Whenever a loaded word like "liberal" is being used in a discussion, I believe that it is imperative that a clear definition of the term be agreed upon; otherwise, the discussion may just go round and round with no clear, discernible direction. An example of such is when I say that I am not a Trinitarian. Most of my friends who are Episcopal or other Christian clergypeople or thoughtful Christian laypeople are appalled whenever they hear me make that statement; but, when (a) I make it clear that what I mean by "Trinity" is the doctrine outlined exhaustively, almost tiresomely, in the Athanasian Creed, and (b) they explain what they mean when they use that term, we have to conclude that most of them are no more Trinitarian than I am, because almost all of them believe in a form of Modalism --- which was denounced long ago as a non-Trinitarian, indeed, an anti-Trinitarian heresy. So, it's important to define terms.
Something similar is true when we turn our attention to such concepts as "liberal" and "conservative." As Humpty-Dumpty said, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean --- neither more nor less." The meaning of certain words often changes over the years, and is sometimes dependent on who's using the term, and in what context.
"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean --- neither more nor less." So, when I say that I am a "liberal," I mean I am one for whom the paramount issue is the issue of human rights --- things that promote the happiness and welfare of human beings first and foremost. I think it's pretty much what JFK meant as he accepted the NY Liberal Party's nomination in 1960; what he said was much too important to be paraphrased by me or anyone else, so I ask you to read it for yourself; you can find it by googling "JFK liberal statement." It says, in part:
"What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label 'Liberal?' If by Liberal' they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of 'Liberal.' But if by a 'Liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal,' then I'm proud to say I'm a 'Liberal.'
"But first, I would like to say what I understand the word 'Liberal' to mean and explain in the process why I consider myself to be a 'Liberal,' and what it means in the presidential election of 1960...
"This is my political credo:
"I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man's ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.
"I believe also in the United States of America, in the promise that it contains and has contained throughout our history of producing a society so abundant and creative and so free and responsible that it cannot only fulfill the aspirations of its citizens, but serve equally well as a beacon for all mankind. I do not believe in a superstate. I see no magic in tax dollars which are sent to Washington and then returned. I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies in this administration as well as in others. I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and full responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it. And this requires not only great ends but that we propose concrete means of achieving them.
"Our responsibility is not discharged by announcement of virtuous ends. Our responsibility is to achieve these objectives with social invention, with political skill, and executive vigor. I believe for these reasons that liberalism is our best and only hope in the world today. For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society. Its strength is drawn from the will of free people committed to great ends and peacefully striving to meet them. Only liberalism, in short, can repair our national power, restore our national purpose, and liberate our national energies. And the only basic issue in the 1960 campaign is whether our government will fall in a conservative rut and die there, or whether we will move ahead in the liberal spirit of daring, of breaking new ground, of doing in our generation what Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson did in their time of influence and responsibility.
I would amend those statements in only two ways or places: First, in the very lengthy 1960 statement, I'd add "and 2016" at the end of "what it means in the presidential election of 1960." Secondly --- remember, these statements were made before the Age of Political Correctness --- I'd substitute "humankind" for "mankind" and "people" for "men."
A close reading of President Kennedy's words will reveal that he believed --- as I do --- that the most important principle underlying real Americanism was devotion to human rights --- to allowing for the full development of each individual, while respecting that person's innate, God-given dignity, and I agree. I do not think that anything --- not states' rights, not property rights, nothing! --- trumps basic, personal human rights in the American scheme of things. Since I believe that application of that principle leads to conclusions such as JFK outlined in the two quotes cited above, and those conclusions are labeled "liberal," then I, too, define myself proudly, unapologetically, a liberal. By some leap of fallacious logic, though, this basic devotion to human rights has morphed in the minds of many people into something very different; they see "liberal" as referring to something that bears little or no resemblance to what I mean when I use that term. I think this slide started in earnest in the mid-1960s, and has been gathering steam ever since. Let's look at three examples:
I strongly disagree with two things that seem to be Gospel among my liberal peers when it comes to the subject of abortion: (a) The idea that, as a male, I have no right to an opinion on this subject, which involves only the rights of a woman to reproductive freedom; and (b) that it's only the host-mother's rights that should be considered when this matter is discussed.
Here I'm going to wade into an area that, for some reason, seems to gall many of those who claim to be liberals --- especially "liberal" women --- and especially theoretically "liberal" women and men of color: As do many on the so-called Right, I compare this to issues surrounding slavery. My analogy, though, is very narrow, and very specific. For some reason, people seem to fly off on totally unrelated and irrelevant tangents when some ideas are being discussed, and this is certainly one of those areas. I expect to be misunderstood, and there's little or nothing I can do about it. My comparison of this issue of abortion to the issue of slavery is very clear, very specific: To me, it is an issue of definition. Back in the mid-nineteenth century --- as now --- most Americans felt that people should be free to treat their property as they wanted; it was a matter of property rights. And if some states agreed to grant such rights to some of their inhabitants that other states didn't, so be it; that was a matter of states' rights. While both of those ideas were widely accepted, another idea, much more basic, came to be recognized: Slaves, human beings, were not "property," Could people, human beings, be "owned"? I'm not going to go into the reasoning and arguments that led to the overthrow of that idea, but I will say this: If a human being could be "owned," and certain states could legitimately allow certain people to regarded as "property," then we most certainly would need to recognize the principles of states' rights and property rights. However, few of us today would accept the idea that a human could be "property" that could be "owned" by another human, so the pro-slavery argument from the standpoint of property rights or states' rights is moot, invalid.
Likewise with the matter of abortion rights being only an issue of a woman's reproductive rights. I do not now, nor will I ever agree that a being attains full human personhood only upon his or her birth. Most people would agree that at a certain point --- long before birth --- that little being has fingers and toes and eyes and a brain, and the capacity to feel pleasure and pain. You can NOT tell me that such a being is not human, with all the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," among other basic human rights, that I claim for myself or for others. I believe that such a tiny little being, such a tiny little HUMAN being, should have all the rights that I should have, and he or she should be protected.
At what point in its pre-birth development does that little being gain those rights? I don't know --- which is why I can respect the views of those who choose to err on the side of caution and say that it's from the moment of conception (after all, that little being's DNA is different from that of its host-mother, so the fetus is NOT simply a cluster of the host-mother's cells). I, personally, am comfortable with the idea that it's when the fetus (I prefer to call it the "preborn baby") achieves viability --- but I do know that it is NOT only at birth; and that helpless little HUMAN'S rights are every bit as important as are mine or those of the host-mother. I, for one, fully respect any woman's right to control what happens to HER body --- but not necessarily to that of another human being who may be wholly dependent on her. And I, a male, have every bit as much right to an opinion on this matter as did whites and other non-blacks to have opinions on Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic racial discrimination during the 1960s.
Many liberals who support President Obama insist that all opponents of President Barack Obama oppose him because of his race. While that definitely IS true of many of his opponents, it is not true of ALL of them. But I dare say that many --- maybe even MOST --- Obama supporters back him because of his race. And I'm not too sure how either of those positions is worse or better than the other. I have actually done this: I've asked those who rabidly OPPOSE President Obama's ideas and policies to give me three examples of his policies that they oppose, and then to tell me, in LOGICAL terms, what they would propose differently. Yes, I've had two --- TWO! --- who've responded to my satisfaction. On the other hand, I've asked SUPPORTERS of the President to give me three examples of his ideas or policies that they support, and then tell me why they support those instead of alternate positions (which would presuppose, of course, that they are familiar with other positions). Unfortunately, I haven't had ONE satisfactory respond to that. OPPOSE him because of his race...or SUPPORT him because of his race: What's the difference?
Now, I will confess something here that I don't ever remember having put into writing before: There was a degree of race-consciousness in my support of Barack Obama's bid for the Presidency. I had never given much thought to Senator Obama before 2008. For a number of reasons that I won't go into here, I supported Hillary Clinton, and was prepared to do everything I could to see that she was nominated and elected. Then, seemingly out of left field (pun intended) came Sen. Obama. On most matters that were important to me, his political positions were very similar to those of Mrs. Clinton, so I was as comfortable with him as I would have been with her. They were both absolutely, completely acceptable as standard-bearers for my Democratic Party, so whom would I support when it came down to the finish line? While Mrs. Clinton's years of Washington and international experience were important to me, I have to admit that it was then-Senator Obama's race that moved me over into his column --- but Race was not the all-important factor; I still believe that had the Republican Party had the smarts to nominate Condoleeza Rice for the Presidency back then, she would have won --- and we'd probably still have a Republican President. Would I have supported her just because she was as black as I am? Absolutely not; her and my political philosophies are light-years from each other, so No (!) I would not have supported her bid, even though she and I share more, racially, than do Barack Obama and I (after all, I'm not biracial). But yes, race did play some part in my support of now-President Obama.
Way too many feel that those of us who question or dispute what I call the "open-borders" approach to Immigration Reform are, ipso facto, "against immigrants." All most of us ask is that in discussions of this issue, the other, less-PC "i" word should not be dropped: "Illegal."
In a discussion one recent Saturday morning, a leader of my church's Peace and Justice Committee wouldn't allow anyone to use the term "illegal immigrant'; they're "undocumented aliens," she firmly and repeatedly reminded the group.
I remember several months ago, before the lady mentioned above came to St. John's, when I was more active on that committee; in fact, I was one of the original members of the group. Just about every Wednesday evening, I stood out on the very busy corner in front of my church with an anti-war sign. At least once a year, I joined in reading the long, long list of Americans who'd been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The next phase of the committee's work had to do with Immigration, and there is where I had to stop and think. At a meeting one Sunday, I told the gathered group (heavy with middle-aged, middle- and upper-class liberal Whites) that when they thought of immigrants, they were probably thinking of little brown people who did their landscaping and served them in restaurants. But, I reminded them, when they look out at the congregation of St. John's on any given Sunday morning, at least 75 or 80 percent of those people are also immigrants --- people who studied and paid and worked hard to get here and settle here legally, and many of whom were still paying and struggling to bring family members here legally. Our parish was dominated by immigrants from various Caribbean members of the British Commonwealth --- especially, Belize. This caught the then-leader completely off-guard, and she mumbled something about "Oh I know we have some immigrants here, Don, but nowhere near that many." "I have been here, off and on, since 1977," I reminded her, "and you've been here what? Six months? I think I probably know a little bit more about the makeup of this congregation than you do." I continued: "These are people who have come here and settled here legally, but it seems like what we want to go on record as saying is that none of that matters; just get here. I don't think that's where this church is, and I know it's not where I am. I think I'd just be a disruptive presence on this committee." And I left.
Yes, some of the immigration laws proposed or passed by the legislatures of some of our states seem --- or, are --- draconian, but how does that compare with the harshly-enforced national immigration policies of Mexico? I am not aware of even one of the policies proposed by the legislatures of, for instance, Alabama and Arizona which isn't the policy of the entire country of Mexico. Ask any Central American or Haitian or Asian immigrant to Mexico if he or she enjoys the rights that Felipe Calderon and other Mexican political leaders insist must be extended to even illegal (yes, I used that "i" word; I'm grown --- don't tell me what I can or cannot say!) immigrants here in the U.S. And, as surely as I'm old and ugly, none of those officials would care one whit about "immigration reform" if the largest group of illegal immigrants in this country weren't from Mexico.
But, if you listen to many on the Left, if one questions any of that tripe, one is not only not a Democrat, and can't possibly be a liberal, but one's intelligence or sanity should be questioned.
There is, of course, another area that we could --- but won't! --- get into here, and that's the hot-button issue of Global Warming or, as it's usually referred to these days, Climate Change. You wouldn't believe the names I've been called by my fellow liberals because I challenge some of the generalizations made in that arena ("senile" and "stupid" are just two of the nicer things I've been called!). But this post has gone on too long already, and that subject alone could take at least as much space to discuss as we've spent here. We'll stop with the three issues I've mentioned above.
Those are just three areas in which I believe that I am always consistently liberal, but which many who would claim to be "liberal" now would challenge. We on the Left much too often adopt a True Believer mentality, stick our fingers in our ears and stomp and scream in order to end rational discussion of more than one side of an issue. We should remember --- as we demand that those who disagree with us remember --- that no political party has a monopoly on self-centered, pseudo-intellectual people full of themselves and convinced of their own self-importance who then set off on truly irrational, irrelevant tangents. I, a liberal black Democrat, can be --- and too often am --- as guilty of that as is the most fervent Tea Party Republican.