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Wayne Besen

Wayne Besen

Posted: August 6, 2008 12:52 PM

In Defense of Liberalism


It is campaign season, once again, which means conservatives, will try to paint Democrats as "liberals," as if it were a dirty word. I, for one, am proud to be a liberal and believe we should stand up against these conservative smears.

One of the great fallacies in modern lore is that liberalism stands for nothing and liberals have no core beliefs. The right wing, from the Pope to the President, has impugned the left by unfairly portraying it as a valueless movement mired in moral relativism.

This could not be further from the truth. Indeed, the left is the backbone of freedom, the defender of personal liberty, the guarantor of free speech and religious worship and the nurturer of democratic movements across the globe. Far from believing in nothing, wherever liberal democratic values prevail, civilizations flourish and free people thrive.

The cornerstone of liberalism is the idea that each person is endowed with the precious gift of liberty and can freely choose his or her own path - for better or worse. We believe this is crucial to greater enlightenment, personal growth and ultimate fulfillment. It also offers the best opportunity for people to realize their dreams and achieve their spiritual promise.

Liberalism encourages exploration and education. It reveres science and celebrates the inquisitive mind. Indeed, liberal values are often superior to those held on the right, because they are tenaciously subjected to rigorous examination. Beliefs that are questioned and still prevail are the ones that stand the test of time.

Like conservatism, liberalism has very strong core principles. But unlike conservatism, liberalism is not afraid to question "the way it is." The fulcrum of this philosophy is that all ideas will be constantly examined, scrutinized, studied and debated. If new information emerges to counter the culture's prevailing values or understanding, it will be rightfully taken into account. Far from moral relativism, liberalism searches for the ultimate value in which to build a moral foundation: Truth.

Right wing movements across the globe often seem uninterested in truth if it contradicts their obdurate belief systems. Reality averse, they are woefully unable to adjust to new understandings, burgeoning ideas and cultural awakenings. For example, despite overwhelming evidence that women are the equals of men, they still can't drive or vote in some Muslim countries. In America, gay people are still treated as second-class citizens, even though mountains of science and empirical evidence suggest that homosexuality is as biologically ingrained as eye color or handedness.

Liberals believe in the power of "reason," while conservatives are often just plain reactionary. This is why the GOP is the party of the "southern strategy" and anti-gay subterfuge. Republican power is directly related to fertilizing fear and fomenting fanaticism.

Indeed, the great appeal of modern conservatism, or other forms of authoritarianism, is that people don't have to think for themselves. They can mentally "check out" of this world and place their worries in the hands of a commanding politician or a higher deity.

Modern conservatives are often discomfited by the complexities of life and demand answers to the world's many unanswerable questions. They arrogantly and disingenuously claim to have absolute truth, while liberalism boldly proclaims that it does not have such ubiquitous powers of understanding. Liberalism is for those who are unafraid to fully embrace the magnificent journey of life and tackle the great mysteries of our time.

If one looks at modern conservatism in the United States, it is easy to see that it is a movement of intellectual and spiritual atrophy. In the political realm, conservatives essentially call for judges who are "strict constructionists," which is shorthand for saying "the Constitution is a dead document."

What a monumentally ridiculous notion to put forth, that American jurisprudence has not evolved in more than two centuries! Do strict constructionists believe that women and African Americans should have their rights restricted because the nation's founders treated women as second-class citizens and owned slaves?

Likewise, modern conservatives have also rendered the Bible (or Koran) "dead documents." In conservative houses of worship, traditionalists put forth the untenable belief that holy books are literal. They call these books "God's Plan," as if the Creator hasn't had a new thought in a couple of thousand years.

Modern conservatives will claim that liberals are sacrilegious for holding such beliefs. To the contrary, liberals are often extraordinarily religious or spiritual people. However, they diverge with conservatives in that they believe the strongest faith is one that is subject to healthy skepticism and painstaking examination. In encouraging people to explore all faiths -- free of guilt, shame, coercion or fear -- liberalism also offers people the greatest number spiritual options.

Many of my columns deal with gay themes because equality for gay men and women is the civil rights issue of the new Millennium. However, gay rights mean nearly as much to heterosexuals as they do for homosexuals. The very peace and prosperity of nations can be easily predicted by looking at how they relate to their gay citizens.

If a country treats gay people with dignity and respect and offers them equality, it signals that the country bases its decisions on sound education, rationalism and science. This inevitably leads towards success in all spheres of life.

Countries that ostracize and penalize homosexuals tend to be superstitious, authoritarian and anti-intellectual. This almost uniformly leads to poverty, war, oppression and ultimately tyranny.

A cynic might argue that the United States is not as gay friendly as other countries, yet, it is the richest country in the world. True, but nearly all of America's cities and states that are centers of profit and creativity offer acceptance for homosexuals. States most hostile to gay people are relatively backwards, with lower levels of education and income. Places that offer acceptance signal that they are open-minded and looking towards the future. Locales that reject homosexuals indicate that they are stuck in the past -- at their own peril.

In essence, gay rights are the canary in the coal mine for freedom and prosperity. Unfortunately, the bird is hacking, signaling a period of increased oppression and a dangerous erosion of freedom. It is up to us to rescue this nation from the perilous path it is now on. It is time we proudly stand up for what we believe in. If we don't defend our values, our opponents will define them.

Progressive does not mean passive. Our compassion does not mean that we lack passion. Our respect for other beliefs does not signify that we don't hold strong beliefs of our own that we are willing to fight for. Indeed, our power comes from out ability to adjust to reality. We are secure in our values, yet humble enough to adapt if our viewpoints are proven obsolete. Wherever liberal democracy takes root, a strong and proud record of economic, moral, social and political achievement follows.

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