I certainly refuse to call myself a 'progressive', both because I reject the utopian underpinnings of the original meaning of the word and because I reject the more modern notion that 'liberalism' and 'progress' are automatically synonymous. Not all change is automatically good, and quite a bit of human progress has been counterproductive. One can't turn back the clock or hold back the future, but we need to try to make better decisions.
Never the less, it really made me happy to see someone else make sense on the key left wing issue of civil rights.
Writing in The American Prospect, Ann Friedman writes:
In the wake of the passage of the House health-reform bill and its attached anti-choice Stupak-Pitts Amendment, the conversation happening among progressive women was viscerally angry and palpably fearful. The broader liberal conversation was very different -- one in which the amendment was regrettable but unavoidable in the interest of the greater good. It is moments like this, with Democrats in control of Congress and a nominally progressive president in the White House, when it becomes painfully clear that in reality we do not all take on the same level of responsibility for securing the rights in which we claim to believe.
We rely on gay-rights groups to battle it out alone for marriage rights in Maine. We expect feminists to secure abortion rights in health-care reform legislation. We look to the NAACP to effectively respond to racist statements about Obama. And yes, those groups will work hard for those goals. But when they fall short, they are not the only ones to blame. It's fair to look at the entire progressive coalition and ask the hard questions about our movement: What's the use of having a community, a coalition, if you aren't going to fight for each other? Are we amplifying the voices of those whom we hope to empower or silencing them? Whose "greater good" are we really pursuing?
Shout it a little louder. Please. I don't think most people on the left right now are really listening closely. At least, not the ones in actual positions of power.
In the specific case of Stupak-Pitts, the problem is relatively simple: health care is such a massively important issue that it is easy for a pragmatic policy-maker to say 'I am going to do whatever it takes to pass health care reform, because health care reform is better than no health care reform.' This is laregly a correct moral and intellectual position. The problem is that the purpose of health care reform is to serve society as a whole and the rights of the individuals within society. So when one makes a compromise that undermines the very purpose behind health care reform by undermining the individual rights of the Americans the policy is supposed to help, one is not really serving the interests of health care reform at all. One is undermining it. As a very smart fellow said before me: these kinds of violations of individual rights are exactly what conservatives foretell with gloom and doom when they predict the dangers of government intervention. The irony that conservatives oppose health care reform because of the danger of restrictions on patient-doctor decisions about care and that it was conservatives who colluded to actually place them there should be voiced more clearly and more often.
Instead of a fundamentally united civil rights lobby, we have a badly divided set of individual lobbies for the rights of specific groups. Instead of adopting a comprehensive civil rights platform for all Americans, the Democratic Party (and the liberal coalition within it) have instead established 'women's rights' platforms, 'minority rights' platforms, and 'gay rights' platforms that all work at cross purposes. I understand the political circumstances that have brought this about, but it is immensely counterproductive. We need a simple, basic, comprehensive platform supporting human rights: equal recognition of the natural rights of all Americans.
I am reminded of something from one of the last HBO specials of the late George Carlin:
"Rights are an idea. They are a cute idea, but that's all they are. Let's say you do have rights; where do they come from? Oh, you say, they come from God, they're God given rights... Personally, folks, I believe that if your rights came from God he would have given you the right to some food, he'd have given you the right to a roof over your head; God would've been lookin' out for ya!"
I both disagree and disagree with the philosopher Carlin. Rights are an idea. They are an idea borne of human intellect and human imagination. Yet I believe that human intellect and human imagination are God given, and that the notion of natural rights is entirely valid. It is better to agree to accept a 'cute idea', in this case, then to accept the far too obvious alternative:
"If you still think you do have rights, one last assignment for you. Get on the computer. Go to Wikipedia. When you get to Wikipedia, in the search field, I want you to type in 'Japanese Americans 1942' and you'll find out all about your precious fuckin' rights, okay?"
Since Blogger does not allow one to include a link in a quote block, I include this for the edification of my readers.
This is precisely the alternative to the cute idea of rights and is a point that should escape no one on the left. The internment of Japanese Americans happened precisely because the majority of American citzens were so focused on the 'big picture' and the 'necessary compromises' to achieve their greater goals that they pissed all over the basic premise of America itself. Health care should not become the same kind of clusterfuck.
Health care is not the point, however. It is merely one example that illustrates the point. The Japanese American internment is another. So is the somewhat soft commitment of many liberals to genuinely equal rights for gay Americans. The difference between a 'civil union' and a 'civil marriage' is such a tenuous fiction that it becomes useless to maintain it; unless one really intends to deny gay couples the full rights of interpersonal partnership.
One can go on. The willingness of 'liberals' to pander to nativist policies regarding illegal immigration deserve some attention, perhaps. The unwillingness of liberals to put real effort into passing laws to protect workers' rights to bargain fairly with their employers also come to mind.
As Ann Friedman writes:
"After all, "special interest" issues do not exist in separate silos. Labor rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women's rights are tied to immigrants' rights. If what binds us together as progressives is our vision for a more just society, it is our commitment to all of these issues that will define us."
Forgetting this is a fundamental betrayal of basic principles. One can even call it a fundamental betrayal of basic American principles and leave the word 'progressive' out entirely. I'd far prefer that she had done just that.
Ultimately, however, even Ms. Friedman loses her way:
"We can't work from sweeping visions of liberalism on down. We have to work from concrete rights and opportunities on up. Think of it this way: White men are the least likely Americans to identify as progressives. The people most likely to identify with the liberal worldview -- women, people of color, LGBT people, disenfranchised workers -- are those who have experienced a lack of freedom and opportunity themselves. They are then motivated to broaden their scope and see how injustice also affects other Americans. It is the progressive movement's commitment to these people -- its base, its core -- that will ensure its long-term survival. If we continue to compromise on the concerns of those people, or dismiss them as "special interests" working against an imaginary greater good, we will ultimately render our shared concept of liberalism totally meaningless. After all, if each group within the coalition is actually just in it alone, what's the point of subscribing to a common ideology at all?"
Most of this is dead on the money, but it fails to make the most important point. What is not needed is a renewal of the commitment to protect the rights of each member of the 'liberal coalition.' What is needed is a new and genuine commitment from all members of the coalition to protect the basic, common rights of individuals within society. True social justice requires us all to shed our labels. Even those of us 'priveleged' to be 'white men.'
Real social justice requires we all be willing to share the label 'human' without claiming our own precedence. Even if we really want to get Blue Dog votes for health care reform or badly want blue collar whites in the Rust Belt to vote for us.