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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Friday, August 12, 2005


Anti-liberal bias, I....

posted by Razib Khan at Friday, August 12, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
A week ago I had a chat with an old friend who is a political activist, and definitely on the Left side of things. He mentioned to me that recently he's been plagued a sense of ennui about "the cause," in his case, gender and sexual politics (ie; the core being gay rights, but extending outward). He recounted to me recent interactions he'd had with transgender folks and their supporters, and the fact that they'd reworked English pronouns so that it wouldn't be so heterosexist (for example, adding a third, or more, gender identifiers for those who were one of the various transexual identities). My friend is well versed in these things, and he keeps track of them, and on a fundamental level he does think there needs to be a modern day "reformation of manners" so that we are more inclusive. But even for him, enough is enough, at some point the ideals of the cause took a back seat to the minutiae of the means. In another conversation I had (this time via e-mail) I explained to a friend of mine that I would view equal-pay-for-equal work more positively if I saw activists (and the sympathetic media) focusing on the millions of secretaries as much as the hundreds of thousands of professors. It seemed to me that in the interests of a laudable goal (equity) particular class interests were being furthered, or at least prioritized, so that a utilitarian calculus made the idealistic and principled arguments rather ludicrous.

This is in many ways my personal problem with modern day liberalism, or progressivism, or whatever name that is bandied about. There was a time when the Left implied a broad and general thrust toward personal liberty and economic equity. The Right implied adherence to social custom and tradition and economic liberalism (in the United States at least!). There of course are others like libertarians and the socially conservative New Dealers who put a kink into the dichotomies, but for the half aproximation the duality works. The "problem" for someone like me, who isn't an activist, but who lives in Leftish areas and socializes exclusively with Leftish folk is that liberalism, at least the social kind which has a high profile, seems to have fractured into a thousand "causes," each with their own check lists of "do's" and "don'ts." Whereas a political movement, to my mind, should be about setting the framework for the free expression of individual, and ultimately group, choice, it seems that many lifestyle liberals have flipped the equation, and individual and group choice in their particulars have become the movement. Liberty to choose has now become demands for liberation.

There are two problems I see with this. First, it is nearly impossible to check every demand of the various columns in the lifestyle army. Some of them are mutually contradictory (disabled activists vs. right-to-die). Some of them are not practically feasible, or at least contextual. For example, I strong suspected that Al Sharpton was going to ask Howard Dean about the dearth of blacks in his employ as governor of Vermont (one must not only not be discriminatory, but deviation from proportionalism is prima facie evidence for bias!), because I have been to Vermont and there simply aren't enough blacks to make it plausible that Dean would have many in his immediate employ. Sharpton surely knew this, but it made a nice rhetorical jab because the columns demand utopian perfection! Second, for people like me who are pretty average, and don't need, for example, third-sex bathrooms, or become offended by heterosexist assumptions in language, liberalism starts to sound like a bizarre joke on humanity. I am well aware that people who demand that you purge heterosexism from your language (use of gendered pronouns in contexts where they are not necessary) are a tiny minority of liberals, but they are loud, and the rhetorical assault that they make on day to day life (the very language you speak, or, your sexual preference) of the vast majority of Americans is pretty scary sometimes.

There was a time that intellectuals buttressed and clarified broad political movements. Enlightenment classical liberalism was a response to yearnings of the rising middle classes throughout the Western world for liberty and equality before the law. Socialism was a response to the oppression of the working classes in the sweatshops of the industrialized world. Feminism was a response to the injustice that women, who had tasted freedom during World War II, felt at the constriction of their choice during the 1950s. But today it seems that the intellectual braintrust of liberalism has swallowed, and outrun, the inclinations of the populace. The American public is now shifting toward an attitude of toleration for homosexuals, but "the movement" is now already mooting ideas like transgenderism that the public barely comprehends. Feminism has won the basic legal rights that they strived for in the 1960s, but today most young women would demur that they are feminists because of the negative cultural associations with the movement which has radicalized and splintered into warring factions. Now that legally sanctioned racialism is a thing of the past there nevertheless seems to be a proliferation of racial identity groups and organizations, from the older black ones to new Latino ones (La Raza) and Asian Americans, and intercine conflicts due to the public policy implemented to further the goal of "diversity" (ie; Southeast Asians demanding to not be counted as Asians in UC admissions, black leaders demanding that multiracials not be included on the Census, the assumption on the part of some Latino leaders that American should become bilingual because "their" language is just as authentically American and normative as English).

As a libertarian, I dissent from both main camps of American politics. I sympathized with Bush in 2000 (though I eventually voted for Harry Browne), and this time I voted for Kerry (though I voted Republican for congress). My own planks and inclinations are not on the table, and I make due. That being said, engaging the Right is in some ways far easier because there seem only a few, and highly correlated, unpleasant demands made by social conservatives to comprehend. When I look Leftward, the culture warriors seem to be a many-headed chimera of a thousand demands, a thousand reformations. While on the cultural Right I see individuals who wish to curtail liberty, who wish to constrain freedoms and joys which give color and verve to life, on the Left I feel that some wish to overturn the very nature of man and revolt against living itself.

I grant freely that most liberals do not fit this caricature. But I write this because I suspect that many libertarians feel as I do, many who are not comfortable with an alliance with the Right are driven in that direction through sheer disorientation at the blazing profusion of disparate demands that some of the Left seem to be making. I voted for Kerry in 2004 because the alternative was unpalatable. The negative case of the Democratic candidate, that the Bush administration was making a mess of this country, was persuasive. But I most certainly did not vote for Kerry because I believe that the Left has a true foundational and coherent vision for this country. I do spy a clear and consistent negative vision, that this is a nation founded by "dead white men" and steeped in "oppression" and "injustice" and built on "imperialism" and forwarded in the interests of "corporations." There does seem to be a core subset of negative values which Democrats can agree upon, which the far Left elucidates most eloquently. But sometime in the 1970s the old vision of a just and fair society, free of legal racism and committed to economic equity withered in the face of further "progress," sexier causes, more radical reformation of the "system". Instead of repairing the system, it was like liberals realized that they could "make it better," that they "had the technology." But instead of a new city on the hill what came in its stead were a thousand hamlets scattered across the horizon on innumerable hills, their denizens chattering away and shouting down upon us plebs threateningly for not adhering to their thousand visions.

Cross-posted at Politics GNXP.


Please make Meaningful Campaign Finance Reform a big issue.

We are being bought and sold on a daily basis, lobbies hold the whole country hostage, while the FDA heads resign, over stuff like their inability to approve and deliver the "morning after pill".

Not to mention the recalls.

Heart devices, pacemakers, etc.

Silly me I thought naming an airport after Reagan was the supreme irony.

Who knew?


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.