rethinking liberalism?

Posted by anya on February 20th, 2009 filed in think, Uncategorized

I’ve been thinking about Obama’s inaugural address. And although this post comes much too late after the 44th president was sworn into office, it seems to me that it’s still worth writing about. The ideological discourse behind his speech is one that is profoundly reliant on liberalism. In moments like this, Locke is invoked almost directly:

Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

And surrounding Locke, generations of thinkers, all of whom believed in the capacity of a system based on natural rights and equality to set people free from the dominance of the church. The irony, of course, it that many of these same thinkers were the same people who saw blacks as 3/5 of a person and women as the contractual subordinates to men. So their ideals were liberating, but only to a contextual point. Along comes Barack Obama, and makes his speech, and to me it seems like he thinks that liberalism can be made better:

We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

He is not arguing for a fundamental rethinking of the system, but instead saying that we can shape the system to be better:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

And then ends on this note, bringing back the discourse of freedom:

…and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

So here’s my question: can we make the system better without changing it completely? In the post-modern framework (as far as there is one), liberalism is kind of a dirty word. With its self-admitted moral superiority, embrace of rationality, and emphasis on the individual, liberalism has thrived to become the synonym for progress, for civilization, and for ‘better’. At the same time, it has often been invoked as a justification for intervention, for profound segregation, and for many other things that are quite illiberal. So do we keep working with liberalism, attempt to fix its flaws, and stick to a vision of progress that is synonymous with its ideals? Or do we deconstruct to claw at the power relations that so fundamentally shape every part of individual and collective existence? In this way, we are getting closer to the post-modern project of emancipation, I suppose. But if ’emancipation’ is an end in itself (and an axiom at that), can it be reconciled with government? Can it be compatible with economics, and what would that look like?

To me, there are many more questions that answers. I listen to Obama’s speech, and deep in my heart I believe that there is a common humanity which can transcend all difference. But then I wonder whether we can ever get to it when we are so shaped by our social relations? Basically: if the construction of difference is so inherently built into the way we relate to one another, can we really hope to achieve some sort of unity?

What do you think? Are you willing to take a leap of faith? A leap of faith that still sees the beauty and necessity in ideas of liberty and equality and individuality? Or a leap of faith that rejects these, plunges into the unknown, attempts to accept the irrational, embraces the risks of deconstruction, and sets profound emancipation as its ideal?

I am still floating in limbo, as always. In the same way that I see myself as an agnostic, I am also neither a full-fledged liberal nor a full-fledged post-modernist. Five years of political science hasn’t helped me get much closer to making a decision, and it’s probable I won’t get much closer to one side or the other in my lifetime. But I think about stuff like this a lot. I suppose that this kind of uncertainty can’t be embraced by politicians (or their speech writers), and so they take leaps of faith. It’s apparent to me, or at least I think it is, where Obama’s decision lies, and it will be interesting to see whether his administration will be able to move forward that vision.

photo taken from themexican’s Flickr stream.

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