Rethinking liberalism

We age, and we become more conservative. Okay: “Define conservative” is the correct response to that bland assertion. But in general, we become less accepting of minor irritants, and we inevitably look back to a time when we could handle the irritants that came our way, while many currently prevalent ones didn’t yet exist.

I’ve always been fine in a non-Anglo setting. I grew up in the lily-white England of the 1950s and 60s; matured in the optimistically multicultural Canada of the 1970s through to the 2000s; and I have a small second home in rural Mexico, where I stayed for over five years. But as I crab up with the passing years, and simultaneously try not to be dishonest with myself, I’m less patient with everybody, and less comfortably middling-left. Or, as Americans would term it, ‘liberal.’ If that designation means much any more.

One anguished and anonymous writer just produced a piece in The Guardian on being seduced by alt-right positions before he saw, or re-saw, the light. I’ve been through a similar revision of opinions, finding some nuggets of common-sense amid the Deplorables’ postings. But then, anyone engaged with politics, hard-core Marxists and Ayn Randians possibly excepted, is bound to stumble on some things of value in their opponents’ programs.

Liberalism, using the term in its broadest possible modern sense, entails an aspiration, an abiding belief that things can be made better, and fairer, or at least corrected as we go along. Successful liberals (if we can use that term) don’t expect either thanks or total success. Failed liberals do though, so they sometimes end up as grumpy conservatives.

There are two aspects to this situation. One is the disillusionments that come from interactions with people whose standards and attitudes aren’t ours. A liberal “mugged by reality” is not necessarily a born-again conservative; but a newly closed-minded person was probably not psychologically prepared for actual differences in cultures.

And no, I don’t mean all conservatives are closed-minded. My concept of conservatives includes fair-minded, even wise, people who simply want a common base of laws and social attitudes, as well as people who are less fair and less wise.

The other aspect is that broad-stroke liberalism requires projecting forward one’s hopes and values. Collapsing your beliefs under the weight of an unpleasant encounter with a neighbour, or from believing that people of colour are behind a surge in murders, is a mark against a person’s inability to believe facts. I know Canadians who think Toronto is a hotbed of violent crime; but ‘data’ is not the plural of ‘headlines,’ and despite an upsurge in gang-related murders in 2016, the city is still far safer than many smaller communities. That fact, though, can’t counteract the crime coverage favoured by less scrupulous news media.

The ground shifted after the US election, and a lot of things people felt but didn’t want to articulate began coming out of their mouths. Or, our mouths. I’ve felt mild remorse at thinking and saying things that, compared to statements of the incoming US administration, now sound open-minded, but that I rarely acknowledged previously.  Still, a corrective to naiveté is helpful, not something to dismiss because it requires a shift in perspective. Reality isn’t a constant, but something calling for perpetual shifts in approach. Formulaic liberalism, which sticks labels on things and people in place of any reasoned, balanced argument, has hopefully taken a hard knock this past month.

Yes, the 21st Century is proving exhausting and dispiriting. But any society works from its ideals, not from its defences, and discarding ideals only makes us less safe.

I’m always deeply suspicious of ‘values’ in public life, since they’re often covertly (or otherwise) targeted at people who don’t share them. But aspirations towards hope, and towards possible ways to navigate the complexities of a world that isn’t going to stop interweaving and interacting across all its borders, are vital. Equilibrium of mind requires a healthy dash of faith in ourselves.

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