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David Barash: The L Word

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Barash, David. The L Word: An Unapologetic, Thoroughly Biased, Long-Overdue Explication and Celebration of Liberalism (New York: William Morrow, 1992)

Barash successfully straddles the line between being a folksy writer (think James Carville) and an academic one (think Louis Hartz); he is both lively and scholarly, and he tackles an important subject in a manner both accessible and informative. He boldly asserts that the US' success is "the greatest triumph of liberalism in the history of the world" (p. 14) and does a good job proving his point in the pages that follow.

Makes this great point about education:

Whereas Marxists will diligently study and explicate the writings of Saint Karl, relatively few liberals have read Locke. Similarly, most conservatives haven't attempted Edmund Burke, Disraeli, Plato, or even Goldwater. Nonetheless, there is much to be said for understanding one's intellectual antecedents, if only to discover how far away they are. (p. 36)

This is my reason for devouring a stack of liberal books (a few down, several more to go): the need to use the course of our past to help determine our future trajectory.

Conservatives' criticism that liberalism is not longer about protecting liberty is rebutted here:

There is, in fact, a crucial strand of consistency linking classical liberalism with its modern descendants. Liberals of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries must be seen in the context of their times. They opposed government activism when the greatest danger to humanistic values came from those governments themselves. Classical liberals sided with the individual versus the state at a time when the government was monarchical, tyrannical, and inimical to freedom. In the last hundred years or so, with the triumph of democracy and capitalism in the West, the greatest threats to the individual have shifted. Now, they emanate not from society or government, but from the excesses of capitalism itself, and with the collusion of too little government. [...] In this respect, modern-day liberals have kept faith with the prodemocracy, even the procapitalist, traditions of classical liberals, while conservatives have remained true to the antidemocracy, proprivilege orientation of the monarchists and the entrenched. (pp. 46-7)

This observation ties into the Adlai Stevenson quotation in my review of Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal, which examined the same phenomenon from a different angle. Conservatives' reasonable-sounding but ultimately nonsensical appeal to the (liberal) Founders is addressed by Barash this way:

Those stymied in their attempts to ride roughshod over their neighbors often responded by appealing to Jeffersonian ideals and/or States' Rights or, better yet, local government control or no control at all, because the smaller the public unit, the more likely it is to be under the thumb of powerful interests. Accordingly, such appeals were often a cloak for unlimited corporate or private power. (pp. 49-50)

Barash echoes this sentiment later, using the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Palmer Raids, and McCarthyism as examples:

Our fundamental freedoms--of expression, of assembly, of religion--the entire pantheon of America's cherished democratic and civil rights, are valued and defended more by liberals than by anyone else. These rights have very definitely been under attack in the past, sometimes by the United States government itself, most often under the auspices of a conservative administration or legislator. And most often liberals--along with those farther to the left--were the victims. (p. 156)

For my Quote of the Day, I turn to the impossible-to-overpraise conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein:

"Who fought to free the slaves? Liberals. Who succeeded in abolishing the poll tax? Liberals. Who fought for women's rights, civil rights, free public education? Liberals. Who stood guard and still stands guard against sweatshops, child labor, racism, bigotry? Lovers of freedom and enemies of tyranny: Liberals." (pp. 106-7, The New York Times, 30 October 1988, included in this posthumous 2004 "Prelude, Fugue & Riffs" newsletter)

Who wrote an under-appreciated book about liberals? David Barash.

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