I am a “liberal” who lives in a part of the country where I am a clear minority, and when people of more conservative stripes find this out, particularly if they’ve already decided that I’m an okay human being, they wonder where this liberalism comes from.
When asked, I tell them it comes from my personal values, three core principles which might sound familiar: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As we all know, they’re from the Declaration of Independence, part of perhaps the most perfectly crafted sentence in the history of the English language:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These words are a statement of our country’s best intentions, and I believe them to hold truth, even as I recognize that when the Founders wrote “men” they didn’t mean “all men” so much as the white guys in the powdered wigs.
In fact a more accurate-to-life rendering of that famous line might be:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men – with the exception of women, slaves, indentured servants, or other groups that may potentially threaten the white, male aristocratic patriarchy this new country is going to be founded by – are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, (unless you’re a slave), liberty (unless you’re a slave or female), and the pursuit of happiness (unless you’re any of the above).”
Louis J. Rubin calls this incongruity between our stated ideals and the reality of life the “Great American Joke.” Our country was founded on an irony. Rubin believes that the self-criticism between our ideals and our reality is the stuff of a particular “American” humor.
A significant part of my personal liberalism is in simultaneously recognizing the truths of those values along with engaging in the self-criticism necessary to point out where we fall short. I think to conservatives, this sometimes plays as insufficient fealty to our country. To me, it’s simple accountability, a form of patriotism.
Our history is one long chronicle of falling short of our ideals, but as ideals, you have to admit, they’re pretty ideal.
When I’m confronted with some kind of controversy, or a difficult personal decision, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are my go-to measuring sticks.
For example, I’m a supporter of universal access to healthcare because it’s consistent with value number one, life. The rest of the country seems to agree with me, given that no one in need is turned away from an emergency room. Now, we just have to figure out how to pay for it.
Or so-called “gay marriage.” I am for these particular rights, in this case under both liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
At the same time, I support the right of the CEO of Chik-fil-A to say he only approves of the “biblical definition of the family unit.” While I disagree with his stance because of my own values (liberty/pursuit of happiness), I also support his right to donate money to groups that advocate against what I believe (liberty). I don’t support governments (like in Chicago  and Boston) who may seek to restrict the right of Chik-fil-A to operate in their municipalities in the absence of demonstrable discrimination just because they disagree with the CEO of Chik-fil-A on this particular issue. That seems a lot like government censorship to me. The First Amendment is our best protector of liberty and needs defending always.
On the other hand, I support and join with other individuals who choose to boycott Chik-fil-A because of Chik-fil-A’s donations to groups that advocate against what we believe.
Liberty, liberty, liberty with a solid dose of pursuit of happiness.
In lots of cases, these values may be in conflict. For example, I support bans on smoking in public because in my view, the rights of bystanders to life outweigh the smokers’ rights to liberty. While I recognize that sugared sodas are probably also contributors to premature deaths, I don’t believe Mayor Bloomberg should be able to limit their serving sizes, given that the harm they do falls almost (but not quite) exclusively on the individual.
When I want a piece of chocolate cake, I have a personal battle between life – in that eating chocolate cake is not good for me, and may shorten my life – and the pursuit of happiness – chocolate cake is delicious, and therefore makes me happy.
I almost always choose the cake.*
The laundry list of additional personal hypocrisies is almost endless. Just like our country, I fall short of my ideals over and over again. I worry about the impact of factory farming (life), but routinely eat meat, pork, and poultry. I fret about climate change (life again), but wouldn’t consider living in South Carolina without air conditioning. It makes me glad I have liberty, even when I’m most disappointed in myself.
What I find, when I talk to my friends and acquaintances who define themselves as conservative, is that when it comes to values, we’re usually in complete agreement, which isn’t surprising; those rights aren’t called “inalienable” for nothing.
And yet, when it comes down to trying to figure out what we should do together to advance these values, all we do is argue, and not in a productive, heading-towards-a-solution way. The phrase “you liberals want,” comes out a lot, followed by a lot of things that I don’t actually want, which begins to make me question whether or not I’m a liberal. I don’t doubt that I’ve fired back a few times with “oh yeah, if conservatives had their way…” throwing a big old blanket of my own over a different group of individuals.
It often makes me sad because this kind of discourse seems, frankly, un-American, inconsistent with our ideals. I try to remember that happiness needs pursuing. At best, we’re standing still, or maybe even moving backwards.
*I actually always choose the cake. There’s no almost about it.
I tweet about chocolate cake and values sometimes @biblioracle.