What is a liberal?
By Henrietta Hay
Reposted with Permission
Sunday, December 01, 2002
I am tired of hearing the word "liberal" used as an obscenity. Just last week, U.S. Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, a high-ranking Republican, said of newly elected Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, "She's a roadblock. That's her hallmark. She's a liberal in the true sense of the word." Well, OK, Debbie, I'm glad you realized that we have a few of them left in Congress. By coincidence, I have a sore knee. My friend the philosopher suggests that it has been traumatized by years of knee-jerk liberalism. When people ask why I am limping, I tell them I have an old liberal injury. The dictionary defines liberalism as "a political philosophy advocating personal freedom for the individual, democratic forms of government, gradual reform in political and social institutions." That doesn't sound too life-threatening.
The political philosophy of liberalism has had a long and varied history. It arose in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, to protest the prerogatives of kings, aristocrats and the church.
Actually, the word simply means a body of political and social beliefs, even as the word "conservative" does.
In today's world, the liberals are the idealists, the people who still believe, in spite of everything that has happened, that they can make the world a better place for everybody. Realistically, they know they're outnumbered, but it is a belief that shapes their lives.
They believe that government is inherently good, that it can make the human condition better. They believe that we have some obligation to our fellow human beings. They believe in personal freedom, in freedom of speech and religion. They believe in the common good, the things people cannot do alone.
The liberal thinks government can make the human condition better. The conservative thinks government always makes things worse.
It takes a long time to create a true liberal. They usually start young and enthusiastic, and are sure they can save the world. But finally they come face-to-face with unfiltered reality. Either they go by way of yoga, guitar lessons or just plain dropping out, or they stay in there swinging. Mark Twain in his "Notebook" in 1898 wrote, "The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them."
In 1960, when he was running for president, John F. Kennedy was asked, "What is a liberal?" and he defined it very well:
"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 ... . 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. ... For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society."
Liberal vision has helped build the country. C.E. Owen, an 80-year-old from Canton, Ga., recently wrote in the Atlanta Constitution, "All of us should thank God every day for the stout-hearted liberals of the 1930s and 1940s. The liberals brought electric lights and indoor plumbing to our farm homes." They also brought the Civil Rights Act and Social Security, women's right to vote, bank-deposit insurance, and the Peace Corps. The list goes on and on.
Liberals are not criminals. They are not traitors. They are patriotic Americans. They love their families. They go to work and complain about traffic circles. Most of them probably have cats. Most of them are Christians. Most of them are Democrats. Some of them are Republicans. Most of them say, "You believe your thing and let me believe mine."
No, "liberal" is not a dirty word. It is a proud word. It is an idea of freedom that has been around for several centuries. I am still limping from my "liberal" injury. It's probably not going to get better anytime soon.
Henrietta Hay, a retired public librarian, writes a weekly column for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, where this first appeared. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.