So, life’s been trundling along for the last few months, and whilst there have been a few things noteworthy enough to write about, there just hasn’t been the time to knock together some paragraphs on any of them. Hopefully soon.
It’s been a strange summer, anyhow – not much conducive to the peace of mind which tends to render me most eloquent. Let’s face it – with London bombs, the continuing ridiculous farce of the UK Government’s ID card fixation, various American political events, and the devastation of hurricanes, it’s all been a bit “End Timesey” for the world at large.
And the saddest, most numbing thing about the whole parade of rather depressing news stories is that, on this side of the pond, almost any issue quickly polarises into a debilitating “conservative vs. liberal” ping-pong match where no-one actually discusses anything, hair is pulled, names are called and there are no watchful teachers to storm onto the playground, separate the brawling infants and give everyone a good telling-off.
Living in California distances you from the worst excesses of these battles, but frankly that’s only because it’s one of America’s few “liberal” bastions, and folk generally leave one another be.
But here’s the thing that still trips me up – for at least 50% of America’s population, “liberal” is a swearword. Quite literally, you’ll see it used to immediately dismiss or win an argument, or lay blame for a problem. “It’s because of liberals”. “Well, of course you’d say that, you’re a liberal.”
I don’t consider myself to be a “hardcore liberal”. I have no desire to eschew my worldly possessions and live in a yurt. I don’t believe that anyone should get by in life solely through the charity of others or the state. If I have to do an honest day’s work, then so do you, bucko. And hey, I drive a not-exactly-gas-unguzzling Jeep (although I do feel a twinge of liberal guilt every time I fill the tank). Nevertheless…
- I agree with the concept of gay marriage
- I have a hard time believing that marijuana is more harmful than tobacco or alcohol
- I try to shop at organic farmers’ markets when possible
- I cycle to work at least 3 times a week, and take the train when I can
- I’m outraged by the attempts to wedge “Intelligent Design” into science classes
… y’know, standard “liberal crap.”
And it’s enough to make me cringe every time I see a neocon rant about “the liberals ruining America”. The whole thing, even after 9 months, is utterly alien to me. Sure, the right-wing British press will take pops at “misguided civil rights advocates” and “woolly-headed liberals”. But there’s the key – to execute the attack, you need a negative modifier to the term. “Liberal” in and of itself is not classed as a disease.
In short, you won’t find a large British market for a children’s book like Help! Mom! There are liberals under my bed.
Would that this were a joke, but no, this is a real, bona-fide book, one which (at the time of writing) is #10 in Amazon.com’s sales rankings. The premise is an interesting one:
Written in simple text, readers can follow along with Tommy and Lou as they open a lemonade stand to earn money for a swing set. But when liberals start demanding that Tommy and Lou pay half their money in taxes, take down their picture of Jesus, and serve broccoli with every glass of lemonade, the young brothers experience the downside to living in Liberaland.
So… as some kind of liberal, I’m baffled, frankly. Assuming I’m one of the “liberals” who comes across Tommy and Lou’s lemonade stand, would I really take the stance portrayed?
Demanding that Tommy and Lou pay half their money in taxes
We’ll leave aside the fact that I doubt Tommy and Lou, even with really good lemonade, are making the $5,000 per annum or so required to tip them into a tax bracket. We’ll leave aside the fact that they’re under 18 – no, I don’t believe kids should pay taxes – let ‘em save (especially given the cost of college in this country).
Let’s take this argument for what it is – “liberals think people should pay more taxes.” I’m still not really with you, to be honest – like every other wage earner the world over, the less tax I pay, the happier I am – more to spend on me.
As for “50%”? The prospect of demanding a flat 50% tax, even of the richest 1% of a population, is unworkable. It tips the balance towards the problems of a Communist economy – once that much of your economic power is flowing straight away from you, the urge to strive and to create more wealth is diminished. High taxes mean it’s rapidly not worth bothering.
Should people pay taxes? Damn straight they should. They’re required to keep the infrastructure of a nation state running – education, emergency services, security, sanitation and much more depends on government revenue. And yes, the tax system should be structured in such a way that low-wage earners aren’t crippled by the same percentage tax demands of those raking in $200,000+ per year. That’s just the way it works, if you want to live in a civilised country which can support its citizens.
Liberals have certainly argued against some of the tax breaks instituted in recent years, but that’s precisely because they violate the above principle. The brunt of the benefit goes to those who are richer, which inevitably means (if revenue is to rise or remain the same) that the effective burden on poorer people (the ones who work low-wage jobs serving you McDonalds or sweeping your street, for example) is higher.
Do liberals argue for higher tax as a matter of course? Well, no. Case in point – the arguments put forth by ice-cream genius Ben Cohen (the “Ben” in “Ben and Jerry’s”). He suggests one possible restructuring of the federal budget, which could radically improve public services. The video is worth watching, but the executive summary is this:
- The Pentagon’s annual budget is $400bn
- The US’s closest competitors (Russia and China) spent $70bn and $50bn respectively on their military.
- Taking $50bn of the military budget and redistributing it amongst education, world aid, alternative energy and child support services would solve all of those problems.
There are a lot of complexities to those issues, but it’s a workable idea. More importantly, it doesn’t involve raising taxes.
Demanding that Tommy and Lou take down their picture of Jesus
Ah, the liberal devils, demanding that Christianity be destroyed.
Uh, no. You can live your life according to whichever precepts you wish; you can worship whichever god you like. For a large proportion of Americans, that god is one flavour or another of the Christian God. As a member of that religion, you may well believe that my attitudes or lifestyle put my eternal soul in peril. That’s fine – and maybe you’re right – but I choose my beliefs too.
Regardless, religion has no place in state-run institutions. The “religion” in that statement can be Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or La-la-sky-pixie-ism. The public institution might be the courthouse, schools, or the DMV. The two should not mix.
Why? Because the United States has a long and proud history of keeping state and religion separate. To some extent, this is enshrined in the first amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Based on Supreme Court rulings since, the divide has remained. And quite rightly so – in placing the Ten Commandments in courthouses, for example, a state institution is clearly placing one religion above others. Such a monument is a potential suppression of the “free worship” rights of adherents to any other religion. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God’s commandments, and consider Muslim fellow citizens to be heathens. America enshrines the right for everyone to believe and worship as they wish, within their own lives and religious institutions.
And here’s the flipside to feeling this. If America had been clearly founded as a Christian state in which there was a mandated official religion bound by constitution, then I would expect and welcome the trappings of Christianity in courthouses, schools and everywhere else, because it would be a clear, founding principle of this society. It’s not, ergo I don’t.
As for a picture of Jesus on your private lemonade stand? Go right ahead. Be proud of it. It’s part of your heritage and part of your beliefs.
Demanding that Tommy and Lou serve broccoli with their lemonade
Broccoli and lemonade? Eww. I hope you’ve got some rolaids to go with that.
Look, America is a worryingly fat nation. Current figures, from multiple surveys, put the obesity rate at 30% of adults. It’s not that we shouldn’t be able to enjoy a really good steak or indulge in a burger once in a while – you’ll stop me eating steak (and other delicious meat) when you pry the knife out of my cold, dead hand.
But American culture is big on large portions of high-fat food. Being fat is bad for you. It reduces your ability to move around, puts strain on your heart, clogs your arteries. And, honestly, it doesn’t look too hot either.
And so it’s worthwhile reminding people that there are a multitude of options for a more balanced diet. Whether they take those options or not is up to them.
More fresh fruit and vegetables increases your health. So does a little bit of exercise. You’ll feel better and look better.
But I don’t know anyone who would class themselves as a liberal and even begin to suggest mandatory “healthy eating” regulations. Let’s face it, you can eat what you want when you want.
That said, fast food companies probably shouldn’t be advertising in schools, or even in prime “kid spots” on TV. Influencing children whose own decision-making abilities aren’t yet mature; increasing their consumption of high-fat, high-sugar foods simply isn’t good for them.
If you don’t mind the health risks and life-limitations of being fat, go ahead – it’s your life. Chow down, grow to 500lbs. I might personally avoid sitting next to you on a bus, but that’s because I’m fond of breathing.
And finally, never ever mix broccoli and lemonade unless you’re pregnant and having weird cravings, just because that combination sounds truly vile.
What it means to be a “liberal”
Here’s what being “liberal” means to me. I hope it’s kinda borne out by my opinions above.
- Don’t legislate or dictate people’s own, private life choices. Whether that’s their open homosexuality, their choice of diet, their religion or anything else.
- Stop people from doing things which harm others. There is a line where personal choices cross into the public space – drinking is fine, drunk driving is not. Discourage and punish those behaviours which impinge on others’ well-being.
- The state should support its citizens when they need it. Everyone should have access to healthcare, education, emergency support, help with financial hardship and basic amenities. The current Republican idea of “small government” seems to be a case of cutting back on these basic supports, leading to a situation where any personal or large-scale disaster can leave someone helpless and destitute.
- The state should also work to reduce the impact of its citizens on the world. Yes, this means environmental programs, cutting emissions, fair trade etc. The healthier the world – both ecologically and economically, the more we all benefit.
In short, an individual should be free to do and think what they want within their own lives. The state should protect them from harm, be it through circumstances, other individuals or the world at large.
It means that you’re not completely free, yes, because you’re bound by your responsibility to society, and that society’s responsibilities to the world. But the aim is that everyone have the most personal freedom possible whilst maintaining our society and our world in a state which is sustainable for future generations – the children who you’re busy buying “Help! Mom!” books for.
In the long-uttered, seldom heeded words of many a “liberal”, can’t we all just get along?