Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

Sorry, I’m Probably a Liberal

Look, I have written several times about diplomacy, civility, centrism, and similar notions of cooperation and open-mindedness. I have resisted the notion of partisanship in pursuit of a greater mutual collaboration. Clearly, that is not happening and one gets to a point where denying one’s own truth becomes unhealthy. I have opinions on these things and do not agree with everyone all the time – obviously.

My truth is that I am ashamed of the United States with increasing regularity for how we go about things, and much of that relates to disagreement with the conservative, Republican, Evangelical faction of this country. That’s just how it is currently – I’m sorry, but I do not agree with that side of things more often than not.

Today, I am embracing that truth to get some of this stuff of my chest. I’m not walking the line of diplomacy, but coming straight out with my feelings on the partisan nature of public policy in this country because I may burst if I keep trying to repress it.

If you disagree, you disagree. I am not an expert, and, in all likelihood, neither are you. The Internet process (to paraphrase John Oliver) of two non-experts coming together to trade burns on a subject until one of them lands a “sick burn” is quite off-putting to me, and I’m honestly not here to debate. This is an expression of how view things and they are likely to remain unchanged by anything you have to say, just as nothing I present here is likely to change your mind.

Consider all of this in that sense.


States’ Rights and Small Government

Historical example: the states who would become the Confederacy opposed a federal law prohibiting slavery, citing not the moral reprehensible nature of slavery itself (which several of the Confederate states directly cite in their secession) but the importance of states’ rights. When Union states attempted to implement laws granting rights to runaway slaves, those same people demanded a federal law prohibiting it.

Conservatives have advocated for nation-wide bans on, among others, gay marriage, trans people serving in the military, immigration from specific countries, and abortion (in the latter case, they’ve so far settled for state-level legislation).

This idea of small government and, by extension, states’ rights, immediately begins to fall apart. I say by extension in reference to the states’ rights because what conservatives are advocating, and with which I actually agree, is autonomy and self-regulation to the highest possible degree. We are responsible for our selves first, then the household, the community, the municipality, the county, the state, the country, and the planet in increasing order of scale. The United Nations should not be regulating the minutia of my life – that is something with which, I believe, we can all agree.

The trouble is that conservatives abandon this idea whenever it suits them.

“If we let the individual states decide, the blue states are not going to do it the way we believe it should be done,” basically.

Now one would likely have a clear response to this: “Liberals want federal regulation of things that matter to them and have no problem letting other things over to lower levels.” In essence, the precise opposite situation – things on which liberals align should be set at the federal level, but things on which liberals feel they cannot impose at the federal level should be managed more locally.

The difference is the guiding philosophy behind these two perceptions.

Both groups align on the idea that the individual should have a reasonable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They disagree on the application of that idea to the individual though. When liberals want something regulated at the federal level, it’s because the alternative is harmful to some segment of society and they do not want it left to, frankly, intolerant pockets of society to decide for their area. When conservatives want something regulated at the federal level, it’s because it’s something they believe.

I recognise that is an inflammatory charge, so allow me to expand using a particular case.


Confederate Monuments

One of the debates raging in the United States lately has been the removal or relocation of Confederate monuments from public spaces.

“Heritage not hate” is the concise version of the conservative opinion of the matter. It takes various forms, but they all boil down to the idea that the monuments serve as a reminder of history rather than as a beacon of hatred towards members of that society, and to remove the monument is to deny that piece of history.

I do not agree, and here are the multiple reasons why.

First, the documentation of said Confederate monuments indicates that many of them did not appear in the closing days or immediate aftermath of the Civil War to commemorate the struggle or honour specific people for their sacrifice. Many of the monuments appeared years, decades after the Civil War with noticeable spikes during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights era, periods of social progress towards equality for black people during which whites attempted to reassert their dominance.

Second (really first, but I needed the first point to help establish this better), one has to acknowledge the affect these monuments have on others. As a white person, the monument in front of city hall may serve as a reminder of a rebel spirit, a proud, honourable willingness to resist tyranny for what one believes. As a black person in that same society, it serves as a reminder of slavery and unspeakable cruelty, again, particularly as many of the monuments appeared not at the time of the Civil War but as we sought to treat members of that population as equals.

Third, it does not deny that piece of history. Germany is not adorned with Nazi monuments, and yet one does not forget what happened during the years of the Third Reich. Museums house countless artefacts and records associated with the period in an appropriate context that requires consent freely given by the attendee to view. They remain on display publicly in a way that does not serve as a daily, constant reminder to those victimised by the events of what happened.

In short, it’s possible to remove these monuments from public spaces and relocate them to a more appropriate setting where they may serve as a reminder of events past.

Keeping them in their current place because of how they make some people feel at the expense of others is the core of my philosophical decision-making mechanism. I’ve written about it to some extent.

What it boils down to, in my eyes, is that we can respect the desire of one party to have it on display and the other party’s desire to have it out of a public space, thus respecting the critical desire of each side, by moving the monuments to a publicly accessible place that is less conspicuous: a museum. This is not about placing one party’s desire over the other, but about respecting both.


The Role of Religion

I have tried to stress, on multiple occasions, that my criticism of religion is restricted to its role in the formation of public policy. Stated another way, I’m an agnostic who believes the moral philosophy of Jesus Christ is unparalleled in its soundness, but that has no role serving as the foundation for public policy. If something is a valid foundation for public policy, it will have a secular, logical component to it on which we can rely (see also “why atheists are not amoral psychopaths”).

For example, the Commandment “Thou shalt not commit murder.” This is sound, no? Every society on this planet has legislation regarding murder, but we do not need the Commandment for that. We have a social imperative for legislating consequences to murder, and that provides the basis for the legislation. One does not need to be of Judeo-Christian upbringing to understand that murder is wrong and consequences exist for that.

Because here is the problem: if we decide upon something that has a uniquely religious foundation, that thing has absolutely no meaning to someone who does not share that faith and, at least in the United States, we founded the nation on the idea that one cannot legislate their religion onto others. We cannot compel non-Christians to practice Christianity, and that extends to public policy regarding specifically Christian values.

Yes, many of our national values have a Judeo-Christian influence, but we are able to uphold them because of the universality of those values.

I get that you might personally believe that the only path to salvation is through Jesus Christ and to fear God, and you should be free to continue to do so. What you cannot do is demand, through legislation, that others do as well. That is not for you to decide and we specifically provision against that.

Case in point:


Abortion

Look, this is a somewhat complicated issue for me. I am a man – I do not have a uterus, I cannot become pregnant, and I will never be in a situation where abortion would have significant personal relevance.

When it comes to the matter of abortion, I approach it on a handful of premises. First, the opinion of the medical/scientific community. Second, the opinion of the women who are candidates for ever possibly needing one. Third, to a small degree as a scepticism against group-think, a personal consideration.

At the end of the day, this generally conservative position that they call pro-life (but I have started to embrace as anti-choice) falls on religious arguments.

“Not all of the arguments are religious, James!”

Perhaps not, but I have yet to encounter one that did not ultimately become a spiritual position of sorts.

“The fetus is alive.” Yes, technically, according to the basic biological definition of life, and it is, I concede, distinctly human in composition. The problem is that it can only survive because of a host – the mother. A woman, a person of autonomy and agency whose existence on the planet is more than that of incubator. She does exist without the need for a host because she has undeniably achieved personhood. I do not know that I can say the same for the fetus, especially so early on in the gestation period.

I have also raised the question of those opposed to abortion, that if we are to take this in terms of the “sanctity of life” in that one should not kill a defenseless living creature without appropriate need, why then are we comfortable with anti-virals, anti-bacterials, and such? They, too, meet the same definition for life and we have no problem killing those organisms, whether they present a clear danger or not. Some degree of bacteria always exists in our system. Why is killing one organism okay and not the other?

The answer is often some form of, “Because the one is human and the other is not.” But this does not satisfy the request about why one life matters more than another. We already seem to have some problem with the conflict between the life of the mother and that of the fetus, even though it seems clear that one achieved a more significant state of personhood than the other.

When pressed, the discussion usually progresses to something specifically or akin to “the soul.” Now we have become spiritual and, as mentioned earlier, we cannot use this as a basis for public policy.

“Humans have souls and other creatures do not.” On what, exactly, are we basing this claim? What even is a soul? For one thing, many humans still refer to their heart as a sort of emotional centre for the body when we objectively understand that the brain controls emotion. The “soul” is, at best, an ambiguous, spiritual term.

Alternately, we have sound arguments for abortion. The safety of the procedure when done correctly, the risk of people pursuing abortions done incorrectly in the absence of their legality, health risks (both physical and mental) to the mother throughout the pregnancy, risks to the fetus, and so forth.

And none of this even touches on the aspect of autonomy, which, as stated earlier, is the basis for all of my philosophical decision-making. The mother has autonomy and the right to decide what happens with her body. Does the fetus have a similar right? Perhaps, but the fetus cannot survive with just its body and it does not have the same right with the mother’s body – based on the universal idea (not one specific to the issue of abortion) that no one has the right to decide what happens with another’s body.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, in her ”A Defense of Abortion”, presents a thought experiment in which a society of musical advocates kidnaps a person and uses them as a life support system for an ailing violinist. The situation asks whether said person has a moral requirement to remain connected to the violinist, even though disconnecting would mean death for them.

I suggested a revised version of this where one voluntarily agrees to serve as a natural life support system for another grown adult. We do not have to question the personhood of the ailing individual, and, as with pregnancy cases, one came by the situation voluntarily. The conclusion, much like that of Dr. Thomson, is that one can decide to remain connected as a matter of altruism, but of course one does not have a moral imperative. Even in the absence of a direct medical risk to oneself, it still imprisons that individual and strips their autonomy – if one does not consent to that, one is not compelled to it and one may revoke consent at any time prior to the conclusion of the event.

The concise version of all this: I would not be so arrogant as to say those opposed to abortion have no argument. This is not an issue in which I should take the liberty of saying that even if it were true because I have no uterus. It’s a non-issue to me beyond the need to support other human beings as part of the social contract.

And that is the point. We have no objective reason to say “abortion should not happen” and therefore have no reason to restrict it with the Draconian severity we are seeing in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, and elsewhere.

(By the way, the Bible is brutal towards fetuses on multiple occasions.)

My liberal position is not one of, “Abortions for everyone!” My position is that we respect autonomy to the greatest extent allowable within the social contract, applying restrictions only where necessary to allow others their autonomy.


Multi-Culturalism, Identity Politics, and Everything Else “Wrong” with Liberalism

I never really identified with liberalism, the Democrats, or anything in that vein. Yes, I am a de facto member of those groups based on where I stand policy-wise, but I consider that incidental. For that, I blame American politics. One hundred years, I would have been a firm Republican and the reason for the shift is not my opinion of the issues. American politics shifted to the right.

It comes down to individuals like Barry Goldwater who helped do away with moderates and forced the entire party further towards conservatism, while for reasons I do not understand the contemporary Democratic Party has likewise shifted towards the middle.

Yes, I am saying that the “hardcore liberals” in your life are far closer to the political centre than you realise. That opponents package and sell it as hardcore socialism/communism does not make it so.

The reason I so often align with the Left way of thinking is that it often corresponds with the philosophy of maximising personal autonomy within the social contract by regulating only where we need to restrict autonomy in order to grant the minimum degree of it to others.

Want a dramatic example? I cannot go out on the street and kill a stranger. That is murder. I am utterly destroying their autonomy. If someone on the street attempts to murder me and I kill them in the process of defending myself, that is fine. It’s a fine line, but I am not destroying their autonomy – I am defending mine. Society at large will line up behind me to defend my autonomy against that other person. That’s all this means.

The point of many policies is not the elevate a person or group above another, it’s to grant them access to that autonomy. Objection to policies comes on the same grounds: stripping autonomy from others.

Black Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter – the reason I throw my support behind the BLM is not that I have a problem with the police. In fact, it’s because I do not have a problem. On a recent drive north I got pulled over for speeding in Florida. I immediately turned to my wife while fetching my paperwork and prophesied, “This will be a warning.” Yep. No ticket. The point is less that I did not receive a ticket – the warning was justified because it was slightly over the limit in a speed trap area. The point is that at no time during the stop did I feel even the slightest pang of concern about what would happen next. I knew it would be a pleasant interaction.

One has to look at situations around the country and question the racial implications of what we see. A white man shoots multiple officers in the Carolinas and they take him into custody. Multiple mass shootings, one just last week in Colorado, where the police take the white suspects into custody. Black men, during routine stops and questioning, fatally shot by police.

Might that be a coincidence? Sure, if it happened once. We have case upon case of this with virtually no accountability from the police. How many of the officers in those cases faced any real consequence for what happened?

They have a thankless, dangerous job to do, and we should enable them to do it as best we can. However, look at what is happening on the other side of this. Requests from the black community, among others, to enable them to live peacefully and enjoy their autonomy is met with all manner of negative attention: condescension, allegation, suspicion, and the like.

Do we need to vilify the police? No. But what we see is a lot of resistance from conservatives to the discussion of how these situations affect minority communities.

“They’re just playing the victim.”

Honestly, how do you even know? We are not having the discussion. The conversation gets shouted down and distracted from with nonsense anytime it arises. If one is so certain that we do not need to take action, then let’s have the conversation and determine that. Stop shouting down and distracting from the conversation though. We have an entire segment of the population speaking out about severe impositions on their autonomy. As a society, we owe it to them to listen to what they have to say. It’s that simple.

“Not all Muslims are terrorists, but how can we ignore that so many of them are and want to impose Sharia Law?”

Again…what? The most striking thing to me as a teenager and young adult growing up in the post-9/11 world was that we initiated military action in Afghanistan against a force that we had armed and trained to help us against the Soviets in response to catastrophic attacks carried out by a group of men largely from Saudi Arabia (along with Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon).

Today, 18 years later, we are trying to restrict travel, much of it from that region. Which countries did they want to restrict? Syria, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Venezuela, and North Korea. Notice the utter lack of overlap between the two lists?

I understand the need for security and I do not support any notion of “open borders.” But I do want to address the actual issues. We have countless American citizens who commit atrocities and have not yet figured out how to curtail that effectively, just as we should know who is coming into the country from abroad. However, many (most, by quite a margin) of those people are not a threat in the slightest and I object to the imposition on their autonomy.

Does that mean we allow them to waltz into the country? No, we should have a process in place because I want to safeguard the autonomy of those already here. However, it needs to be a process that respects their autonomy. Currently we are nowhere in the ballpark of doing that.


 

I try to reiterate this in every post of this nature: I’m not an expert. Even people “on my side” are looking at some of my thoughts and thinking, “Christ, he could not be more wrong.” I guarantee that I am wrong on multiple counts.

The thing is, I have no reason right now to believe that. Some of that is cognitive dissonance and some of that is internal bias. Life is a process of improvement to identify and change those things, which is precisely why I rely on others to help shape my opinions. Therein we find some of the conflict. Organisations that I trust to help define my position are ones that you might find immediately suspicious.

Remember the abortion item from before? A lot of my views come from places like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and United Nations Women. Opponents of abortion hate some of those groups outright and question the integrity of the research behind the findings of others.

I am going to be in that same boat the other way. No, I do not trust any of these conservative think tanks “looking into the issue” and, as stated earlier, do not care about any of the religious arguments for the issue.

At the end of the day, I suppose that is the real fight among people. How do we reconcile those gaps? You might say something snarky to me like, “You could use logic or common sense,” to which I can promise only that this is exactly how I view the other side myself.

Even more blunt – I do not know where opponents get off having that opinion themselves. My source for information includes the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an organisation formed purely in the name of integrity, effectiveness, efficiency, and progress in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology.

Information on the other side might come from, among others, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists. Whereas you might see a group of equally trained physicians who simply do not agree, I see an entire organisation formed on the premise of skewing things to an ideological side. Pro-Life is right there in the name. Their entire distinction is this one point, and it even allows for non-medical individuals. That has propaganda written all over it in my mind.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists formed for the advancement of that field of medicine, to which abortion is but one small aspect of things. That in the course of their business these professionals who specialise in that field arrived at a pro-choice stance says way more to be about the reality of the issue than the conclusion of an organisation formed on the premise that “pro-life is the correct stance”.

It’s not my superior intellect or flawless reasoning that leads me to the positions on issues that I take – it’s considerations like these.

Would I change my mind on an issue? Absolutely – but it’s not going to come by way of anonymous strangers on the Internet or talking-head pundits. It’s going to come by way of reputable organisations practiced in that particular field of study saying, “We have discovered this and it turns out our previous understanding was wrong.”

I am not omniscient and have no way of knowing for sure. This is my brand of faith, just as you have yours. I do the best I can with that and improve when I can.

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