After listening to self-avowed conservative Americans ritually misuse the term 'Liberal', all the way through the US presidential primaries last year, and adapted myself to how they've now raised using it in the pejorative sense to something of an art form (albeit one usually wholly out of context), I became intrigued as to how a worthwhile contemporary UK definition of the term might be rendered, and whether it differed from the way it's used in the US - as it turns out, it does: quite markedly.
It's one of those terms which we think we could explain, in general terms - but actually nailing it? That takes thought and, importantly, context to achieve with any accuracy.
Luckily, in December 2008, at the same time as this quandary struck me, I just happened to be reading The Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost His Innocence, by Guardian & Observer journalist, and author, Andrew Anthony, and from which I offer the tract below.
The book is hugely well-written and resonant, and I recommend it to everyone. It's also, for my money at least, the best contemporary definition of what in the West (with the exception of the US, where it still traded as a pointed insult) is termed a 'liberal'.
The beginning of Chapter 2 (page 20 & 21): 'Shame'
Like most people of a liberal sensibility I have been a long-time inhabitant of the state of conscientious denial. Though 9/11 forced me to confront my views, it would be wrong to say they had never previously caused me doubt. But rather than examine those doubts I chose to suppress them. Over the course of three decades I learned to evade, ignore, dismiss, excuse or explain away those aspects of reality that did not fit with how I believed, or wanted to believe, the world to be. As the world so seldom tallied with my prescribed version of events I was called upon to spend a lot of time pretending otherwise. This pretence took many forms - from wishful thinking to wilful refusal to think - but its most common manifestation was silence. Not the stealthy conspiratorial silence of the activist, but the passive silence of prevailing attitude, implicit, assumed, unsaid. For the establishment of an orthodoxy tacit acceptance serves almost as well as fervent agreement. And I found myself tacitly accepting a progressive orthodoxy that was increasingly set against progress.
I am a product of the liberal-left consensus that has dominated informed opinion in Britain since 1945. The term 'liberal-left' is of course imprecise and amorphous, one of those terms that can mean anything or nothing, depending on circumstance. But I use it here as a description of a way of understanding, a mentality, rather than an exact set of principles. For many of those who like to think of themselves as open-minded, a liberal-left outlook has become almost second nature. More reflexive than reflective, it's an attitude that has successfully smothered debate among liberal-minded people. What's more, because this attitude is nebulous, because it's not tied to a major party or a particular doctrine, it remains resilient and adaptable. It's precisely because it has wriggle room over the specifics that the liberal-left mindset has survived the ravages of communism, the collapse of communism, and the triumph of market economics without having to do any serious mental revision.
In spite of all these provisos, I would describe my views even today as liberal-left, if we can take that hyphenate as a commitment to both liberty and equality. However, the liberal-left in the West currently appears less interested in striving towards those dual Enlightenment ideals than in fostering the twin human emotions by which they are distorted: guilt and grievance. The left half of the equation draws on grievance while the liberal half is sustained by guilt, and as such they enjoy a symbiotic relationship: the more grievance the left can generate, the more guilt the liberal will feel, and the more guilt the liberal feels, the more grievance the left are able to generate. Those of a liberal-left outlook therefore risk being locked into an escalating emotional spiral that leads to some conspicuously irrational positions.
In my own case I can't really lay claim to the excuse of feeling guilty. I never sat around beating myself up over the uneven distribution of the planet's wealth and health - though I have met people who do and, it must be said, they're no fun at all. No, my guilt was far more notional and abstracted, a kind of adopted social obligation rather than a genuine personal emotion. The effect of this kind of guilt is not to purge the heart but to censor the mind. To register liberal guilt is also a sign of sophistication and sensitivity, a badge of civilised decency. Within the arts and social sciences, in particular, guilt remains the major currency of debate. So central is it to the Western liberal sensibility that a guiltless Western liberal is an oxymoron, like a penniless philanthropist or a chaste whore.
© Copyright 2007, Andrew Anthony, from 'The Fallout: how a guilty liberal lost his innocence', Pub. Jonathan Cape, London.