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Public Theology: The View from the Other: Redefining Liberalism
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The View from the Other: Redefining Liberalism
John Kerry is refusing to be defined by his opponents in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president.

By Ed Knudson

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention in Boston on August 29, 2004, John Kerry tried to define what it means to be a Democrat, what it means to be a "liberal". He didn't use that word, but many commentators accused him, and the whole convention, of trying to enact an extreme makeover of the Democratic Party. Kerry promoted patriotism, a strong military and real family values. These, the commentators claimed, are Republican themes which the Democrats are trying to steal.

But this only indicates the degree to which in the political culture of the last three decades those who call themselves conservative have been able to convince so many others of what it means to be a liberal.

To understand these matters I encourage us to step back and think a bit about how relationships work. We are all concerned about what others think about us. If someone says to me, "you are not looking well today," even though I am in fact feeling quite well the remark still leads me to wonder, am I all right? The view of me coming from the other person has an effect upon me. That's what I mean in the title of this article, "the view from the other." Yes, I know we all go about our life and work claiming that we are self-confident and not concerned with what others think of us, but the truth is that everything we say and do is said and done in the context of our relationships with others. The view of the other is a primary factor in our lives.

Now, when we apply this to political relationships this all becomes very confusing indeed. We have to use words to converse about groups of people who have this or that political philosophy or policy. If I say, "I am a conservative," you may think that you know what are my political beliefs. But that depends, of course, on your own view of what it means to be a conservative at this particular moment of history. And on-going contests over these definitions occur within each of the political parties in this country. That's the primary purpose of the parties, to debate the ideas and beliefs and policies that should guide the actions of the parties when they gain power. Kerry is now defining what he believes it means to be a Democrat, I would also say "liberal", in today's political context.

The radio talk show host, Sean Hannity, hollers (Hannity likes to holler loud at people with whom he disagrees) that Kerry is not being true to his liberal beliefs, trying to make himself over just to get elected. Hannity, you see, has his own idea of what it means to be a liberal. And if Kerry does not talk and act like Hannity thinks liberals talk and act then Kerry is not being true to himself, a fraud. Listening to Hannity on the Fox News channel one learns again and again what it means to set up a "straw man", a view of liberalism, which is then attacked. And if an actual liberal on his show expresses an opinion different from Hannity's view of liberalism then that person is attacked as not expressing his or her true beliefs.

This kind of thing has been going on now for about three decades. Conservatives have been very successful in convincing the general public that they know what it means to be a liberal. And, unfortunately, too many liberals have received and accepted this view of conservatives, this view from the other of liberalism, to be their own. That is, the conservative view of liberalism has influenced how liberals view themselves. This has led too many liberal leaders to move away from liberal philosophy itself. John Kerry is standing up and trying to reclaim liberalism as he understands it as the best political philosophy for our times.

In the 1972 presidential election I happened to be chairman of a local county Democratic organization in Minnesota. George McGovern was running against Richard Nixon. I remember being perplexed at how it was that a political party, the Republican Party, could in good conscience run television and radio ads portraying McGovern as associated with hippies and drug addicts of the 1960's. That is, Republicans began associating liberals with cultural radicalism. It seemed so completely unfair to me. But Republicans have been winning elections ever since by doing the same thing. In fact, the Republican Party has been promoting the "cultural wars" ever since, Ronald Reagan was an absolute master at associating liberalism with everything that is "evil". Republicans have been able to win elections this way. They have convinced the media and the people that liberals are cultural relativists, that liberalism is not moral, that liberalism is against the family. And too many liberals over the years have not been able to raise a serious counter-argument to these attacks. Now John Kerry is trying to do so.

I was happy that in Minnesota in 1972 George McGovern carried my county. But the Republican cultural attack machine was so effective that Minnesota was the only state McGovern was able to win. Looking back now I can see clearly that the Republican need to win elections on the basis of other than real political and economic issues has created the space into which the religious right has emerged as a major factor in the political life of our nation. Reagan was the first presidential candidate to explicity court the vote of the religious conservatives. He never did actually work to adopt their program of a ban on abortion and prayer in schools. In fact, the Republicans have over the years entirely used the religious right to get elected but have not seriously pushed their priorities.

It is to me entirely shameful the way some religious leaders have allowed themselves to be used in this way. But the stakes are high; Republicans can't get elected on the basis on actual economic issues; they need the wholly symbolic cultural issues and have been all too successful in defining liberalism as an evil. Now, in fact, media reporters are quoting polls that claim that people that go to church vote Republican and those that don't vote Democratic. And this is going way too far. Elections in this country are now being portrayed as a vote on whether God exists or not. Republicans have allowed into their political philosophy a simplistic and very dangerous idea from fundamentalist religion that they are on God's side against liberals who want only a secular society.

John Kerry pointed this out in his acceptance speech. He said neither party should claim that God is on their side, but that we should all pray to be on God's side. He received loud applause at the convention for this line, and well he should. Liberals need to define themselves and speak out of that definition, not the view of conservative others.

Conservative commentators had trouble listening to Kerry's focus on patriotism and military strength. Conservatives claim that it is the Republican Party that represents patriotism and strength, and that the actions of the Bush administration represent the appropriate means to carry forward this patriotism and strength, such as the Iraq war. It is as if what George Bush has done is the only way to be patriotic and strong. It could well be that what George Bush has done in Iraq has made the country even less safe, has hurt the country. There may be much better policies by which to make the country safe and strong and respected around the world, themes which characterized the Democratic convention. A full debate of such matters is necessary at this very important moment in history. Rather than actually debate the issues, too many conservatives just want to accuse liberals of being weak and wimpy. John Kerry is trying to revise the terms of the debate and good for him.

The focus on Vietnam at the convention was significant not just as a part of the biography of John Kerry. The Vietnam war in the 1960's and early 1970's set the terms of political debate over foreign policy in this country ever since. Conservatives have been horrified that the United States lost this war; to be strong means to use military options to demonstrate America's dominance in the world. They are not able to consider that there may be times when military strength cannot achieve political objectives. They want to ignore Vietnam, when despite incredible effort the United States could not win. Liberals have wanted to learn from the Vietnam War. There may be times when military options are not appropriate. Iraq at this time appears to be another case where the United States has used its military strength but now finds it cannot achieve its political objectives. Proposals to send even more troops to Iraq cannot succeed either; that is, the United States must face the fact that sometimes military means cannot achieve political objectives. A big bully in the playground lashing out at others soon finds himself all alone, nobody wants to be around him. This common sense understanding seems lost on those who believe that military strength solves all problems. We live in a much more complicated world than that. If John Kerry is elected he will not place around himself people who refuse to allow themselves to learn from the experience of Vietnam.

Liberals, then, need to define themselves, and not allow themselves to be defined by others. John Kerry has begun to do that. Good for him.

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Date Added: 7/30/2004 Date Revised: 7/30/2004 5:29:25 PM

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