Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Claiming Our Identity

My favorite contemporary spiritual teacher, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, counsels people to "know your identity so you can let go of it." Rohr wants human beings to acknowledge their political, religious and ideological foundations so that they can let go of them as they grow older, and gain a state where all is surrendered to God in an act of radical and complete faith. Phrased differently, Rohr is saying that we have to know who and what we are before we can give that self to God with total trust.

In the realm of politics, we can definitely use many more "surrendered" people who give their identities to God, but for now, it would simply be good if we did indeed know who and what we are... as progressives, as conservatives, as libertarians, as radicals, as reactionaries, as socialists, and everywhere else on the political spectrum.

Having attempted to generate some dialogue between and among different political camps in America, I think it's time - at least for the next few days - to get us to think not about "the other," but our own selves and the people we naturally congregate with.

What are "we progressives" about? For my friends on the Right, what does it mean to be a conservative?

We are all aware of how our views, affiliations and identities are perceived and covered in the public realm. Yes, we have different interpretations of how these perceptions operate, and we all have very significant complaints about how the mainstream media represents our views, but in the end, there is a certain meta-narrative attached to the labels and banners we choose to wear as political creatures subject to governments, laws and electoral systems.

For ourselves and for the health of our country, we do need to reach across various barriers and differences as we try to at least engage each other in conversation; that's the long-term purpose of this blog, as you know well. However, one thing that gets lost in the attempt to reach out is that we can often forget what lies within. We can lose track of who we are internally - maybe not at a soul level, but in a political and communal sense among the members of our own camps, tribes and neighborhoods. We might think we know who "we" are as progressives or conservatives, but in sharing my own story - again, I'll let others speak for themselves - I feel that while progressivism is not given a fair shake in the media, I also feel that many people who march under a progressive banner are not really living up to the principles of their stated political affiliation.

A number of the people I admire most on Twitter - progressives like Glenn Greenwald, Steve Hynd, and Chris Hedges, plus independent journalist Charles Davis - are consistently resolute in pointing out the hypocrisies of the Left, especially on matters of warmaking, torture, civil liberties, military spending, and like matters. They and other in-house critics give integrity to - if not progressivism itself - an intellectual consistency that affirms core values I've always seen as belonging to progressivism.

[NOTE: To say that progressivism - at least as I see it - upholds certain values does not even suggest that the same values are not upheld within conservatism or libertarianism. Many noble traditions hold the same values as important, just in different ways.]

I hope you can appreciate the tension at work here: Forget what the media might do to distort your identity and its attendant worldview, which encompass so many specific principles and passions. If you don't even agree with other members of your own group, you are suddenly forced to weigh your own identity with the identity of those who have splintered from you. Moreover, the fractures you see within your political family must then be assessed in light of the way the media portrays your group. Self-knowledge, plus the knowledge of how your political intimates are responding to current events, will enable you to confront misperceptions and misrepresentations which - fair or not (usually not) - affect the way your own political affiliations are viewed regionally, nationally and - in some cases - globally.

I have a very strong set of ideas about progressivism and what it ought to be. Yet, a lot of people who claim to share the same identity differ markedly on interpretations and assessments of how well (or poorly) the Obama Administration is performing. On a few issues, policy positions differ, but for the most part, the differences are exposed in the way political leaders are evaluated. I, for instance, hold an extremely negative view - as a progressive - of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and President Obama. My perception of fellow progressives is that they are generally negative toward Reid, mildly supportive of Obama (as a whole), and generally even more supportive of Pelosi.

As for the media angle, I think Obama - as a non-white president - is appealing to demographics that are emergent in American culture (as opposed to demographics that are receding from the culture). Therefore, he is a marketable commodity and is seen as being desirable to media conglomerates' ratings points and balance sheets. Moreover, Obama - as someone who is hewing to establishment-friendly positions especially on matters of war (which is good for business, not morality) - is receiving ample support and leeway from non-Fox outlets.

My view of Pelosi's reputation in the eyes of the media is that she is - unsurprisingly - viewed as the picture of "San Francisco liberalism" when, in fact, she is the daughter of an old-style mayor from an Eastern city (Baltimore) and is therefore the child of a different sensibility. Her easy acquiescence to so-called free-trade agreements is anything but the kind of stance a true San Francisco liberal would take.

How does the media view Harry Reid? I don't have a good feel for that, but I do know that in 2006, I read a story in the Portland Oregonian which documented some very shady and dubious real-estate dealings on the part of the Senate Majority Leader. That the reports did not seem to gain much traction or hound Reid into a downward move are - for me - an indication that Reid is serving a pro-establishment function and is therefore seen as a net asset to the media-industrial complex.

Finally, I'll simply mention, in brief, what I think progressivism is about:

1) No war unless all other options have been reasonably and comprehensively exhausted, to the point that no other route possesses even the slightest possibility of success. No pre-emptive war. And if war is entered into, it should be done with a public posture of pronounced sorrow, regret, sobriety, and shame that humanity has even arrived at such a sorry state of affairs.

2) Free trade, but not unfettered free trade. Fairness needs to govern transactions, with an eye toward the rural Guatemalan farmer as well as the Chiquita banana magnate brokering the deal in a boardroom.

3) Doing the utmost to prevent or at least minimize unchosen suffering in society. This is meant to encourage a communal ethos and an appreciation for the needs of people at the bottom of the social ladder. Government should not be seen as a first responder to social problems, but it should definitely be involved if or when private citizens or local governments lack the resources needed to adequately confront those problems within a context of subsidiarity.

4) People of all races, creeds and ethnicities should be given wide latitude as long as they don't engage in - or at least demonstrate a propensity to commit - criminal activity or activity which infringes on the rights and well being of others.

Enough about my own assessments. Let's throw this open to the comment thread.

What is YOUR identity? What should YOUR group be about? What are YOUR group's core principles and values? What are the major splits within YOUR group? How is YOUR group unfairly painted by the media?

Let's flesh these things out over the next few days. I'd like to see a lot of comments, lists and follow-ups. Thanks!


  1. Nice read.

    A few thoughts here:

    1) In addition to media distortion, I think we must remember that many, many people adopt political values at home/community and are loath to let go of them. As a result, people are parroting things they've been told rather than standing for things they "believe in". The zombie arguments that we hear spewed on networks and news pages across the political spectrum reinforce values that people often hold unreflectively.

    2. There is huge risk to challenging those beliefs. It might sound trivial, but it takes a very strong person to go against the grain of family inertia to adopt -- and act upon! -- a totally opposing set of political values.

    3. The self-insider-outsider identity framework you've evoked is very similar to that of Martha Minow (unfortunately, I no longer have a link for that). But the key is that it's developed in interaction with the world, not from sitting and thinking in a vacuum. I think starting with personal sentiments to the real world and figuring out how you're willing to act is key to the development of political identity. Otherwise, it's just vacuous talk.

  2. How important is identity? Especially self-identification? I'm sure socialologists have studied this at length, but I'm not exactly sure where I fit, and I'm fine with that. I consider myself both a conservative and a libertarian. What does that mean? I'm not sure, exactly. I think conservativism and libertarianism are mostly complementary. And where the two collide, I generally find myself agreeing with the libertarian position, especially since conservatism has somehow embraced the neoconservative position on foreign policy.

    I believe in freedom. People should be able to do what they want, as long as they do not impact the life, liberty, or property of another. But at the same time, I'm offended by people who call themselves libertarians, but whose only real interest is legalizing drugs and prostitution (which is NOT what libertarianism is about, though a libertarian argument can be made in favor of both positions.)

    I believe in Theodore Roosevelt's policy of "walk softly and carry a big stick." Far too often, conservatives ignore the former and liberals ignore the latter. Both are equally important.

    I believe that war is sometimes necessary (and not as restrictive as Matt's defintion above), but should be entered into gravely and as the only realistic option. (Without going on and on about this point, I would say that the first Iraq war was proper for a number of reasons and the second was not.)

    I believe in personal rights, especially with respect to life, liberty, and property. And the freedom of contract. This means that the government has a role of referee, but not as a player. Government should infringe on these rights only in the most limited way to protect another's rights or to promote a compelling public need.

    I believe in the Constitution. As written. I believe that the Founding Fathers were absolutely brilliant. (Read their works. They could write circles around our most revered politicians/thinkers/writers.) I believe that the decline of this nation is directly tied to our collective turning our backs to the Founders' design.

    Most of all, I believe that government should be limited in scope and nature. And to the extent that government can and should act, it should be done at the lowest level possible, following the Constitutional design. That means that certain issues are inherently federal (war, foreign policy, coining currency, etc), but most other acts should be handled at the state or local level, consistent with the 10th Amendment.

    Government's only legitimate purpose should be to protect our freedoms. To the extent that government acts in ways that don't protect our freedoms, we should examine if the govenrment should act at all.

    (It's late and this has been somewhat incoherent. Maybe I'll revisit and complete my thoughts at a later date.)