Henrietta Hay Column October 10, 2008

Personal freedom, common good among key values of liberalism

In a very interesting political discussion recently with a group of intelligent, politically informed people, one woman said, “I don’t really know whether I am a liberal or a conservative.”

It was hardly surprising. A presidential campaign, a financial crisis, the Blue Angels and the Broncos, plus Sarah Palin all in one week. We were all spinning.

Every campaign year I get asked the same question: “Are you sure you are a liberal, Henrietta? You look so normal.”

I am tired of hearing the word “liberal” used as an obscenity. By coincidence, I have a sore knee. My friend the philosopher suggests that it has been traumatized by years of knee-jerk liberalism. This year’s election rhetoric is giving me a major trauma. When people ask me why I am limping I tell them I have an old liberal injury.

So every two years, to rest my poor election-battered brain and to defend myself, I know it is time — once more — to define a political liberal. 

The dictionary defines “liberal” as, a political philosophy advocating personal freedom for the individual, democratic forms of government, gradual reform of political and social institutions.

That’s pretty radical, isn’t it?

The political philosophy of liberalism has had a long and varied history. It arose in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries in protest against the prerogatives of kings, aristocrats and the church.

Today’s liberals are idealists. We believe that government is inherently good, that it can make the human condition better. We believe that, as human beings, we have some obligation to our fellow human beings.

We believe in personal freedom, in freedom of speech and religion. We believe in the common good, the things people cannot do alone.

Realistically, we know we are outnumbered, but it is a belief that shapes our lives.

It takes a long time to create a true liberal. They usually start young and enthusiastic and are sure they can save the world. But finally they come face to face with unfiltered reality. Either they go by way of yoga, guitar lessons or just plain dropping out, or they stay in there swinging. Mark Twain wrote in his “Notebook” in 1898, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.”

Conservatives think they live in the real world and liberals live in an imaginary world.

In 1960, when he was running for president, John F. Kennedy was asked, “What is a liberal?” This was his answer: “I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas ... For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves ... For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society.”

All you Colorado conservatives better prepare yourselves. This is the year the state might turn blue.


Henrietta can be reached at henrietta.hay.com


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