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Monday, May 23, 2005

Free to leap

Is leaving the left synonymous with moving right? By strict binary logic, the answer would seem to be yes. But not so fast—all choices in the real world aren't limited to sets of mutually exclusive twos. Contrary to popular belief, politics need not be a game in which the only way to move from the left is to head squarely in the opposite direction, or vice versa. There's another alternative, one that people on both sides of the continuum are getting hip to: We are free at any time to leap off the left-right line altogether and begin making political choices liberated from the gravity of the ideological continuum, whose pull turns out to be surprisingly escapable. As with any right, however, there is a corresponding responsibility. Before leaping, it is crucial to know what you value; important to honor what you know; good to stay open to surprises and new opportunities for learning. Now as before, I consider myself a liberal — but in the classic sense that Jefferson and Madison understood. The word comes from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “free, befitting a free person.” It also means “independent,” which is why I refuse to abandon it just because it has become synonymous in the popular mind with its antithesis: commands issued by an elite from on high. I cannot conceive of a better word than liberal for the animating spirit that employed Jefferson’s pen to render this majestic sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What gives these words lasting vitality is not that America has always lived up to its creed. To the contrary, when this nation has fallen short, as with slavery and segregation and second-class status for women, the fall has been egregious. What most validates the American democratic quest is its genius for self-correction. When we get things wrong, we work to set things right. More than any other quality, this is what makes the phrase “American exceptionalism” not an abstract theory but a self-evident fact, confirmed in the best scientific sense by countless experimental trials. It goes without saying that love of country is real for a great many Americans who play politics left of center. Faith in government activism is not somehow intrinsically at odds with patriotism. Yet it must be said that for over three decades the cultural left’s center of gravity has shifted decisively toward the conviction that America is synonymous with an unending series of crimes and depredations against humanity. (I discuss this in my essay Busting the Moral Equivalence Racket.) Opening to this truth does not require embracing the GOP platform, or for that matter, signing up with the supposed correctness of, say, a rightwing ideology that's as myopic as its left-wing counterpart. I say this in response to those who assert: "Okay, Keith. It's clear why you've left the political left. Now, it's incumbent on you to apply the same criticism to the political right." Actually — no, it's not incumbent on me to do that. Here's why. I haven't been laboring in the vineyards of conservative politics for most of my adult life, such that criticizing the right would be to criticize my own tradition. Whereas I have lived on the left, in such a way that coming to terms with my past commitments involves self-criticism. This is not to say you won't hear criticism of ideas that may be popular among some on the right. When you've stepped off the left-right line you become free to reject particular tenets from either side, as well as to embrace tenets from eithe side. Libertarians know this especially well. I have considerable sympathy with the freedom quest of libertarian thinking, although for me the word "libertarian" — like the words "liberal" and "conservative" — are more appealing these days as adjectives than as nouns. And, yes, you will hear me embrace conservative ideas that make sense to me. I'm now very willing to make common cause with conservatives when I think they’re right. I don’t have a problem, say, with Bill Bennett's view that the 1960s-inspired project of fostering self esteem separate from encouraging personal achievement has been a cultural disaster. I only wish more people on the left would join the campaign, because America doesn't need a generation of unaccomplished kids with inflated opinions of themselves. Likewise, I’ll be glad to cheer when the Children’s Defense Fun gets around to advocating dedicated parenting as kids’ first and foremost need. Until then, I’ll keep saying to Dr. Laura: You go, girlfriend.