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What Being A Liberal Used To Mean

Reflections from a liberal who remembers

Lefty friends keep asking me if — or telling me that — I’m a conservative now. But I’m just a liberal who remembers what they’ve forgotten. I remember what it meant to be a liberal back when I really started to identify as one, back around 2000, during Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War.

Maybe being a liberal meant something different before all that, and maybe it means something entirely different now. Maybe it’s all just “tribal” signifiers, all just flags and symbols. But if it is, the forgetting must help, and that just isn’t what I’m good at.

I remember when conservatives were the science deniers. There was evolution and then there was climate change. In 2000, during the presidential debates, George W. Bush called the recommendations of Al Gore’s economists “fuzzy math.”

Through most of college I retained this image of conservatives, and of liberals as their rationally-minded, empirically-driven opposites. So I laughed and laughed when Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to capture the way conservatives “felt out” what was true and false.

These days, though, most of the people I see attacking science, and even the very notion of truth, are on the left. And “facts, not feelings” is a catchphrase of the rising, pseudo-edgy online right. Meanwhile, making fun of a misspelling could be seen as ableist; if the misspelling is characteristic of an ethnic or regional dialect, it could even be called racist or classist.

I remember when conservatives were the snowflakes, too — when they were the ones who had fits over wording and believed that “silence is violence.” When President Bush said “You’re either with us or you’re against us,” it seemed ridiculous to me. Why push away potential allies? Why characterize reasonable reservations as enmity?

Republicans in Congress changed menus so that “french fries” were called “freedom fries.” Absurd, I thought — here was a small, symbolic change with no effect other than to salve the feelings and prove the power of those who had pushed for it. Plus, everyone was going to keep calling them “french fries” anyway.

It is precisely these sorts of changes that form the core of identity politics activism: removing names from buildings and the credits of movies, altering the sigils of prestigious institutions because they relate in some obscure way to events nobody alive is old enough to have even been a part of. The DREAM Act for us as the PATRIOT Act was for them. And it is the left, now, that pushes away centrists, that says that even center-left liberalism aids and abets fascism. Fascism, racism, sexism, even capitalism — these are the left’s “terrorism.”

I remember thinking the “War on Terror” was a bit of a joke, too. How do you declare war on an emotion, on a tactic, on an abstract concept? Surely this would mean a conflict with no end, a conflict in which the enemy was always being redefined, a conflict which sought even to create enemies where none had been before.

But the production of such enemies is now a central part of what it means to be a liberal social scientist or journalist. Test after test to tell people how racist they are, deep down, where even they can’t quite see it; the new specter of the “authoritarian personality” to explain the rise of Donald Trump. Dissenting voices from within disadvantaged groups are said to have “internalized” various biases or oppressive systems.

I can imagine, too, someone telling me that I had “internalized terrorism” in 2003, when I wore all black to school on the first day of the Iraq War. And what did they say back then? “Support the troops” — the same sort of simplifying, polarizing call for solidarity we now hear in “Believe women” and “Protect black bodies.”

I remember someone asking at one of the presidential primary debates in 2008: “Only three thousand people died on 9/11. How many people die in car crashes? How many die to cancer? Why don’t we shift some of our counterterrorism budget to those things?”

At the time, this seemed like a very liberal thing to say — the sort that might trigger those virtue-signaling, flag-pin-wearing conservatives. And yet, now, if you talk about the high tolls of diseases and accidents and compare them to the relative infrequency of police killings or the relative lack of consequence of street harassment or microaggressions, good liberals and leftists will accuse you of “whataboutism.” They may even say you are arguing in bad faith, that you’re making seemingly logical points in order to distract from “systemic” or “structural” problems in the organization of economic and cultural life. They will even blame you for donating to charity.

I remember that academic freedom was a liberal value, then. I stressed and fumed over article after article about Middle Eastern academics who were denied visas, detained, or otherwise “de-platformed” from American institutions. The point was never that they were singular or irreplaceable scholars, though they might have been; the point was the principle. These people were trying to figure out the truth, was what we thought then. These terrorist links were shadows, or artifacts of their well-intentioned research.

You can’t just ban from the conversation anyone who thinks American power abroad is a net negative. If you do, you won’t be able to make a critical examination of American power at all. But now major corporations and institutions of higher learning find ways to keep out controversial viewpoints, and especially to stifle dissent when it comes to symbolic identity politics, based on similarly shadowy links.

I remember these folks. From “Farewell to All That,” Vanity Fair, February 2009. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

I remember when endless, pointless war was a bad thing. But these people want a war against -isms just as the Bush administration did. And just as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld wanted to tap your phones in case you made a joke about a bomb, they want to monitor your every interaction to make sure you’re not doing anything problematic. They want to tell you what songs you’re allowed to sing along with in your own car, by yourself. They want to institute an elaborate “sex bureaucracy” to manage and control the clumsy hookups of college students.

I remember that being a liberal meant believing in privacy — the privacy of consenting adults in their own homes, for instance. But now anyone is at risk of exposure for an off-color social media post or a wrong move on a date. If privacy were a liberal value, why did liberal journalists gleefully dig into the Reddit posts of mild-mannered Ken Bone after his red sweater was a hit at a town hall debate in the fall of 2016? Why is it so easy to know so much about romantic encounters between celebrities and their fans, between senior and junior journalists, between pairs of people I haven’t even heard of before? If liberals still value privacy, then why is it considered politically necessary to publish so much of this stuff?

I remember when due process was a liberal refrain, too. Graduating from college 10 years ago I applied for (but didn’t get) a job at the American Civil Liberties Union, where I would have been a paralegal working to support lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay detainees. There was a moment when I thought to myself: Can you really help out terrorists, murderers, killers? Some might be innocent, but what of the others?

But I felt two things very strongly: first, that it was only through a fair and principled process that innocence or guilt could be determined to begin with; and second, that even the clearly guilty had a right to representation, as a matter of basic dignity and humanity. These days, the anti-due process rumblings are coming from liberals, too. In my discipline, philosophy, there is a fairly large and active group of professors who believe that there’s a pervasive sexual harassment problem amongst philosophers; in this group there has been talk for years of the idea that “due process culture” is “outdated.” These accusations are of things so heinous, so horrible, that we should alter our sense of fundamental norms and rights in response. What should the takeaway be, for an aspiring liberal? That mass murder and terror aren’t so heinous or horrible?

I remember that when Osama bin Laden was killed and American social media celebrated, many of my friends were somber. They wrote things like: “We should never rejoice in the death of another human being,” and “To find comfort in the passing of an enemy is to excuse oneself from the effort of understanding them.” Deep thoughts, I remember thinking.

What do you think many of these same people were saying after the deaths of Andrew Breitbart, or Margaret Thatcher, or Antonin Scalia, or even, most recently, Billy Graham? They panned the idea of respect for the dead as a useless civility, a gutlessness when it came to vanquishing the enemies, the evil avatars of fascism, and misogyny, and white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation.

I do not think the source of this inconsistency is that these liberals and leftists actually think terrorism is acceptable. But it has become difficult to explain to conservative observers just what else could account for the divergence.

There is a danger in remembering, for we can only remember what we noticed — what we were around to notice. I wasn’t old enough to closely observe the left under Clinton, but one curious thing about leftist intellectuals during the Bush years is that they actually blamed themselves, and the conceptual tools they’d developed in their critiques, for some of the administration’s excesses.

Sociologist of science Bruno Latour asked in Critical Inquirywhy critique has run out of steam.” He wondered if postmodern relativism had served to enable conservative denialism about climate change, evolution, and other politically-charged scientific topics. Similarly, law professor Jack Balkin wrote of “the other side of critical legal theory.” The crits, who had worked so hard to destabilize notions like the impartial rule of law, found themselves falling back on such ideas to attack Bush administration decisions and policies when it came to war, torture, the trials of terrorists, surveillance, state secrets, executive power, and so on.

Everyone was scrambling to reassess. This was partly the result of the shift in power. “Everything is permissible” sounds much better when the people who can do the most things are your people — people you trust or who share your values. It was also partly a shift in cultural orientation. The playful early stages of postmodernism fit the 1990s perfectly: the growth of the internet, the sense of freedom and invulnerability that followed the Cold War, the economic surplus which President Clinton left for President Bush. But the millennium brought a recession, then a terrorist attack; a series of wars, then a far more significant recession. Everything wasn’t so free and easy anymore.

This sense of insecurity continued to grow during the Obama years, and the left learned from the Bush-era right just as the right had learned from the Clinton-era left. By fall 2015, the first year with a huge season of college protests, one could scorn liberals, just as I had scorned conservatives under Bush, with Ben Franklin’s famous saying:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Perhaps the most interesting dynamic post-Trump is that there has been no reassessment this time. Instead, there’s been an acceleration. Just as a terrorist attack can be spun to support counterterrorism policy — it’s not that the policy didn’t work; it’s that we need more of it! — the 2016 election seems to have proven to liberals not that their shift in principles was wrong, but that they didn’t shift far enough, because they didn’t realize just how powerful the hateful, mystical forces arrayed against them really were.

For those of us whose values are the liberalism of 15 years ago — truth, free speech, privacy, due process, pacifism, diplomacy, human dignity — this can feel demoralizing. We dreamt, I think, that the rest of the tribe would come back to the principles upon which we thought it was founded. It may be a small consolation, or it may be a great horror, that today’s liberal values and strategies will be superseded in turn, and that those who espouse them now will find themselves similarly on the outside of some future liberal group, with their own frustrated remembrances suddenly somehow uninteresting or outmoded.

They will — but just some of them, not all of them. For while political principles may go in and out of fashion, what never seems to get old is: to forget.

A version of this article originally appeared in Areo Magazine.