America the Beautiful Because of Liberals and Conservatives
An eagle soars high only on two wings.
If such a grand bird were to use one of its wings against the other, it would be only crippled and crazy. America is a bird divided against itself. Instead of having a higher view, it flops and flounders on the ground. Such a bird needs psychiatric help or prophetic warning. That is my intent here today: I want to help America soar again.
I see my beloved America as being the pride of the past and the hope of the future, but some abroad and here, including me, can see it as the shame of the past and threat of the future.
Columnist Richard Reeves reported that the British literary journal Granta asked Europeans about America a year after September 11th. The replies revealed a mixture of “fear, resentment, envy, anger, wonder, hope.” Harold Pinter, a British playwright, put it starkly:
Arrogant, indifferent, contemptuous of international law, both dismissive and manipulative of the United Nations… A ‘rogue state’ of colossal military and economic might… without thought, without pause for reflection, without a moment of doubt, let alone shame… It has effectively declared war on the world. It knows only one language – bombs and death.
While liberals might see the truth of this criticism, conservatives would resent it more than consider it. They tend to see criticism and protest as undermining patriotism, not as a part of it.
Humorist Al Franken tried to answer this in his book Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. He jokes that the national dialogue on terrorism goes something like this:
Why do they hate us? Because they hate freedom and they’re evil.
Maybe if we understood what triggered… Why are you apologizing for the terrorists?
I’m not. What they did was horrific and inexcusable. It’s just that maybe there are lessons we can learn. Why do you hate America?
Such dialog doesn’t get us far. Rranken reports conservative TV “host” Sean Hannity says liberals “train our children to criticize America, not celebrate it.” But Franken sees the liberal mindset as incorporating criticism as part of our love. Honesty must help guide. He makes a list of the bad and good things about America:
Salem witch trials – bad
Revolutionary War – good
Slavery – bad
Ending slavery – good, but hard
Civil War reenactments – weird
Massacring Native Americans and breaking our treaties with them – bad
Indian casinos – ?
Child labor during the industrial Revolution – bad
Child labor mowing lawns and baby-sitting – character-building
Women getting the vote – good…for women! Just kidding. It’s good for everybody!!!
African Americans getting the vote – good… for African Americans! Kidding again… Good for Democrats
Winning World War II – wow!
Truman Doctrine – smart
Vietnam – mistake
Making mistakes – bad, but inevitable
Calling those who point out mistakes “unpatriotic” – itself unpatriotic
Owning up to our mistakes – brave
America – home of the brave
It is brave and wise to be honest, even when it pinches our inflated egos. We need bravery and honesty, not just in accusation, but in self-examination. When the Bush campaign crowd was dispersing in Mesilla, New Mexico and the Kerry crowd was gathering, few realized that in that same place in 1871 political words led to gunfire and nine killed. Democrats are accused lately of “cultural warfare,” but Franken reminds us that back in 1358 European peasants sacked the manor house, killed the knight, then roasted him in front of his kids and force-fed him to his horrified wife. That’s cultural warfare. Our own Civil War was one of our worst. It and the twentieth century’s Nazis and Communists ought to remind us of how hideous humans can get with each other when they won’t listen to and respect each other.
When I wrote an editorial shortly after 9-11 suggesting we respect Arabs and Muslims, someone returned it to me by mail with a foul word sprawled across it. Instead of respect, or even understanding, we have attacked and exacerbated an entire civilization whose honor is regained only by revenge. How does that serve our honor – or our defense – in the long run?
But I write as a liberal, and liberals tend to cast their circle of inclusion widely. We can see the humanity in the enemy and we tend not to make enemies of our own citizens either. When President Reagan quipped there are “Democrats and Americans,” we winced in resentful exclusion. How dare he define us out? Conservatives tend to draw their circles close to their “I and mine,” that being a small set of family, class, or ideology. “They and them” to conservatives includes not just the terrorists or the Taliban, but Iraqis in general (or at least those in the way) and even fellow Americans with differing points of view.
But, do I commit the very offense I just deplored? Because conservative leaders have touted a new crusade abroad and jailed protestors at home, do conservatives in general like that? I get riled at the conservative siege of our society. It dominates all three branches of our government, owns and runs all but a paltry few sources of our news and media, defines our religious options, and currently plans endless wars in our name, yet ironically and effectively does it all complaining liberals have too much power.
So I resent and resist the conservative onslaught, and would like to analyze and criticize, but won’t today because I have another agenda: I want to help America soar again, not just for our sake, but for humanity’s. I don’t want a new Civil War. I don’t want a new Crusade. I don’t want World War III. I want cultural, global, environmental healing. I want my beloved America to help create peace and prosperity for everyone. To do that I want to understand and include conservative views in a way that I hope is returned.
America works best when neither liberals nor conservatives take over. Each has a role to play. We were founded by both Jefferson and Hamilton. We were founded in both freedom of religion and freedom from it. We were founded in resentment of King George, and in fears of presidents acting like kings. We were founded when the upper middle class of merchants and prosperous farmers assumed the powers of the aristocracy without then taking revenge, and gradually that power and wealth has been owned also by women, blacks, natives, and immigrants. We were founded with some restraints on corporate influence. Conservatives once conserved our environmental treasures. Our conservative faith in free markets was founded in the liberal faith in humans freely doing what they deem best. Our numerous advances in technology come from the entrepreneurial spirit of liberal innovation and conservative profiteering. Universal public education, social security, and weekends off come from the liberal efforts of our ancestors. Our usual lack of debt was touted by conservatives.
Our American experiment is old in terms of stable constitutions and adolescent and clunky in terms of a mature and ideal democracy. Perhaps we stumble and glide along because we all participate, and should. Perhaps liberal and conservative are more than poles of philosophy; perhaps these are spectrums of an organic society, types of persons, even aspects of ourselves.
When the First Amendment is actually used (and not just praised) America finds its honest and pragmatic voice. A dynamic balance, a faith in honesty, a welcoming of humor, a sense of inclusive participation comes alive and saves us from us. To do that we have to be wary of leaders who would divide out dissidents or destroy “enemies,” who are really just people with another point of view. More than that, we must open our minds and hearts to those we fear as “other,” for those others are really our neighbors, part of the larger family of “us.”
Let’s look at the definitions and characteristics of liberal and conservative with a mind towards mutual understanding, appreciation, and respect.
The dictionary says a liberal is or favors:
Progress or reform in political and religious affairs
The maximum freedom possible, protected by law
A representative government rather than a monarchy or aristocracy
Open-mindedness and tolerance
Generosity from a sense of abundance
Leniency rather than strictness or literalness
I wonder if conservatives can see value in these definitions. These are so much closer to the liberal way than the “tax and spend, destroy our institutions” label some conservatives tend to resent.
Similarly, I wonder if liberals would resent conservative traits if they know them. Conservative come from “conserve,” meaning: to prevent injury, decay, waste, or loss, and to use and manage resources wisely. Britain’s Conservative Party of 1832, successor to the Tory party (which was against the American Revolution), was characterized by “moderate progressivism.” The dictionary describes conservative as:
Preserving existing conditions, institutions, or restoring traditional ones
Traditional in style or manner, avoiding novelty or showiness
These seem familiar and innocent, not the cruel and crafty conservatism liberals resent. Liberals resent Karl Rove. Our disgust for his dirty tricks delights him. He does the conservative’s sneaky work, but it gets us off our butts and gets us on our feet. Bullies only respect those who fight back. But in fighting back against him must we contend with genuine conservatives? Are conservatives in general so quick to belittle and hear analysis as insult, like hate-talk-radio hosts do? I doubt typical conservatives are as petty, ignorant, and arrogant as the Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage mouthpieces model.
Perhaps what we both do is to find extreme examples of the things we like or dislike and suppose those apply to the whole category or group. Some see odd protestors as a sure sign of impending anarchy; others see the dirty trickster Karl Rove as a modern Goebels. We see what we expect and viola! America is going communist or fascist. Rather than such sweeping generalizations, let’s look at liberal and conservative traits as parts of us, both helping to fly this American bird. Let’s go from “how can they think that way?” to “that makes some sense.”
Both liberals and conservatives care, it’s just that liberals cast their circle of care widely while conservatives keep it closer to home. Liberals include conservatives in their “us’ in a way that isn’t reciprocated. Conservatives value individual initiative, tending to “I and mind,” not “you and yours,” and certainly not “they and them.” Both love their children, but while liberals want systems that spread care and fairness to children and general, conservatives tend to see parents taking care of their own children as being a fair and wise system. Could it be that both are operant and each at times advisable?
Liberals look for win/win solutions to problems while conservatives expect winners and losers. Competition in sports, the economy, and war keeps us sharp, says the conservative while cooperation makes us stronger, says the liberal. Again, this is not a false dilemma, for both ways make sense.
Liberals tend to favor open-mindedness and are tolerant of variation and experiment. Conservatives value the tried and true, the traditions that change only gradually and cautiously. They are wary of those who would change what has worked. Liberals want to change what hasn’t worked and so welcome criticism and analysis. Conservatives resist this as risky and instead value duty, honor, and loyalty to those they believe know better. Without progress we’d still be troglodytes (cave people), but without caution and reliance on the group wisdom and its leaders, we’d never retain our progress.
The liberal says to his or her child, “Don’t go in the street because a car might hurt you.” A conservative might say, “Don’t go in the street because I told you so.” The reasonableness inherent in the liberal way tends to be replaced by obedience to authority in the conservative. The liberal tends to see goodness within to be allowed and nurtured. The conservative, who instead finds wickedness there to be controlled and guarded against, doubts this. Both tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies, but each has trouble admitting valid examples of the opposite.
Liberals tend to the licentious. They like pleasures and see no harm in pursuing them. Conservatives feel there are rules against this and either don’t do it or hide it for fear of scorn. Max Weber rightly rooted the rise of capitalism in the existential anxiety in the puritan tradition of not knowing whether one was saved or not. Those who don’t fritter away their profits at the bar tend to get more work done and grow those profits. However, this can lead to the rich feeling morally superior and more deserving than the poor, no matter family advantage or how those profits were created. Our own James Luther Adams also rightly pointed out that the shining city of God on the hill was never intended to be built on a festering slum. Both pleasure and work are parts of a whole and healthy life.
Finally, liberals tend to find the courage of their convictions early in life, while conservatives gain strength later. It could be the idealism and brashness of youth gets worn down into reactive cynicism. I hope not. I’d hate to see the Baby Boomers loose their ideals and passions at this crucial juncture. And I hope cautious conservatives would still venture to try out all the wild abandon they imagine we had (but didn’t, at least not as much as we might have liked).
When we drop our fear of each other, looking past the riled-up language of dramatic conflict, we can see the decent intent and sensible values of both liberals and conservatives. Our neighbors ought not to be our enemies. They are people with reasons for their convictions, reasons as sincere as our own. We may come from different sorts of families, but we can understand and value each other better than we’ve done lately.
Our philosophies often flow from our families. George Lakoff, expert in cognitive linguistics, uses his understanding of metaphorical thinking to critique liberals before affirming them. He shows how liberals neither understand conservative rationales nor back their own. Conservatives fund ample institutes, think tanks, and media outlets, acting proactively, while unfocused liberals play scattered defense. Sometimes his book, Moral Politics – How Liberals and Conservatives Think seems too neatly confined to his family type thesis, but that thesis makes a lot of sense.
I have tended to think wealthy conservatives ally with poor ones as a manipulative convenience, using the latter’s strict morality as a device to secure their own unending greed. Lakoff sees something else. He claims both liberals and conservatives organize their politics around a morality rooted in their respective family structures.
Liberals favor a nurturing family structure, where the worth of the child is allowed to flower and is nurtured into self-actualization. Conservatives favor the strict father family structure, where the child obeys the mother, and they both obey the father. Clear rules and strong guidance assures the children will grow up right and finally be able to fend for their selves. Each expects our government to act towards the citizens and world as parents should towards the children.
When liberals see a stern upholding of the law as unreasonable and cruel, conservatives see it as building character. The cold-heartedness of the one is the admirable leadership of the other. Both, however, have the welfare of the children at heart, each wanting their children to be able to live full free adult lives.
While Lakoff spends most of his book neatly explaining the rationales of the conservative, he finally sides with the liberal way, largely because of ample research showing the nurturing family as more successful than the strict. He bemoans the lack of a coherent liberal philosophy these days, and he chides liberals for not funding those intellectuals and think thanks that would generate and promote such a philosophy. I think he’s right, but conservatives still resent liberal philosophy for being so rampant in our media and institutions.
Liberal humanism is rooted in ancient Christianity and in Enlightenment clarification. It weaves itself into our founding documents and is instituted in our prevailing assumptions and programs from universal education to free markets. But the institutional guardians of humanism are puny. A couple of small but adamant groups seek to protect and promote it. The multiple broadsides against it from Evangelical and conservative Catholics, and from the Islamic world, gradually erodes humanism with out-and-out hostility and dismissive ridicule. Turning our society and world over to radical fundamentalists and rabid militarists will lead to all the folly and failure of the past, from Inquisitions to Crusades. The fundamentalists in the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic worlds are similar to each other in attitude and method, differing only by theological nuance. They really aren’t so different, while their hostile mechanisms against humanism are quite similar. Their real opposite is the secular humanism inherent in America’s founding essence and documents, yet it is defended by only a couple of meager humanistic organizations.
The secular humanistic assumptions inherent in our pluralistic democracy allowed and protected the very extremist faiths which now use our openness to attack and undermine it. The checks and balances built into our constitution allow the organic checks and balances of liberals and conservatives to contribute to a dynamic, resilient, and long-lived society. But consider what has happened in the last four decades.
We still reel in reaction against the so-called excesses of the 60’s. We’re past that now, we’re repeatedly told. We overcame “Make Love, Not War,” with its exact opposite. In the liberal 70’s we saw our media systematically hound and grind down President Carter with the daily-emphasized “hostage crisis” regarding 52 people. Perhaps his forward-looking alternative energy supply and conservation policies threatened the oil industry profits. (Had we pursued those policies we would now be saving an amount of energy equal to what we import from the Middle East.) President Reagan ripped Carter’s solar panels off the White House and immediately abandoned Carter’s energy and human rights policies. Instead, he set us on a course of waste and insult. Our moral abhorrence for war following Vietnam was steadily replaced with a gung-ho macho track, from Grenada to Panama to Kosovo to Iraq. Now, hundreds of times those 52 people have been killed, hostages are beheaded regularly, we trounce human rights abroad and at home, and our huge embassy and military bases are setting the stage for future wars. Our government gives tax credits to drive heavy, wasteful trucks and SUV’s rather than cars. Domestically, we are more divided than ever, and we slide into debt for investments in even larger debt, none of which strengthens our infrastructure at home or our dollar’s standing in the world. Our president’s [G.W. Bush] approval rating in the lands of our former friends stands at a miserable 4 to 10 percent. We’ve become an embarrassment in the world and a threat to it. This will rouse new alliances against us. Our own people, seeing lies and suspecting failure, are not joining the military. Are conservatives, who rule utterly, utterly ruining our country?
It is hard to see how true conservatives approve of the debt, reputation, and radical direction the neo-cons have taken our country (and plan to take it further). It may be laudable that conservatives salute the flag, and even I get tingles at the thought of the Islamic peoples having access to their own form of democracy. But is it their form, or the shallow ruse we impose to appear noble while securing oil and a new launching pad for further wars? Having propped up Saudi Arabia for decades, we’re losing it. If democracy were the real goal, why didn’t we establish it there where they still behead people for blasphemy? Does it dignify our flag to wrap our lies and the blood of hapless soldiers and civilians in it, or does that defile the flag far beyond what liberal protestors could do?
Where is America the Beautiful? America is an eagle flopping and floundering on the ground, senselessly divided against itself. Liberals and conservatives need to do two things: understand or even appreciate each other, and seek to make their respective ways better integrated. America has always been the home for both types. Both types are needed – the adventurous and the wary, the inclusive and the exclusive, the player and the planner, the kind and the strict. Both types raise their children and influence their democracy with the best of intentions. We needn’t let our differences divide, nor let what we honor lead to who we hate. We are an organic whole, each and all needed if ever this glorious eagle will once again soar with ease on both wings to a decent destiny.
Reverend Brad Carrier
for the UU’s of Central Oregon
C September 26, 2004