing, or allow conservatives to stand in the way of necessary reforms.

The bottom line is that the world is becoming more diverse, more interconnected. Multiculturalism is not a liberal fad. It is a global reality.

The bottom line is that as humanity learns more about itself, more and more groups of people are demanding the same kinds of rights that European Males developed for themselves during the Enlightenment. This is not a threat to Enlightenment principles–it’s and expansion. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [human beings] are equal. Male people, female people, transgender people, gay people, bi people, white people, black people, brown people, people who can walk, people who can’t, neurodiverse people. All equal in the value of their basic human dignity.

The bottom line is that humanity is a much more beautiful tapestry than we ever thought, and it may be even more beautiful than we can now realize. It’s time to open our eyes to all of the possibilities humanity has to offer.

The bottom line is that science, as a paradigm for understanding ourselves, our world, and the universe from the quantum to galactic level and beyond, is the single greatest achievement of human perception, yielding incalculable benefits to humankind. We can’t afford to abandon it for the quaintness and simplicity of medieval dogma.

The bottom line is that all discursive arrangements, from science to religion to any political models on the spectrum, can be exploited for the sake of perpetuating entrenched power structures. Any idea can be twisted into something ugly by those spewing hatred, fear and ignorance. We cannot allow these demagogues to be successful even if they are members of “our” party, or offering us better tax breaks. The damage they do far surpasses the benefit I may reap.

These are mature, adult ideas. Maybe they are not necessarily liberal ideas, but it sure seems that way in contemporary discourse.

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