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Benjamin R. Barber on Alan Wolfe’s ‘The Future of Liberalism’

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Posted on Sep 11, 2009
book cover

By Benjamin Barber

(Page 2)

Although he spends a great deal of time and energy on political theory in what amounts to a miniature history of liberal theory, replete with notecard-style comments on good guys like Adam Smith and John Locke and bad guys like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, Wolfe’s categories suggest he is far more interested in ideology. For the bad guys are not only the supposedly illiberal classical thinkers like Rousseau, but a wildly mixed bag of moderns including John Yoo, Richard Rorty, Jerry Falwell, Leo Strauss and Stanley Fish, guilty by association because they sound like bad guy Carl Schmitt (like Fish, even if they never cite or talk about him) or think like villain Robespierre, who was a fan of Rousseau, or unmask liberalism’s own power biases like Rorty supposedly channeling Foucault who is echoing Rousseau.

So when he comes to Rousseau himself, the most salient figure in the history of liberalism, on whom Wolfe spends more space and expends more venom than on anyone else in the catechism, he casts him entirely as an illiberal villain. To be sure, many others have both embraced him (e.g., Robespierre) and condemned him (e.g., Edmund Burke) based on this kind of crude ideological reading, but for the most part they were politicians, not philosophers. How then can Wolfe as a serious intellectual historian claim that the Enlightenment philosopher who wrote “men are born free but are everywhere in chains” is an enemy of liberalism? How can he conclude that the man Kant called “the Newton of the moral world” is actually an adversary of Kant? Wolfe actually roots his indictment of Rousseau in a putative quarrel between the good liberal Immanuel Kant and the bad democrat Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a quarrel that never happened and is little more than a slapdash misreading of both Kant and Rousseau.

 

book cover

 

The Future of Liberalism

 

By Alan Wolfe

 

Knopf, 352 pages

 

Buy the book

Far from arguing with Rousseau, Kant idolized him as an epitome of Enlightenment, seeing in Rousseau’s argument for the “general will” a political analog of the categorical imperative—proof that we are truly free only when freedom is constrained by moral imperatives, but unfree when we live under the illusion of a liberty that is mere caprice and willfulness. This is the very formula Rousseau articulates in political terms in his “Social Contract” when he proposes that the only solution to the puzzle of how we can remain free and yet live under laws that will guarantee justice and equality is to make those laws ourselves. Democracy is not inimical to liberty, as Wolfe would have us believe; it is civic and moral liberty’s very condition. In these terms, the phrase liberal democracy is redundant, democracy being rooted in the preservation of liberty, and liberty having as its condition the democratic process.

Wolfe also gets Rousseau’s reading of history and progress and modernity all wrong. He thinks in the spirit of Voltaire’s polemics against Rousseau that Rousseau is a simplistic Romantic who wants to escape the modern world of Enlightenment and return to some aboriginal state of nature. But that is not Rousseau’s position at all. Free by nature (“born free”), Rousseau argues that history has placed us under the bondage of inegalitarian and authoritarian institutions (private property, illegitimate power). Yet Rousseau responds to this dilemma, as Kant does, not by advocating a “return” to the ideal of natural liberty (an impossible return to a presocial and Edenic existence) but rather by pursuing a realistic way to “legitimize our chains”—that is to say, to find ways to render law and liberty compatible.

This is the very definition of the liberal project that defines, for example, the magisterial book on liberal justice by John Rawls, who makes it his task to root equality (justice) in liberty. In Rousseau’s terms, the question is how to live under laws that secure safety, equality and justice and yet allow us to remain “as free as we were before.” The solution Rousseau hypothesizes is direct democracy: participating in the making of laws that rescue freedom from natural caprice and anarchic individualism and permit us to live lives of civic and moral freedom—the Kantian ideal.

Rousseau is no reclusive romantic who wishes to travel back in time, but a realistic theorist of liberty under the law, and the source of what should be Wolfe’s own core definition of liberalism. As a dialectical thinker, Rousseau is not the enemy of modernity Wolfe would make him, but an appropriately ambivalent critic of its virtues and its costs. Going forward has cost us much (can anyone looking at the history of the 20th century deny this?), but human progress, virtues and vices alike, is ineluctable and there is no going back. Wolfe wants to celebrate liberalism, however, by shearing it of its connections to democracy and populist participation, so he makes a hash of Rousseau, turning him into that proto-totalitarian scoundrel liberal ideologues love to hate and trying to make him the source of inspiration for the likes of Jerry Falwell.

Wolfe’s undialectical misreading of Rousseau as theory points directly to the two chief defects of his approach to liberal practice: his forgiving attitude to the assaults of religion on liberty and his opacity to all questions of power and property of the kind associated with capitalism. John Locke, one of Wolfe’s good guys, was perfectly frank: The social contract was not simply about the preservation of liberty (Rousseau’s aspiration) but about the preservation of property—for Locke, the natural expression of liberty, for Rousseau the source of liberty’s perversion. Wolfe makes the case for liberty without reference to its relationship to property and power, however. When power is addressed, it is only as state and government power perilous to private liberty, never as private power perilous to public liberty. This is why in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson altered Locke’s phrase about “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and … happiness.” Better salesmanship. But the confounding of liberty and property is in truth the key to the tension between liberty and equality, liberalism and justice, individualism and democracy.


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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, September 13, 2009 at 11:06 am Link to this comment

Oh oh, I forgot one level of liberalism, bantam weight, that is someone
who is just a little bit liberal with lots of conservative overtones.  Don’t
you know anyone like that?

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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, September 13, 2009 at 10:55 am Link to this comment

According to your logic, Jean Gerard, it isn’t “progressivism” it is
regressionism since it is in a downward economic spiral that poor
people are sent by not keeping things the way they are.  Regression is
as much a movement as is progression except it is in a negative
direction. Logically keeping things the way they are, that is, taking a
conservative posture, it would be contradictory to say that anything
was comparatively different, i.e., the few getting richer, the poor
getting poorer are both comparatives to a previous state, so it is a
change, to be exact.  Hence they are not really conservative and the
term does not fit the action as conservatism really means stagnation. 
Your argument that liberalism does not fit the apparent forward
progressiveness of action, however it does not actually reflect a true
condition of change.  Under your definition of progressivism, not
keeping things as they are, we see that the rich people do not change
from a previous state, comparatively speaking they do not get richer,
and the poor only get “a “little better off and smarter” (you offered no
degree of added smartness though so it is a hazy how much
progressiveness occurs).  It seems moot with respect to the notion of
progressivism, where if true, the rich would get worse off and the poor
a lot better off and a lot smarter. 

So Liberalism seems to fit better since Liberalism means principles,
views, and practices of a political group that favors political and social
change for the betterment of the poor or middle class but certainly not
the rich class.  And Regressionism would mean the rich become less
rich (that is become poor) while the poor get more rich.  I think I vote
for that one. Though it does sound silly to call oneself a Regressionist
and smacks of irony.

It might be true that change is necessary, and I agree with your
observation, but it is wholly and importantly necessary to understand
clearly how much change and who exactly is changing and in what
direction the change would be taking place. 

Yes, some people are taught to fear change, this is the conservative
posture, but some also are taught to not fear change, this is the
progressive outlook.  Liberalism is equated more with Democratic
ideas, meaning freely giving and generous, while progressivism
indicates a direction of movement in calculated regular and ordered
forward steps.  The Progressives do favor social and political (which is
also social) progress and reform (since there is the perception that the
conservative no-growth posture is stagnant in nature), hence it is not
wrong to equate Progressives with Liberalism.

Since the word progressivism has been given a negative connotation by
the stagnating conservatives, it seems more propitious to use the term
liberal since it inherently has a positive connotation.  I consider myself
between a lightweight and welterweight Liberal quite left of the right,
and the Progressives as left of me.  I think I have a better chance of
effecting change by having a better bargaining position with the all
heavyweight conservative right than does the Progressive left.  Perhaps
setting degrees of liberalism would be fruitful:  lightweight liberal,
welterweight liberal, middleweight liberal, heavyweight liberal, sort of
like boxers.  Yes knowledge does give one power especially if one can
successfully fight the way through the labyrinth of complex ideas.

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By rollzone, September 13, 2009 at 10:43 am Link to this comment

hello. i am not as smart as all you bloggers.  i know truth is what some are seeking, and everyone tends to obscure comments from their interpretation of an article. my opinion that capitalism flourished, because a foundation of liberty and freedom, enacted political parameters of behavior- has little to do with the context of an article about liberalism. i am both liberal and conservative, as i cherish personal rights in a social environment; so i label myself unfit for most public interaction. my liberal minded direction never replaces scientific fact with doctrine, but i do not allow lies to distort my unknown facts. when i am more liberal leaning on an issue, i may be then categorised in a particular group of like mindedness; but to be categorically defined liberal is a leap. i respect leaning tendencies (as marketing tools for selling objectives); but do not value them in writing long term policy. i was liberal about replacing the capitalist workforce with robots, and allowing individuals personal pursuits- but i have no alternative control: to relegating worth to work; and rewarding each to their relative labors. i am therefore socially conservative; and firmly believe charity is not the role of government. my liberal morality never transcends the laws of God; so perhaps i am not liberal. my id and my ego both rely on truth- so whatever label is fashionable- i want full disclosure from our government about everything: before i will truly be categorised, beyond my individuality; as belonging to a group of like minded anybodies.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, September 13, 2009 at 9:37 am Link to this comment

StuartH:
‘What this review seems to illustrate is the “Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork” aspect of definition in politics, particularly when academics are involved. ...’

I am glad to see poor Brautigan memorialized, and I agree to some extent with what you say, although the language problem is hardly confined to academics.  Terms like liberal, conservative, state and so forth have become so muddied by loose, inept and malicious usage that one would have to start a legitimate book of political theory by giving one’s own definitions, and then no one would read it.  The present article, and the quotations of the book which is reviewed, are dire examples of the discursive mire into which we have fallen.

I must caution you against Lakoff, however.  Anyone who says the technique of framing was not known to rhetoricians of the ancient world or has not been practiced vigorously and continuously ever since, by mainstream Democrats and “liberals” in our own era as well as their opponents, is either foolish or dishonest.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, September 13, 2009 at 7:46 am Link to this comment

Shenonymous

I agree with your assessment of Mr LaRouche. But I do find it odd that these right wingers are taking their cues from a Democrat. Do you think they know? If they do, do they care? The political landscape of this country is really changing. I’m not sure if it is for better or for worse. The one thing I have realized is that many, many people are disgusted with both parties. Conservative Republicans are looking toward the Libertarian Party. But I saw Libertarian and Reason Magazine editor Nick Gillespie ripping Republicans (and Democrats) on Fox News, with good cause. Here on this site I see Progressives ripping Obama and the Democrats, also with good cause. Best case scenario is that all of this ripping will open the door to a multiple political party system. Worst case? Well, use your imagination.

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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, September 13, 2009 at 7:17 am Link to this comment

Fat Freddie I know you do not care a whit about my brand of
thinking, but nevertheless, I have been browsing LaRouche the roach also
for a long time and dismiss him as a nutcase with cantaloupe seeds for
brains.  In any event, about those black limousines, what can we do to
help?

I think McCarthy was an antidote to the gorilla-glued minds of the
conservatives at the time of his political life.  Have you ever seen gorilla
glue work?  You spray the intended object to be glued with water, then
spread a tad of glue, squeeze the pieces together, then watch it foam up
and glue harder than “anything on earth,” so it says on the container.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, September 13, 2009 at 7:06 am Link to this comment

I’ve been blogging a lot about Mr LaRouche, and I fully expect the big, black SUVs to be pulling up in front of my house very soon.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, September 13, 2009 at 6:51 am Link to this comment

I find that the problem with Liberalism lies with economic policies, not social policy. The far right is trying to demonize the Left by throwing out words like Socialist, Marxist, Communist; very McCarthyesque. It’s Neo-McCarthyism.

But oddly enough, their current attacks seem to be driven from the Left (sort of). Max Blumenthal’s new book points out that the recent attacks on Obama’s healthcare plan originated from Lyndon LaRouche, a Democrat (sort of). Sarah Palin did not come up with “Death Panels” on her own. Nor did the Right print up all of those Obama/Hitler posters. They came directly from Lyndon LaRouce’s PAC. I also found that former Village Voice columnist and free speech advocate Nat Hentoff was getting into the Death Panel craziness, with a piece he wrote for the Cato Institute.

Here’s part of Mr. LaRouce’s silliness:

http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2009/3635truth_will_out.html

http://www.larouchepub.com/

And here’s Hentoff’s piece:

http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=10469

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By Shenonymous, September 13, 2009 at 6:49 am Link to this comment

Did the current Federal administration claim to be ‘liberal’ or just plain Democratic?  Explain,
please, JeremiahIII what you think is a liberal? 

Nice quotes, ardee and I cannot argue anything against them. 

While I am identifiably a liberal, not afraid to be one and proud of my particular contour of it,
Emerson, in his thought, is one of my protagonists.  I firmly believe in self-reliance and it is
my code if and only if I am able to self rely.  To a large degree I am.  There are things in this
life, however, that prohibits that to be a reality and many are not able to self-rely and in that
sense I am exceedingly liberal.  I think liberals need self-control, which on the whole they
tend not to, which the conservative element provides.  Emerson, the Conservative, while he
thought conservativism is more terse (brief) about others’ worth, and reform (liberalism) is
“disposed to maintain and increase its own,” also said perhaps contradictorily, “Reform is
affirmative, conservatism negative; conservatism goes for comfort, reform for truth.”  And he
referred to two impulses, or traits, or voices within us as “two metaphysical antagonists” and
argued that “each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the
other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine.”  I think that is the dynamic
we have to live with to live authentically.

It is somewhat beguiling to identify with occult astrology personality descriptions as I am
Pisces and hence have two heads (of fish) going in opposite directions.  Can I use that to
explain my fence sitting?  Except fish don’t sit on fences, but I do look in two directions to
find The Truth amongst all the trooth offered.

It is interesting what Eugene McCarthy, Democratic Senator from Michigan with sympathies for
the farmers and labor in general, said in an essay “A Place for Liberals to Hide,” had to say
about liberals:  “One may be a liberal Democrat or a liberal Republican, a liberal Catholic or
a liberal Presbyterian, but never a pure “liberal.” This was a posture I had taken up in the late
1950’s, when “liberal,” having just achieved status as a noun, was being festooned with
derogatory prefixes.  J. Edgar Hoover, in those days, was warning against what he called the
“pseudo-liberals,” William F. Buckley, Jr., was writing about the “illogical liberals,” and others
spoke and wrote about the “egghead-liberals,” the “crypto-liberals,” and so on.”

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By ardee, September 13, 2009 at 4:58 am Link to this comment

ChaoticGood, September 13 at 3:24 am #

I am a Libra, thus the scales must balance in my world. That you castigate conservatives for the beliefs of those who are not true followers of that doctrine seems unfair to me.

Those who replace good citizenship with selfishness , those who refuse rights to others yet insist upon them for themselves, those who impose their will, their religious and their economic beliefs upon others are not conservatives.

” You are not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you cannot face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.” Malcom X

I believe that true conservatives have much in common with true liberals in fact, and so did Emerson:

“There is a certain meanness in the arguments of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its facts.”

Todays voices on the right are radical fascism in action, certainly a comparison to conservatism does that worthy political belief no justice.

“I prefer a man who will burn the flag and wrap himself in the Constitution to a man who will burn the Constitution and wrap himself in the flag.”  Texas State Senator Craig Washington

These extremists seek to tear down our government and replace it with a totalitarian religion based dictatorship, conservatives seek to bring a fiscal and , in some cases, a social, responsibility to our lives. I am closer ot the fiscal than the social conservative frankly but believe both to be sane and loyal to the intent of the founders.

I remain, however, a leftists:

“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison I am not free.”  Eugene V. Debs

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By JeremiahIII, September 13, 2009 at 1:27 am Link to this comment

@ChaoticGood:

If you are a Liberal, then the current Federal administration is not!

(Of course we know that now, I hope)

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By ChaoticGood, September 13, 2009 at 12:24 am Link to this comment

Some simple dichotomies between liberals and conservatives, that I have observed.

1. Liberals believe that people are more important than money and conservatives do not.

2. Liberals believe that education is more important than faith and conservatives do not.

3. Liberals believe that men and women are equals and conservatives do not.

4. Liberals believe that a womans privacy of her body is her right alone and she has the right to terminate her pregnancy and conservatives do not.

5. Liberals believe that people have the right to die a dignified death at the time and place of their choosing and conservatives do not.

6. Liberals believe that when one citizen is impoverished and sick, then we are all impoverished and sick, conservatives do not.

7. Liberals believe that War is to be avoided and that it should only be undertaken as a last resort and conservatives do not.

8. Liberals believe that no one should ever be tortured for any reason and conservatives do not.

I am proud to be a Liberal.

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By edward wegloski, September 12, 2009 at 6:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Before most people were for democracy many wasn’t / before ‘liberalism’ as a term was taken by Wall Street like terms ‘public’ and ‘federal’ the meaning was 180 degree different.

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G.Anderson's avatar

By G.Anderson, September 12, 2009 at 5:18 pm Link to this comment

One thing that the author probably overlooked is that it’s easy to manipulate both liberals and conservatives by appearing to embrace their symbols.
All the while using those symbols to manipulate, by creating an imaginary divide, to inflame the populace. 

Whether or not those externals have a basis in fact is irrelevant to the owners of our political aparatus. What’s important is that their appears to be some movement toward realization of those externals. Hence an occaisional presidential win, or piece of legislation that’s important will be passed.

While the people struggle over the symbols of their belief systems, policy and politics move forward, un deterred. 

Poverty, loss of political rights, and the transfer of power and capital to the plutocracy, proceeds at an ever accelerating rate.

Unless these days are shortened….

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anaman51's avatar

By anaman51, September 12, 2009 at 3:36 pm Link to this comment

Liberal and conservative. The polarity of our nation revolves around these two titles. In my opinion, the difference is simple: A liberal is someone who can view a situation and learn something from it, whether the outcome is positive or negative. The conservative can’t learn anything new, because the conservative mind is shut tight.

This becomes obvious when you look at an issue like medicinal marijuana. One can either learn from recent studies and experiments or one can continue to believe the decades-old lies circulated by a conservative mindset, continuing on in a state of complete denial.

The difference is also apparent when one looks at the current state of religious belief. Those who wish to continue learning all they can learn shy away from religion, because it requires that one learns only a specific set of beliefs—-and nothing else.

I could never wrap my brain around a state of self-imposed ignorance. For that, I am most grateful. It’s made my life fuller and more colorful, much more worth living than it would have been with a bag pulled over my head and my ears plugged. Color me liberal, for life. There is no state of being other than reality. I almost feel sorry for conservatives, but when it comes right down to it, the choice is theirs. Life is better with an open mind.

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By Jean Gerard, September 12, 2009 at 2:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In a way, “liberalism” versuls “conservatism” is a false dichotomy.  Maybe the problem is the word “liberalism.”  A better opposite might be “progressivism.”  Overall, the basic meaning of “conservatism” is keeping things more or less as they are.  “Progressivism” overall means NOT keeping things as they are, followed by suggestions for change. 
    Keeping things as they are has led to a few people getting richer and millions of people getting poorer, and lots of people getting more ignorant.  Not keeping things as they are could mean rich people not getting richer, and poor people getting a little better off and smarter. 
    Holding the yardstick of non-change/change up to current events, it is clear that change is necessary because non-change is failing.  If people are taught to fear change (as is the case now) it is hard, if not impossible, for their society to change.  If people are taught to value change and are given the chance to evaluate proposals, there will be some degree of improvement, usually called progress, usually brought about peaceably.
    When conservatives yell and scream and threaten, they are under the influence of fear that things might get worse (because of the progressives).  When progressives refuse to take on their responsibility for helping to make creative change, they are under the influence of fear that things might not, cannot get better (because of the conservatives).  Hope helps to give people strength.  Knowledge helps to give them power.  Ergo . . . . .

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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, September 12, 2009 at 9:49 am Link to this comment

It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that the depravity of
Republicans these days are like the soft sticky brains of the medieval
churchmen and StuartH well described the fear of the liberals, “Liberals
are afraid to call themselves _liberals largely for fear of being burned at
the stake in some modern sense.”

Liberals need more to fear they have a broken mirror and can’t see
themselves very well, and are about to live in the shadow of seven-
year’s bad luck!  Oh lordy…there is the personal edict to by necessity
face oneself and take charge instead of hypothesizing. Where is there
inspiration?  Only the Republicans seem to be able to inspire their
carnivores.

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By bogi666, September 12, 2009 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

StuartH, great comments, thanks

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, September 12, 2009 at 7:29 am Link to this comment

Night-Gaunt

While the test was interesting I don’t feel there were enough economic questions. I scored -2.7 on the economic. I feel strict regulation of certain industries is important, such as banking and insurance, but, I feel that most industries should be allowed to function as free from government intervention as possible.

There were no questions regarding central planning of the economy, the federal reserve, fractional banking practices, or monetary policies in general. My views on these, would have earned me more of a right leaning position, in my opinion.

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By bogi666, September 12, 2009 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

The viciousness of the Republicans means they have their backs against the wall and like the wounded animals they are they have to invent viciousness for their self preservation.Frank Luntz their Joseph Goebbels, of NAZI FAME, equivalent is the architect and his personnel well being is at stake as chief propagandist so he has devised a propaganda program of viciously concocted attacks against the well being and improving of society. His henchmen are Beck, Dobbs, Coulter, O’reilly,Limbaugh, Hannity being the most obvious Amerikan NAZI[because of the racist element] GOONs to orchestrate the Luntz propaganda which consists of outright lies, inventing non existent enemies, hubris, deceit, with arrogance and disdain for the American people, whom with its 6th grade level of educational, unquestionably and obediently follow the advice of the aforementioned goons who are 10th rate psycho’s with Beck’s manic depressive alcoholiism being a prescription for psychosis.The Repubicans, being wounded animals, will continue their viciousness even if it means the destruction, of what has been a somewhat decent country to live in, into the third world model of Indonesia which is the Republicans unofficial policy since 1978 with the military dictator Sukarno as their model leader. This policy was crafted by the Republicans who are known as the “Family” and they admire, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Sukarno among other dictators. The “Family” are self professed christians who absolve themselves of any sin as they have made god in their image. South Carolina Gov. SANFORD is a “Family” member. Takes on sort of a CHARLES MANSON QUALITY doesn’t it!

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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, September 12, 2009 at 12:40 am Link to this comment

Barber says, “The truth is capitalism may advance private freedom but it
corrupts public freedom.”  That is the philosopher critic’s consummate
pinnacle of assessment of an economic system that celebrates
individualism over society.  It is a slogan that would appeal to the
radical socialist but it would not be the truth.  I think, however, Barber
is right when he characterizes how any social program, be it the public
option or any other, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, is
proclaimed not only unwholesome for the country but often described
as satanic by the hostile conservative element as if “the country” were
made up of, and here we have to ask made up of what?  What is the
country made up of, it cannot be people if we are to believe the
Republicans who only self-reference themselves.

Nevertheless, Barber too exceeds truth and that is where one has to be
careful.  For when a taint of sophism slips in it often sounds like the
truth we are looking for, but we are really stunted in being able to see
clearly.  I lean towards a socialistic form of environment, and I consider
myself a liberal, but one ought not to lose one’s head.  I bet there are
some benefits of the capitalistic economic system you would embrace
and even fight to have preserved.  Capitalism allows people to own
property, accumulate wealth, and have a competitive market which
stimulates higher quality products.

Without a doubt that is an oversimplification.  It would seem there is a
great divide among the people of America regarding capitalism.  It is so
thoroughly charged that taking it up as a topic on a forum loaded with
progressives that there might be positive attributes is a risky business,
this I know.  Nonetheless, I believe that seething hostility is dependent
on the way that our culture perceives, or misperceives, capitalism. This
is not surprising in view of headline mongering main stream media,
uncountable books on economic systems and their relations to
governments, and the incessant social babble that the word capitalism
is used to describe and rationalize the absolute worst in human nature. 
Roger Butters, Economist, tells us how the African slave trade, the
Great Depression, the decimation of Central America, the genocide of
the Native American, Enron, inside dealing, corruption and human
misery are all laid at the doorstep of this monster called capitalism.

There are two ironies of the prevalent cultural view of capitalism: 
Corruption, greed, selfishness, the disregard for human life and every
other negative human trait exists independent of the social structure
in which people live
.  The other great irony is that capitalism inhibits
and controls these traits and provides a basis for a peaceful,
thriving and just society for all mankind.  A lesson all too soon
forgotten is that through capitalism circumstances of life are created in
which members of the society can achieve and excel.

Paying attention to those devilling details would show anyone who
observes the world that social behaviors such as slavery, child labor,
war, devastation of the environment happens in every society and has
happened throughout history under every kind of order of society.

I don’t deny there are forms of social organization, meaning
governments, under a capitalistic system of economy that encourages
those utterly abominable human behaviors.  But there are other forms
as well and a transitive verb says capitalism also discourages
inhumanity to humankind.

I keep in mind when I think about all the despicable acts that have been
committed under a capitalistic system, there is one important saving
grace – the preservation of “choice” held sacred in a capitalistic society
and not in others.  Having a choice is the true meaning of freedom and
liberty.

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Night-Gaunt's avatar

By Night-Gaunt, September 11, 2009 at 7:00 pm Link to this comment

I understand and agree with your feelings about Libertarianism but you and I aren’t in that quadrant. I wish they had Ayn Rand plotted for I consider her the Polestar for the movement.

It is only dubious if you think that the Right/Left is more exacting. I think not. But then it takes more mind to use this than the more simplistic one that is used with less care than even it possesses.

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By ardee, September 11, 2009 at 2:25 pm Link to this comment

Night-Gaunt, September 11 at 3:19 pm

Interesting if of doubtful value.

My score:

Your political compass
Economic Left/Right: -5.75
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.62

While I appreciate being in the company of MLK Jr., the Dalai Llama and Ghandi these definitions need further study on my part. The proximity to Libertarianism, which I have always felt to be a selfish, privileged white only political belief system rather than being known as a left leaning liberal encroaches on my comfort zone.

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By Night-Gaunt, September 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment

Mr.Wolf sounds more like he is talking about classic Liberals (Libertarians) in general than Liberals in particular. Of course within each designation is a plethora if not spectrum of variance on those main points. Part of the problem is that the spectrum of points goes beyond merely the Left-Right dichotomy originally taken from the French Senate of Robspierre which is very limiting.

At http://www.politicalcompass.org/ you have four directions on a grid to see where you line up. A grid split by L/R horizontal axis and the A/L vertical. I am in the lower left quadrant at Economic Left/Right -9.62, Social Libertarian/Authoritarian -7.18. I am in the same area of Dr. MLK and the Dali Lama only even further to the left in that quadrant. Try it and see where you are. It is far more accurate and instructive than what is generally, and poorly used now.

The excerpt given was very long, I was into the third chapter, pp 72 when I stopped. I would recommend it as an interesting data set.

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By firefly, September 11, 2009 at 10:02 am Link to this comment

Being liberal means modern, unprejudiced and progressive, characteristics to be proud of (not to be confused with neo-liberalism which is all about globalisation and unregulated markets).

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By firefly, September 11, 2009 at 10:01 am Link to this comment

“Many who are in fact liberals assiduously avoid the label”.

Interesting that in Europe, the complete opposite applies. Being labelled ‘Conservative’ comes with the shame of being obsolete and dated (which is actually true, but oddly enough, the idea of being old-fashioned seems to appeal to some Americans).

On the other hand, being liberal means modern, unprejudiced and progressive, characteristics to be proud of (not to be confused with neo-liberalism which is all about globalisation and unregulated markets).

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By firefly, September 11, 2009 at 9:56 am Link to this comment

“Many who are in fact liberals assiduously avoid the label”.

Interesting that in Europe, the complete opposite applies. Being labelled ‘Conservative’ comes with the shame of being obsolete and dated (which is actually true, but oddly enough, the idea of being old-fashioned seems to appeal to some Americans).

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By StuartH, September 11, 2009 at 8:59 am Link to this comment

What this review seems to illustrate is the “Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork”
aspect of definition in politics, particularly when academics are involved.

What a lot of people seem to miss is that the religious right and its heritage in
the Middle Ages operate far more powerfully in framing definitions, because
long ago, the technique of intimidating opposition through demonization,
name calling with vehemence, were perfected.  These techniques are skewing
the political debate in the present day.  Liberals are afraid to call themselves
liberals largely for fear of being burned at the stake in some modern sense. 

The fact that conservatives are ruthless, tactical and willing to kill (certainly in
the sense of profiting from arms sales and a preference for war at least) as well
as to use various forms of lying and manipulation dramatically pulls everyone’s
attention to the battle on the “right” of the political spectrum. 

The far right has been yelling, “Liberal Media Bias” ever since the McCarthy era
and it is a knowing lie.  There are conservatives who spent fortunes trying to
make sure that the media was owned and controlled, and they are content to
continue to yell “Liberal Media Bias.”  Why should they stop when it provides so
much profit as well as entertainment.

Why are people unable to analyze such simple manipulations?  Centuries of
anti-thinking, conformist conditioning by established churches has turned off
the ability to see clearly what is going on.  We are told from the time we are
little not to think above our pay grade.  Many people are content not to.

The antidote is the ability to think clearly.  And to take on ownership of
everything in our purview as citizens, and to have the courage to challenge
those who would intimidate us.

We are very lucky that the internet has afforded an interactive capacity at this
time.  Imagine what the situation would be without it.  We must be very vigilant
lest this resource become captive to the same interests who captured the
mainstream media, beginning back in the 1950s. 

The best way to take back the definition-making capability from the right is to
promote more consciousness about how all this works.  Perhaps reading
George Lakoff would actually help.

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By jeremiah, September 11, 2009 at 6:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The root of Liberalism is Liberty.  Like Soviet Communism and its digression from the ideals of Marx, the fruits of the Tree of Liberty and Freedom were put into a barrel by the modern Liberals and left to rot.  The same can be said of the modern Conservatives.  The leaders of our nation have made decisions NOT based on furthering the cause of the CITIZEN’S Liberties and Freedoms, but are based on personal betterment by furthering the agendas of the CORPORATIONS that feed them.  CRONYISM is a better term for the LEFT AND THE RIGHT. 

We also must visualize Government as a living entity.  It WANTS to grow and wants to LIVE.  When a a species outgrows its environment, eats all of its food, per say, the beasts become aggressive and/or start eating themselves or expand their territory by through aggression.  Our perverted varieties of Liberalism and Conservatism have caused Government to reach this point. The fruitful American pocketbook is empty.  Now, we ask, how does Government continue to grow?  War, and TYRANNY. When the State has no more to eat, it expands and aggressively takes more.  As Americans slowly lose (or have lost already) their financial liberties, the government steps up its means of collection. Taxation, FINES, PERMITS, and LICENSES for things that were once FREEDOMS AND LIBERTIES! 

It’s all a Con Game, i.e…“Confidence Game”.  Don’t play it!  Let’s make a new playing field.

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By ardee, September 11, 2009 at 3:58 am Link to this comment

As Eric Alterman has shown in his book “Why We’re Liberals,” on most core policy issues from health and abortion to civil rights and foreign policy, the majority of Americans are decidedly liberal.

We see, in this forum and elsewhere, a repetitious distortion of this fact of American politics, as if repeating a lie will make it truth. The fact remains that our electorate, aside from a fringe and very vocal radical element, is left of its leadership.


Nonetheless, thanks in part to a toxically ubiquitous conservative punditocracy that has managed to equate liberalism with treason (Ann Coulter), terrorism and evil (Sean Hannity) and a mental disorder (Michael Savage), the term liberalism is widely derogated, and many who are in fact liberals assiduously avoid the label. Asked in 2004 whether he and his oh-so-liberal presidential running mate John Kerry were actually liberals, Sen. John Edwards said no, no, they were “mainstream America.”

Cowardly leaders doom this nation. We see the same denials from right wingers here that the media is in the hands of the far right, instead , and incredibly, insisting that the left owns the press. This current debate on Health Care proves that lie rather well, I believe. As does the fact that the GOP is being run by a bloviated, drug addicted liar and propagandists, Rush Limbaugh.

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