Thursday, February 10, 2005

David Brin on Modernism

One of my favorite authors, David Brin, has been posting an essay on Modernism over on his blog Contrary Brin. Definitely worth reading. In one section, he castigates the Left (i.e. Liberals) for a multitude of self-defeating elitist actions:
"On the left, dogma-driven romantics warped the natural American suspicion of authority (SOA) into a never-ending list of political axes to grind. The fight for civil rights was such a heady and successful thing - overcoming ages of stereotypes and reflex discrimination - that soon every rock had to be turned over, seeking the next and then the next intolerance to expose, amid a drug-high of indignant fury. [snip]...along the way it became less and less about equalizing basic opportunity and ever-more about creating and stoking a movement."
I don't doubt that this may be true. When you think of Liberalism, the image the Conservatives want you to have is of tree-hugging environmental activists, hippies, draft dodgers, and atheist (or even, gasp, pagan) fanatics who want to go back to living in caves. Certainly they have been successful in pushing this image; it's part of what has made "liberal" such a derisive word and anathema to politicians.

I think it's important to keep in mind that all political movements have their fringe elements. Even Conservatives are afflicted with "neo-cons", the Religious Right, and Rush Limbaugh. Fringe elements represent the energy generated by the core values of the movement; something your movement stands for (or says it stands for) has sufficiently inspired someone that they make it their mission in life to see it come to pass. Thus, I don't consider fringe groups to be in and of themselves a bad thing; they are the almost inevitable consequence of a powerful idea.

The danger comes when the tail starts wagging the dog. If the fringe groups' energy and zeal overwhelm the more rational core of the movement, you've got a problem. And it's all too easy for this to happen; the natural tendency of most of us is tolerance for differing views and reluctance to take action (especially in restraint of someone with whom we actually see ourselves in partial agreement). It's easier to let the more vehement people who have the drive to do that sort of thing run our political organization. We have our own business to attend to.

The challenge (as I see it) facing "mainstream" Liberals today is to take back the image of our movement from the fringe groups who have come to define it. Yes, we opposed the draft; but we are not in favor of abolishing the military, for we recognize that it is still necessary to defend ourselves from others. Yes, we want to protect the environment; but not to the extent of preventing all exploitation of resources. Yes, we want to remove religious dogmatism from our public discourse; but this does not mean abolition of religion. We have to demonstrate to undecided people that Liberalism is the movement of personal freedom and that society should be the engine enabling that freedom; while Conservatism is the movement of paternalistic restriction and curtailment of choice. If we can do that, I think we can salvage Liberalism.

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