Chad and I were chums since we were thirteen and, although we had our differences, our life philosophies had a broad overlap.
Sipping on iced coffees, we talked about the time between our last meeting. The obligatory successes and failures in relationships and career lead us inevitably to a little social debate.
We were talking about the election, immigration, NATO enlargement and about armies that were too big and with too few enemies, when, from out of nowhere, he called me a liberal.
I kind of assumed that liberal was the age we were living in, at least if subjected to the concept of democracy, as inspired by the French Revolution, I hadn't realized it was an insult to be hurled about. I remembered all the hullabaloo in the Reagan years about the 'L' word and so forth, but hardly expected a friend to level me with the darn thing. I felt myself becoming defensive, and began rolodecking my definitions for some kind of response.
Through the haze of my caffeine buzz, it dawned on me that this cat wasn't just talkin' wash. I am indeed a liberal, and if you're reading this article, then most likely, you are a bleeding heart, o.k. maybe not, but you probably are a liberal anyway. Before we go any further, let's take a look at the word liberal, as defined by Webster's New World dictionary:
Liberal, adj. from old French, leud hero (belonging to the people).
1. orig.- suitable for a free man - not restricted.
2. tolerant of views differing from one's own - broadminded.
3. favoring reform or progress, favoring political reform tending towards democracy and personal freedom for the individual - progressive.
4. open mindedness to the ideas that challenge tradition, established institutions etc.
Liberalism - a political philosophy advocating personal freedom.
It's obvious, in English, that the word liberal is an adjective of commendation.
To be liberal is to be free from narrow prejudice or bigotry.
I wondered how this concept became so twisted in the modern usage, and indeed, are we at the end of the Liberal era?
Meaning; are those little denigrations heralding a new dark age?
I decided to dig a little deeper, remembering that famous quote in the US. constitution regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Born in a time of great oppression, the liberal philosophy grew out of the conflicting systems of the old Monarchs, and the rising tide of mercantilism and the new economic ideas emerging around it.
Throughout the 17th and early 18th, centuries the privileged were able to use the changing conditions to their advantage, primarily by substituting lost labor by exploiting the many colonies founded about the same time.
In many respects, the European royals had achieved power and riches well beyond feudal times becoming more decadent, as well as remote from their subjects who, along with a modest improvement in living standards, were learning to read and write in ever increasing numbers.
In any case, the emergence of the printing press and movable typeface was the x factor in the relationship between governments and populous at this time. Ideas were easier to communicate as well as disseminate; stories of the New World, and conditions in other kingdoms gave people the awareness that they were not alone, and with regard to eternity, the divine rights of kings and queens became more mortal daily, well, at least yearly.
A main tenet of the era, known as The Enlightenment was an emphasis on the individual, which not coincidentally coincided with the Protestant Reformation and a fresh emphasis put on man, who now had to prove his own worth to God. The divinity as an alienating presence.
The unbridled decadence of the French monarchs (as well as their obliviousness to the suffering of its servant class) and the business interests of the, you guessed it, 'Liberals' and their ability to connect technology and philosophy, led to the celebration known as 'Bastille Day'.
In the years that followed, the idea of 'Liberte' and Liberation snowballed in Europe resulting in the revolutions of 1848, the emergence of nation-states, and the recession of continental empire for good (unless you count the Nazis).
In America, the writings and concepts of the revolution in France were accepted in whole bites; limited government intervention in private affairs, individual and property rights, as well as those of minorities (of course white land owners) were written as unalienable if not divine themselves.
This thrust of history, whether or not a practice (we see) preached everyday, provides a framework that I thought would be an acceptable basis to begin a discussion of current events as we near the 21st century. Could it be under attack?
As multinational corporations expand beyond national boundaries, the concept of empire returns. Wielding powers closer to god, (Whose? Yours of course!) than to anyone you know, or even would know if you saw them, the idea of government blurs and naturally 'the people' slip into complacency, and the rights which were once defended and cherished, are only for those who can afford it (see: OJ). The media net has been instrumental in generating a sense of powerlessness and, of course, outrage.
Liberal as a word has metamorphasized into a euphemism: Weaklings; soft on crime; anti-religious (if not outright atheist); communist baby killers, who would sell drugs to school children while forcing them into teenage sex, and so forth. No one wants to be tarred with the implications of the L word.
Traditional liberalism carries with it the belief that the individual needs protection from the group, not the other way around, as is so often postulated nowadays in reference to so called 'terrorists' and fringe or cult groups.
The resulting conformity and hopelessness (in terms of ever solving the liberal problem) are the same circumstances that have generated great repression throughout the modern era: Fascism, communism as practiced by the U.S.S.R., the crackdown on Chinese 'dissidents', to name a few high profile examples.
The trends now are ominous for the liberals, their fight is not clearly defined, and the bone of contention is the globe. Once again technology, in particular the computer, has allowed money to move so fast it has a life of its own, something closer to the weather for a small country, than a measure of exchange value.
We have become slow, glued to the TV, as our forebears were glued to a plot of land. I wondered what kind of thinking Chad prescribed for me, if not my liberal values.
Perhaps he was prescribing that I rid myself of these labels once and for all, but logic says that it was he who hurled the label at me.
No, something deeper is happening, and the message is accept this, accept the slowness, the powerlessness, do as you're told, don't make waves. You know what that means, don't you? I changed the conversation to music (in grand tolerant San Francisco style), and reminded myself that Chad was one of them. OK, not really, but what else is a liberal to do?
Photo of David Foltz by Jeffree Benet