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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Manifesto

Having described my writing, let me say something about my politics. I'm a liberal. A proud and unapologetic personification of the L-word. Now let's define our terms. Liberal comes from the Latin word liberalis: “free, befitting a free person.” It also means “independent,” which is why I refuse to abandon the word just because it has become synonymous in the popular mind with its antithesis: coercive commands from caretaker elites, ever in search of new populations to bring into the fold of learned helplessness and victim status. All the better to bolster caretakers' self-image as Good, Decent, Compassionate Persons. "You sound more like a conservative." Fair retort. It's true we hear about self-responsibility more often from conservatives these days, than from self-styled progressives. "Progressive," of course, is what liberals became after the L-word got trashed by conservative talk radio, as well as after sixties radicals retired to the faculty club for self-congratulatory conversation about "inclusiveness" and "diversity." (Oh, and by the way: The conversation stands a better chance of remaining coherent provided we can all just agree to exclude individualism, capitalism, logic, the Enlightenment, science, Judeo-Christian values, the concept of personal achievement, and the feasibility of objective knowledge. Thanks for understanding.) Quick overview of liberalism and the left: Once upon a time, the two were functionally synonymous — for instance, when they led America to face up to making equality of opportunity real for black people. Likewise, the left got out front in the quest for women's legal and civic equality. Both movements manifested American liberalism at its highest and best. But then something strange began to happen. Circa mid-1970s, many of the very activists who had carried the day for equal opportunity suddenly changed the rules of the game. Equal opportunity no longer sufficed. Nothing short of equal outcomes would remedy the damage caused by America’s legacy of previously legal yet immoral (and unconstitutional) discrimination. From this day forward, any racial “inequity” (or “disparity”) would be considered prima facie evidence of culpable bias, regardless of other factors. The logic of this argument has become a familiar part of the social landscape, notes Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “Victim-group X is not proportionally represented in some field; therefore the field's gatekeepers are discriminating against X's members. The argument presumes that there are large numbers of qualified Xs out there who, absent discrimination, would be proportionally represented in the challenged field.” But it took one additional step to seal the deal. The newly race- and gender-conscious movements set about shifting America’s attention from the wrongness of racism and sexism, to a demand that white Americans and male Americans be made to atone for past injustice. (For a powerful chronicle of this tragic political and moral miscalculation, spend some time with Shelby Steele.) Long story short: The cultural left (aka the Progressive Movement) essentially gave up on authentic liberalism. Causes I once championed began a slow and tragic descent into a politics of victim-centered resentment and learned helplessness, with a huge dose of narcissistic entitlement and a visceral hatred for anything remotely resembling the values associated with mainstream culture, received wisdom, traditional values, or even plain common sense. Charming, and sometimes quite festive. Yo, Larry Summers! I'll be exploring these sorts of issues in future posts, as I'm at work on a book about leaving the left precisely in the name of liberalism. I didn't intend to go on quite so long here, but then the header "Manifesto" was probably a fair warning. All in all, it's probably a good idea to get a few things clear right from the start: core values, unabridgable convictions, that kind of stuff. Enjoying the ride so far? We're just getting started. If you get bored or perturbed, that red button on the dashboard activates the ejection seat. Please give me advance notice before pressing it, so I can put down the convertible top. Repairing the roof is expensive — plus, you know, there's your head.