Monday, January 17, 2005

Our Cultural Amnesia

Every once in a while I have a brilliant idea for a new post. And then I either forget or, upon reflection, decide that it's not that brilliant after all. However, one thing has consistently been bugging me--so much that I'm actually stepping out of my laziness to post about it. This thing is our collective forgetfulness, our ahistorical view of the world.

What do I mean? I am speaking of the current (and perpetual) fight by conservatives against "liberalism" that vague evil that stands as nothing but a straw man for them to use in arguments for legislating their own values and for deregulation. So, what is liberalism?

Perhaps, better than defining it in a succinct, dictionary-style sentance, it is best to look at its legacy.

If you work in a job where you don't risk being maimed or killed everyday, you've benefited from liberalism. If your children go to school rather than being sent off to work, liberalism gives you that ability. If you get paid overtime, based on a forty-hour week, and are paid a living wage, guess who worked tirelessly for that? If your water is drinkable, if your food doesn't kill you from disease, you should know that not only did liberals work for these safeguards, but conservatives actively opposed them. If members of your family are eligible for social security, medicare, unemployment, disability... they owe their livelihood to liberals. If your children go to school with children of different races (at least in theory) and people of all races share public facilities, you can thank liberals (and an "activist" Supreme Court) for that.

--safe, approved medicines
--safe, affordable public transportation
--FDIC, FSLIC and bank protection
--student loans and grants
--rural electrification

Have you benefited from any of these?

I promise you have.

Let us also define conservatives by their legacies. Their legacy is that they started off opposing every single one of these progressive ideas. Is it any wonder that they are now trying to dismantle social security? They never liked it.

What really irkes me, however, is how quick we are to forget these things. We (and by "we" I mean dominant culture) are quick to condemn liberals and liberal ideas. Even John Kerry and the 2004 Democratic candidates (some of whom could have been considered liberals) were quick to eschew the title. Liberals should proudly proclaim. "Yes. I am a liberal. I believe in the American liberal ideals that have made this country great! Public education, free speech, safe drinking water, and the 40-hour work week." Those are things that we can all agree are good. And they are things that would not be here without the work of liberals and would not be here if conservatives had had their way.

Now they're on board for most of these things (with the possible exception of Newt Gingrich).

But, in policy debates it is wise to remember the trajectory of history. I read a quote once, and I cannot remember who said it, but it was: "The heresy of today is the orthodoxy of tommorow." That gives me hope because I see it in the past. It was madness to think that the government could have a part in regulating the workplace. Now it's madness to think otherwise. We (even conservatives) believe that the government has a legitimate part in making sure workplaces are safe and that discrimination doesn't occur. (even if such safeguards are being slowly dismantled)

The things that progressives stand for now (heresy according to conservatives and the media) will be the orthodoxy of tommorow; 50 years from now we will think it crazy that at one point we denied health care coverage to people because they couldn't pay for it. Even conservatives will be on board, always one step behind. And people will forget how much they fought against it. That's the way it goes.

I have confidence in America. I just wish we had a better memory sometimes.

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