Sunday , June 24, 2018

Amante: On being a stupid liberal

WHAT makes someone a “stupid liberal”? While the comment sections of media organizations’ Facebook accounts are a lot less toxic than these were some 20 months ago, the occasional insult still surfaces. “Stupid liberals” is one of the more popular epithets.

Often, the reactions are triggered by simple differences of opinion. The insult is almost always out of proportion to the story or comment to which it responds. Someone might, say, question the decision to extend martial law in Mindanao for a year, and a typical response would be: move on, bitter and stupid liberal. “Magbigti ka na lang” (Go hang yourself). The insults flow both ways, but I find “stupid liberal” interesting because it’s so ambiguous.

Part of the problem is that “liberal” as a political label means more than one thing. In 18th century Europe, liberalism was the philosophy that held individual rights to be more important than state rights. It developed in opposition to absolutism, also known as totalitarianism, which holds unrestricted government power as an ideal. Liberalism also challenged the belief in the divine right of kings. Dorling Kendersley’s “The Politics Book” from its Big Ideas Simply Explained series provides these simplified but useful definitions.

These may seem basic, but judging from some of the comments, our civics and political science teachers might want to consider refresher courses or FAQs to help many of us regain a firm grasp of political ideas.

Some of liberalism’s core ideas remain relevant more than 150 years since philosophers like John Stuart Mill first expressed them. Mill believed that societies would be best served if individuals remained free to express their opinions and ideas, free to “live our lives exactly how we see fit, so long as this does no harm to others in society,” and free to associate with other individuals. Mill also warned against “the tyranny of the majority” and believed that government interference in individual liberties could be justified only if that would prevent an individual from doing others harm. Banning smoking in public is justified not only because it harms the smoker, but because of the harm it poses on other citizens around him.

Can a liberal and a conservative ever come to an agreement? Of course. What creates the potential for cooperation is the fact that a lot of political conservatives and classical liberals have the same ideas, especially about the need to protect private property rights, uphold the free market, and keep business in private hands to the greatest extent possible.

“Classical” is an important distinction, because liberalism as it’s practiced in the United States is different from classical liberalism. Since the 1960s, Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic in February 2014, “being liberal came to mean letting criminals terrorize America’s cities, hippies undermine traditional morality, and communists menace the world. It meant, in other words, too much liberty for the wrong kind of people.” Liberals came to be known, in the words of a character from a Woody Allen movie, as the sort of people who were “hard at work being soft on crime.”

Political ideas, like the parties they animate, fall out of favor over time, but some do resurface given the right conditions. One of the most popular political ideas in the country today is that during an exceptional situation, the most important principle isn’t the rule of law, but the ability of one person to “operate above the law, suspending it and taking all steps necessary to save the state.” Who decides when a situation has become exceptional? As convenience would have it, the sovereign does.

This idea is gaining favor again among many Filipinos, almost a century since the political theorist Carl Schmitt articulated it. Yet we should also remind ourselves that Schmitt’s ideas have been used in defense of such heinous outcomes as the slaughter of Adolf Hitler’s political opponents.

A label like “stupid liberal” might sting, but not as dangerously as “clueless conservative.”