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"It's not that we can never go home again, but that we can ONLY go home again …"

We live in a Lib'ral Democracy, yet I struggle to define just what Lib'ral means. Maybe you do, too, especially if you self-identify as a conservative or a radical. The term has been under constant attack from conservatives, radicals, and those who can't quite grok the idea of any form of governance reliant upon emergence as its central organizing principle. Yet in the nearly two hundred years since its emergence, liberalism has utterly transformed the world I inhabit from one which could not imagine what we merely take for granted today. Authoritarianism, which was pretty much the sole form of governance known to the world before, continues to assault what the vast majority of us consider our birthright, but it only has dominion to defend itself against liberalism's subtle but much stronger power. Plodding and painstaking, the Lib'ral seeks to reduce the net suffering in this world, and has succeeded beyond any of its original champions wildest dreams. This is a continuing contest between endless ebb and flow and periodic gush, and though those floodwaters seem overwhelming and permanent, they chose the long-term inevitably losing side.

Unlike you, I suspect, I've been keeping my political head down since the current incumbent stumbled into office a few million popular votes shy of a mandate.
His brash, often ill-informed and alarmingly inept leadershit has sought to popularize that uniquely American form of bigotry and intolerance our Tory forebears thought essential to any truly free state, while the rest of us so-called weak-kneed, snowflake Lib'rals gaped on in abject disbelief. The depth of his ignorance seems to know no bounds and so continue to daily plumb new and ever more disgusting drops with a 'like it or lump it' arrogance formerly common only to Old Testament despots. It's been a deeply demoralizing time.

If you've sometimes questioned your own credentials as a credible political presence, you're probably in good company. If you've found yourself convinced that the Lib'ral cause is lost, anyone could excuse your temporary disappointment, for liberal causes almost always seem lost until they emerge somewhat victorious. Not given to Old Testament dominion, Lib'rals let too much variety into their tent and tend to govern more by argument than commandment. Arguments, though, eventually clear the air and also better inform the choices facing any movement. They rely upon learning, growing understanding, accepting that we can never know enough, but we can achieve emergent positive progress, anyway. Nobody knows what gravity is, but science did not stall trying to solve this continuing mystery of what it 'is.' It set about observing and measuring instead, accumulating a deeper understanding of the forces and effects, then appended the label gravity to the tail end of their consideration, thereby coming to wield rather than to be merely dominated by it. That's how Lib'ral Democracy works.

No difficulty is ever fully resolved, yet forward progress emerges. We gripe about all we did not accomplish, often overlooking all we did and have accomplished, endlessly harassed by seemingly tireless forces convinced that "government is the problem" while utterly surrounded by overwhelming contrary evidence and also seemingly ample supporting evidence. The good old days were a unicorn then and remain one now. Those seeking political unicorns, Adam Gopnik suggests in his fabulous A Thousand Small Sanities, might be well served to consider that unicorns never existed but were mythical representations of a much sturdier but less attractive beast, the rhinoceros. Lib'rals are that sort of unicorn, not the mythical type touted by those who fear self-governance and human advancement because The Good Book or The Manifesto didn't prescribe either, but the sturdy, wholly unattractive, yet surprisingly strong beast.

Gopnik calls out the opposition, generously describing their world views, whether conservative or radical left, neither downplaying their influence nor quaking in their continuing presence. 'Twas always thus, but for the last nearly two hundred years, new ideas have emerged which in the paper/rock/scissors political game give slight continuing advantage to emergence, the Liberal superpower. Emergence doesn't need overwhelming force. It has the superpower of continuing slight advantage, a superpower no bully ever suspects coming until they lose to it. First, they ignored us, then they berated us, then they seemed to genuinely hate us, and then we'd win. The previously unthinkable notion that African-Americans should enjoy the same rights and privileges of any other American was fiercely opposed by a backward-looking Confederacy fueled by a strategically superior army and forceful tribal tradition. That war was won, then lost in reconstruction, then, over long time, very slowly winning again. When will it be won? Perhaps never. When will it be lost again? Most certainly never, for the conditions that once prefaced possible victory of the opposing forces no longer exist in sufficient mass to ever successfully unflush that particular toilet. The skirmishes continue with an utterly fay and hopeless opponent. Lib'rals did that.

I just finished reading Gopnik's wonderful little book, which he wrote to explain to his teen-aged daughter what it means to be a Lib'ral. I quickly realized that I had no clear understanding, either, though I've labeled myself Lib'ral all my adult life. I learned a lot reading this fine book. I rediscovered some of my waning conviction and my weary appreciation for what we've gained and what we will always risk losing as we wend our way into our future together, often separated by a seemingly common intent. Why was the right so often wrong in practice? Why has the radical left virtually always failed to manifest their great and attractive unicorns? Gopnik provides some historical perspective and also an enlivening forward prescription.

First, what in the heck is a Lib'ral, anyway?
"Liberalism isn't a political theory applied to life. It's what we know about life applied to a political theory. That good change happens step by step, stone by stone, that we advance in life by invisible thoroughfares and, feeling our way along in darkness, awaken to find ourselves changed and, sometimes, improved. That what we don't know is larger than what we do know, but what we do know is just deep enough to trust. This working connection between the life we live and the social practice we undertake is the real hidden strength of the liberal tradition." Adam Gopnik

What might we do now?
" … liberalism is doomed and may be crushed at any time by its own inability to stop the stampede of unicorns that we call utopian imagination. The work of liberalism is the work of empathy and argument, of making specific choices and particular distinctions—telling real things from imagined ones and useful ones from useless ones, rhinos from unicorns. No rule guarantees its success. It is the work of A Thousand Small Sanities communicated to a million sometimes eager and more often reluctant minds."

As Gopnik profoundly observes, it's not that we can never go home again, but that we can ONLY go home again that fuels the deep sense of where we belong. We work toward understanding that we most certainly will never completely arrive. The conservative wonders why we should even try. The radical insists that we succeed as a precondition for trying. The Lib'ral decides that it's worth the effort, even knowing that we will not, cannot ever, fully succeed. Which most resembles the life you've known?

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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