I’d like to clear up an issue that seems to be causing a great deal of confusion. I use the word “confusion” and not “obfuscation” because I want to give the conservative and libertarian writers that grace these pages the benefit of the doubt. I can’t say I blame them – liberty and democracy are abstract concepts. But because those who use such terms sometimes do so in defining – often incorrectly – the positions of others, I feel it’s necessary to clarify what I, and many other liberals, believe democracy and liberty to be.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty details, I’d like to make something perfectly clear. This is a question of semantics, and no, that’s not a brushoff. Political words like liberty and democracy have two meanings, the theoretical definition and the meaning that results from their implementation in practice. What makes this distinction problematic is the fact that the in-practice definition is often ignored entirely, allowing those skilled in rhetoric to simultaneously sway their audience and cover their manipulation with a facade of impartiality. A lot of claims and protests have been made in the name of liberty and democracy. In fact, add in some radicals, mix with national security, throw in a dash of terrorism and blow it up with a WMD and you have the discourse recipe of the years since 9/11. The fact that everyone is talking about these concepts does simplify their meaning, however; it is unlikely that Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher would agree on one definition.
Superficially, democracy and liberty are neutral-to-positive words, but under the surface they are politicized through the same process that made the Stars and Stripes stand for the president, and subsequently for the Republican Party. If you happen to be liberal and have ever found yourself labeled a flag-burner despite having no desire whatsoever to set a square of fabric on fire, you know what I mean. Have you ever been called a traitor to a nation of 295 million citizens for disagreeing with one man, albeit a very powerful and very rich one? The same process applies. Through conservative rhetoric, disliking a nation’s administration became antipathy toward the nation itself and that nation’s political philosophy. It’s a rather brilliant move.
But just because I concede to its evil genius doesn’t mean I have to take this semantic inversion bending over. So here it is, folks. I don’t hate America just because I don’t support the current administration. Liberals are not trying to bring down democracy – why would we? In theory, democracy means fair representation, with government officials merely acting in the people’s stead, basically as well-paid messengers. In practice, however, we have corporations writing the laws for us by way of campaign contributions to a puppet Congress, riders that get hidden in unrelated bills and an unprecedented number of presidential signing statements, three methods by which the democratic process is sidelined in order to further the political, financial or moral interests of the representatives themselves regardless of their constituents.
For its part, liberty to liberals means what it did in 1776: the freedom of religion and of the press and of the pursuit of happiness. These rights allow both PETA and the NRA to hold rallies and distribute fliers, although I might disagree with both. It means doing and saying what you want, so long as you aren’t hurting anyone. And if you are, it means facing the consequences equally under the law and with a fair trial. But this liberty has undergone a lot of attacks lately. The detainments after 9/11 and the de facto national religion are two examples.
So next time you hear a Republican pundit demand liberty and democracy, placing those terms in opposition to progressive parties, consider that he or she means the pseudo-democracy of the 21st century. For my part, I’m looking wistfully at the philosophies of Jefferson and Adams, at a time when these terms represented more than just good ideas. If “conservative” means holding on to tradition, perhaps liberals should be relabeled as such, because the liberty and democracy I believe in are quickly becoming relics of the past.
Daily Nexus assistant copy editor Kate Rushton witnessed the tragic disaster of ’94 when PETA and the NRA accidentally scheduled their bake sales on the same day in Anisq’ Oyo’ Park.