Thursday, November 8, 2007

Leaving the Left

One of the interesting phenomena I've discovered while hoboing through the blogosphere is the large number of people who have been moving away from the Left. Everybody has their own story and they are all tales of an emerging awareness and the discovery of a new way of thinking about and experiencing the world. Two and a half years ago Keith Thompson wrote a powerful essay in the San Francisco Chronicle called Leaving the Left that described his philosophical transformation. Later he wrote a book, Leaving the Left: Moments in the News that Made Me Ashamed to be a Liberal from which the following quote is taken:

There's another option. 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.

But as with any freedom, there is a corresponding responsibility. Before leaping it is crucial to know what you value, important to honor what you understand to be true, wise to stay open to surprises and unexpected opportunities for learning. For myself, I departed the left-right line with new clarity about the brilliance of liberal democracy and the value system it entails, the quest for liberty as intrinsically human, and the dangers of demands for adherence to any point of view through silence, fear, or coercion.

And it was only in the wake of leaving that I realized that I had broken away from the conformist imperatives of my hometown for precisely the same reason.

Liberal is one of the most problematic terms around these days. 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: schemes for social engineering that issue from elite organizations with self-important initials...

Classical liberalism emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a political philosophy that embraces individual rights and responsibilities, including the right to own and maintain private property against continuous government encroachment. At the heart of the original liberalism endures a commitment to tolerance, reason, and self-determination, and a belief that within each person there exists an unassailable right to be free from compulsion. George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine risked their lives to create a system of government that places freedom at the core of its concerns and that employs the force of law to secure that freedom from subjugation and tyranny. They believed in the pursuit of happiness as something very much akin to an adventure, and they understood that government decrees to guarantee happiness invariably serve to penalize achievers while keeping the poorest among us reliant on minimal subsistence...

So I'm standing by my original choice: liberalism of the original, non-left kind. Among other things, this means that the Madison [Wis.] correspondent I mentioned in my Preface, who accused me of selling out, was quite right. Indeed, I've sold all my shares in a worldview that fosters tribal identity and group privilege and bitter communal division in the name of diversity. I've liquidated my stock in a philosophy that empowers a guardian state to encourage learned helplessness and endless class warfare, in the name of equality. I have divested all holdings in the pathological school of pluralism that scorns individual initiative, free enterprise, logic, the Enlightenment, science, Judeo-Christian values, the possibility of objective knowledge, and the necessity of personal responsibility.

The classic liberalism that makes me hopeful for my country's future is one that celebrates the creative power of intrinsic inner intent as the prime factor in individual excellence and cultural innovation. In the final analysis, genuine freedom is not caprice but room to enlarge, to change course midway, to set out on unexpected roads that emerge just past the next bend. This is possible only in a nation where the continuous inability to reach a final destination is the most compelling reason to keep setting out.

"It is not enough to affirm my liberty by choosing 'something,' " wrote Thomas Merton. "I must choose something good." I choose a new kind of human society that generates a new kind of human being, committed to a universalist standard of one right, one law, one nation for all. I choose the greatest, freest, most generous nation in existence. I choose something good. America.

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