A few thoughts on liberal dogma

>> Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Liberalism, like a large rambunctious family, is characterized more by its long-running arguments than by its shared beliefs. It is not so much a creed as a list of things worth fighting about. And as time goes on and history teaches us fresh lessons, new options arise and old ones are discarded.

-K. Anthony Appiah
"Seven Habits Of Truly Liberal People,"
Slate, Feb. 16, 2009

That's a pretty neat way to put it, actually.

In the circles I frequent--living in the South in real life, cruising the internet in... the other real life--it's not unusual to find people talking about "what liberals believe" as if it's some kind of dogmatic set of beliefs. We believe in taking people's guns away, taxing everybody, censoring language, animals having more rights than people, trees having more rights than animals, terrorists having more rights than trees... I don't know, all kinds of silliness that when I hear it I usually have to process it for several seconds to figure out whether Coulter or Limbaugh or O'Reilly or whomever is talking about me. And frequently they're not, which seems a bit silly because I self-identify openly and consciously as a liberal, that foulest of animals, lowest of species, worst something of category. You know the drill.

Thing is, I can't always argue with them. Because this is one of the things about liberalism, is you can always point to a liberal who believes whatever and laugh at him or her or it, and we liberals do it to ourselves, frankly. I mean you'll find plenty of us liberals pointing at a subset of our fellow liberals and saying, "Ha! What a buncha asstards!" only to wonder what happened when a group of conservatives snuck into the legislature behind our backs and started wrecking up the place again.

If, as conservatives like to say, the Democrats are liberals, maybe they're right and this natural fractiousness of our sect is the truth behind the truth of Will Rogers' great line, "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat." (He also said, "Democrats never agree on anything, that's why they're Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans.") Maybe the Democrats are liberals (mostly) and that's why I don't think they're liberals....

Because, maybe as Appiah says, liberalism isn't a creed so much as it's a list of things worth fighting about.

One of my favorite things a liberal ever said about liberalism was the late Spalding Gray's statement in Swimming To Cambodia to the effect that the central tenet of liberalism was "Question ev-ry-thing." I think that's basically true; I suppose there are leftist dogmatists but I guess they're not really liberals even if they're associated with liberalism. Liberals tend to second-guess their presumptions, even their most dearly-held ones. This is maybe the main reason conservatives are able to attempt to paint us as amoral or vacuous: a conservative says "Thou shalt not blank" and then a liberal's instinct is to say, "Really? Says who? What if we blank on Tuesdays? What if people in China blank? I knew a guy who blanked on a dare one time, and he was mostly alright except he got kinda twitchy at loud noises...." And then the conservative says, "No, really, thou shalt not blank, it says so right here in this Font Of Wisdom we share" (it could be the Bible or it could be some hoary tome on economics or last week's episode of Rush), and then the liberal says, "Well who the hell is this Font Of Wisdom to tell people what blanking is? Huh?" And blank may really, well, and truly be an awful idea, but you know we liberals, we like (as Gray said) to question everything and telling us thou shalt not seems less like a commandment than it does for a starting point for a long and twisting march towards what we hope is Truth (not that we won't question that when we come to it).

I can see why conservatives get exasperated with us. I get exasperated with us. We're not merely trying to be contrarians, really, we're not. It's just that we don't like getting bossed around. By anyone. Or anything.

Of course, Ann Coulter would argue with that, she and Jonah Goldberg and some of the other talking pinheads like to say we're bullies and we get off on bossing others around, and we all have weird dogmas and whatnot. You'd think, then, that we'd be much more effective and coherent if that were the case. Three weeks in and some of us are already bitching about our oh-so-supposedly liberal President. (Okay, he's a liberal, or a moderate liberal, or center-left whatever that means. See? We can't even agree who our members are.) If we're so dogmatic, why do we fight amongst ourselves all the time?

Here's an example: Air America. Remember Air America? This was "our" response to right-wing talk radio. Purportedly. A bunch of liberals thought they'd get together and broadcast left-wing talking points aired by left-wing celebrities like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. Because, see, that's the problem we have with our message, is that we need this central switchboard or nexus or whatever.

Of course, Air America ended up declaring bankruptcy and who knows what's happening to it now. And why? Why did Air America do so poorly? Was it because it was too left for American tastes? I'm sure some idiot on the right has said something like that.

But no; no, the reason Air America went belly-up and bloating in the sun so quickly was that hardly anybody, not even liberals listened to it. I know one person, exactly one liberal, who ever listened to Air America. (If any lefty readers want to chime in, maybe I can bring that up to a number between five and ten.) Air America wasn't even on the air when a number of liberals began to say that it sounded like one of the most retarded ideas they'd ever heard of. "So... wait... why would I want to listen to this again?" "I don't know, I'll probably just keep listening to NPR." "Who thought of that?" "Sure, Janeane Garofalo is hot and I loved her on Ben Stiller, but when the hell did she become an expert on politics?"

Seriously, people on the right: anything you said about Air America was probably half as incredulous, a quarter as mean, and an eighth as funny as what we said about Air America. Also, we disagreed with whatever you said, partly on principle and mostly out of habit. Except when we didn't. (See?)

Here is the dogmas of liberalism: question all dogmas except this one--that some things are worth fighting about. "About" seems to be the best preposition--I thought of making that "for" or "over," but both of those are both true and false at the same time. No, some things are worth fighting about.

I don't want to make generalizations about conservatives. (I'd immediately have to question them, I'd start thinking of self-proclaimed conservatives I know who don't fit the bill, etc.--see? I'm doing it again.) But buried in the word itself is a reluctance to ask questions. Dictionary.com tells us conservative means:

...disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.


Such a disposition, it seems to me, inevitably means being slow to challenge, slow to question, slow to fight over things. I mean, I suppose you can question everything and then decide it was all as it should have been to start with, but that seems much more like a liberal thing to do than a conservative thing, because inherent in the question is the possibility that change might be good (c.f. the definition of liberal, "favorable to progress or reform" or "open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc."). I imagine (second-guessing myself again) that there are conservatives who do question and challenge a great deal, but why do they bother if they're just going to end up where they started? Of course, I don't want to say it's bad to not challenge things all the time like liberals do....

In fact, where I was really going with that was: I can see why conservatives are quick to take the opinions of some of our louder sects and ascribe those beliefs to the whole, because a group of people who all call themselves "liberals" and then disagree about nearly everything must seem shockingly alien to them. We must be lying, or up to something. Surely the loudest among us must be the spokespeople for the whole movement. Why else would we tolerate them being so loud (and sometimes stupid) if we didn't agree with them? Seems logical enough, only it's completely wrong. We tolerate some members being loud (and sometimes stupid) because of a deep belief that people ought to be allowed to be as loud (and sometimes stupid) as they'd like, because (question everything!) maybe the loud (and sometimes stupid) are actually right.

Incidentally, this sometimes also leads to another one of our "problems": not only do we tolerate loud-and-stupid people, but sometimes we even stick up for them, and conservatives confuse this form of tolerance with endorsement. It goes back to the family metaphor in the Appiah quote: you might not get along with your brother or you might hate your Uncle Bob, and you might say all sorts of nasty things about those family members when you're talking to Aunt Sue or your sister, but somebody outside the family says an unkind word (however true) and it's on, motherfucker; it's permissible within the family to say just about anything, but outsiders don't have the same license. So we end up sticking up for our worst members every now and again because, dammit, they may be morons but they're our morons, and blood has to stick together. (I suppose conservatives must do the same thing, sometimes: hence the uneasy looks on the faces of fiscal conservatives when rubbing elbows with their fundamentalist "brethren" during Republican national conventions; now you know how some of us over here feel about PETA.)

We're a fractious group, it's in our nature. When we stop....

When we stop, we'll be conservatives.

That will be the day.

30 comments:

Random Michelle K Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 11:47:00 AM EST  

You're right.

But I think it's a feature, not a bug.

Jim Wright Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 12:55:00 PM EST  

Ha, I was thinking exactly the same thing as Michelle.

Leanright,  Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 1:39:00 PM EST  

Believe it or not, we conservatives can be multi-tiered as well. We certainly don't have a blanket agreement on every issue; there are differences in what we believe.

Random Michelle K Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 4:18:00 PM EST  

Ah yes, should the nanny be European or Hispanic.

Leanright,  Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 6:56:00 PM EST  

Funny. I'm in Southern California; they are ALWAYS hispanic.

Carol Elaine Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 7:28:00 PM EST  

Air America listener here. Mainly to Stephanie Miller in the morning as I'm getting ready for work, a little Bill Press if I roll out of bed early enough and some Ron Reagan if I'm borrowing the boyfriend's car and running errands. I also listen to NPR quite a bit.

And you are right on about us liberals. I agree with Michelle and Jim - it is a feature.

Eric Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 7:42:00 PM EST  

That makes two Air America listeners I know of! W00T!

;-)

Jeff Hentosz Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 9:30:00 PM EST  

Liberal: We're all in this together; paganism optional.

Conservative: It's every man for himself; (my brand of) fundamentalism preferred.

On Air America: You can make it three. I used to listen to it. At least four times I used to listen to it, but the stations that carried it in my markets always up and changed formats after a year or two.

Listenership was not the reason for the change in any of those cases. In Akron, Canton and Columbus (twice), ratings for liberal talk always went up compared to whatever format those stations had broadcast before, and went down after libtalk was canned. In markets all over the country, this programming beats people like Hannity and O'Reilly in competing time slots. I can probably track down numbers if you're interested.

No, what doomed the stations that I listened to was conservative ownership and advertiser apathy. In Akron and Canton, the stations couldn't sell time to car dealerships and the like to save their lives, even though the ratings were there. And in the most recent case in Columbus, the station was purchased by the Catholic Church (in something of a hostile takeover) for religious programming, just because they needed an AM station on that end of the dial to round out their mini-network of something like four religious stations around central Ohio.

Air America has also been plagued by corporate mismanagement unrelated to their talent or content. A complementary network -- Jones Network, I believe -- does just fine with talent like Ed Shultz, Stephanie Miller and Bill Press.

Why do/did I listen to it? Same reason you read the political blogs you read. Occasionally, it's comforting to listen to an echo chamber you agree with. It's not often easy to come by around here.

Oh, and NPR is not liberal. It broadcasts a lot of stuff liberals like to listen to, but that's not the same thing.

neurondoc Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 9:43:00 PM EST  

Michelle, you made me spit stuff on the laptop. Please don't do that again. I am so going to use that line someday.

Natalie -- liberal and multi-opinionated

Eric Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 9:56:00 PM EST  

Jeff, I agree with you by-and-large about NPR. (I used to agree with you unreservedly, but I have heard a few stories where even I had to admit there was some skewering going on; I think this likely had more to do with a particular producer or reporter than anything else.) I don't think NPR can really afford to be overly partisan one way or another--it would cost them too much money and political support.

There are some conservatives who seem to feel that if a story has implicitly critical overtones--say, for instance, a story accurately reports American casualties or civilian collateral damage or misdeeds by elected officials (of their party, natch), it's biased. Unfortunately, they seem unable to realize that there's a difference between unfavorable and unbiased, that fairly balanced coverage can make somebody or something look very, very bad.

It is indeed comforting to get a ping back from the echo chamber, to know you're not alone--it's one reason I moved to the part of Charlotte I did (I went from a fairly conservative location closer to the office to a longer drive, but one that puts me in a neighborhood where there were plenty of Kerry and eventually Clinton or Obama--and eventually just Obama--bumper stickers).

But I think that one of the things liberals seem more willing to do--and maybe it's my own bias talking--is criticize their own, and like others here I do consider it a feature and not a bug (notwithstanding my tongue-in-cheek "criticism" in the main post). Hence it always seemed to me that a blatantly partisan radio network always had the seeds of its own destruction embedded in the concept: I doubt that Air America ever manifested a phenomena like "dittoheads," even amongst its loyalest listeners. Certainly the one regular listener I knew before Jeff and Carol Elaine outed themselves wasn't somebody who I ever heard blindly quoting a talking point or meme (as we've heard, for instance, with certain conservatives--including Republican leaders--quoting Michelle Malkin's "generational theft" meme).

Ilya Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 9:10:00 AM EST  

Ok, I long suspected I might be a liberal at heart, but Spalding Gray's main tenet just sealed it for me.

If only you liberals did not want to tax everyone to death, I'd come out of the closet much sooner :)

Carol Elaine Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 12:48:00 PM EST  

Jeff, I don't see NPR as liberal either. I think the network, as a whole, reports the straight news. They've had one or two stories that I felt were a little too complimentary of some in the Bush Administration, but any compliment of Bush buddies is too complimentary for me, what with me having the Bush Derangement Syndrome and all.

During the Clinton years I listened to Pacifica (KPFK in L.A.), which more closely matches with my views, but got tired of how extremely one sided they are. Air America, while a progressive echo chamber, actually has interesting and varied viewpoints.

Leanright,  Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 1:05:00 PM EST  

"Conservative: It's every man for himself; (my brand of) fundamentalism preferred."

Jeff, this is a rather idiotic statement. One which is out of character for you.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 3:37:00 PM EST  

Silly Jeff! Did you forget it was my week to make the snarky comments about conservatives?

Jeff Hentosz Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 11:42:00 PM EST  

Eric:

"Leanright" has attempted to hurt my feelings. Please inform him/her that my "character" is capable of vastly more idiotic statements than the one at issue here. S/He has no idea.

Eric Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 7:44:00 AM EST  

Leanright: Jeff says his "character" is capable of vastly more idiotic statements than the one here and you have no idea.

;-)

Random Michelle K Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 10:57:00 AM EST  

Oooh! Fun game!

Eric,

Can you tell Leanright that his father was a hamster and his mother smelt of elderberry?

Eric Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:10:00 PM EST  

Michelle: you didn't say "please."

:-P

Leanright,  Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:37:00 PM EST  

Michelle, I believe the word is "Smelled" or "Smells".

"Smelt" is actually a type of small fish.

And NO, my mother doesn't smell like Small Fish, either!

Random Michelle K Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:57:00 PM EST  

Eric,

Pretty please with cream and sugar on top?

Eric Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 1:30:00 PM EST  

::sigh::

Leanright: Michelle really wants me to tell you your father was a hamster (not sure what he is now) and your mother smelt of elderberry (no, I don't know what she smells like now), and she asked very nicely.

Random Michelle K Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 2:07:00 PM EST  

YAY!

Eric, can you please tell Jeff that it's MY week to be contrary and annoying, not his?

Leanright,  Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 2:31:00 PM EST  

When do I get to be annoying? Why don't I get a special week?

Jeff Hentosz Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 3:19:00 PM EST  

Eric, please tell Leanright that's like when I'd ask my mom on Mother's Day why there isn't a Kids' Day, and she'd respond...

XD

Leanright,  Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 3:26:00 PM EST  

*eyes welling up with tears*

MEAN LIBERALS!

Janiece Murphy Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 4:12:00 PM EST  

Leanright, you have have no idea.

Just be glad we haven't brought out the Big Guns.

^O.O^

Eric Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 5:44:00 PM EST  

::longer sigh::

Jeff: let Michelle be contrary and annoying this week.

Leanright: apparently you're just like Jeff's mother... Californian and male... which surprises me, actually....

Jeff: uhm... yeah... how exactly did that happen?

Leanright: better keep an eye on Janiece (but not the dog she's sitting this week)--she has access to a magic dog with hypnotic powers that can run at supernatural speeds... why it doesn't wear a cape and have a big thing on its collar hanging over its chest, I have no idea. But its kind of a scary dog.

Now, everybody! Stop picking on Leanright! Don't make me turn this blog around! I will do it. And then you'll never see Disneyland! Or the zoo! Or get ice cream! Or get to ride a pony! In fact, I may blog about Disneyland and the zoo and ice cream while taking a pony ride without you if you don't simmer down!

Random Michelle K Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 6:23:00 PM EST  

I don't want any of those things.

I want chocolate.

(poke) (poke) (poke)

neurondoc Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 7:32:00 PM EST  

But I waaaaaant to ride on a ponyyyyyyyyy.

(Natalie, late to the party)

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