Most people who hear my views on various issues (such as those expressed in this blog), refer to me as “liberal.” I have always bristled at being labeled with that term, just as I have refrained from using its opposite “conservative” when referring to those who disagree with me. While sometimes labels can serve to properly categorize people’s views, the words “liberal” and “conservative,” especially when applied to a person’s social or political (and even theological views), are often used as a way of dismissing a person’s perspective altogether because they are one of “them” and not one of “us.” I hate being considered one of “them,” and conversely, I am uncomfortable being allowed into the club of “us.”
This disdain for the conservative/liberal labeling was reinforced recently when I read William Bennett’s book, The Devaluing of America: The Fight for our Culture and Our Children. William Bennett was the drug czar in the Bush I administration and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Education Secretary under President Reagan. The blurb on the book’s back cover referred to him as “one of our leading conservatives.” I was interested in reading the book because since he was education secretary and even now, Bennett has been one of the leading opponents of multicultural education. I had read his Book of Virtues, and found it uplifting – a group of stories illustrating the basic human virtues necessary for civilized living – even so, I expected that Devaluing of America would stoke my ire.
However, what I found was surprising. I found that I agreed with William Bennett on many things, partially agreed on others, and vehemently disagreed on others. For instance, I was very impressed with the strong case he made for the idea that education does not simply impart knowledge, but also shapes character. His concern for the plight of the poor and impoverished was palpable, and his comprehensive approach to addressing the drug crisis in the U.S (law enforcement, interdiction of drugs, provision of treatment, education for prevention) was right on. On the issue of racism, I think he recognized the depth of the problem, but like many privileged, white Americans (of which I would also count myself), he failed to appreciate the social, psychological, and economic legacy of racism and the continuing effects centuries of slavery and institutional racism; his answer to racial problems was basically “get over it” and let’s be a color blind society. I don’t think it’s that simple. In education his concern that students learn and know the classics of Western Civilization is admirable, but in an increasingly diverse society a multicultural perspective is absolutely vital. His biggest blind spot in my view is the assumption that the culture of the US should not and can not change despite the fact that we are becoming increasingly diverse; he believes that all folks should assimilate to the basically European cultural framework and belief system bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers, and that our culture should and can not expand to incorporate the views and beliefs of others.
However, “the culture wars,” as he calls this last issue, is the only thing William Bennett and I clearly and completely disagreed on. With the rest we were in varying degrees of agreement and disagreement, and he is a “conservative” and I am a “liberal.” Such labels become meaningless when you break it down. I believe William Bennett to be an intelligent, honorable and reasonable person, not the pariah that some folks might say he is. Had I accepted that characterization, I might not have read his book, and considered his views. It seems to me that this kind of meaningful dialogue has been largely lost in our social and political dialogue in part because of this tendency to label and therefore dismiss folks.
Unfortunately and paradoxically for me, Bennett does freely use the labels of “conservative” and “liberal” when referring to his friends and opponents. Now in part this is due to the fact that he served in government and wrote this book (1992) during the Reagan era when “liberal” and “conservative” bashing was rampant, as it is now. Furthermore, time has moderated some of his views; what seemed “conservative” 20 years ago is more mainstream today. Because of his labeling I almost didn’t get past the first chapter where he mercilessly criticizes the “liberal cultural elite” (particularly college professors) for their support of the Sandinistas in the mid 80’s, their opposition to Persian Gulf War I, and their criticism of his decisions to restrict funding on certain art projects when he was chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. He refers to this liberal cultural elite as “skeptical and mistrustful of American Society” …and “marked by alienation, suspicion and doubt.” He accuses them of rejecting “American ideals.” As one who opposed US policy in Nicaragua and who marched against the Persian Gulf War I, I would like to be given more credit than simply being skeptical and mistrustful. I would like to be thought of one who exercised the American ideal of free speech. I would like to have my ideas and concerns taken seriously. That is why I hate labels, and why continued to read Bill Bennett’s book despite those opening salvos, and I’m glad I did.
Depending on the issue I may be “conservative” (morals in education, family values, religion), “liberal” (immigration, gun control policy), moderate (drug policy) or downright radical (economic policy; the political system). If you can come up with a label for that, I’ll accept it. Otherwise, leave your labels at home, and let’s just talk and listen to each other.