Thursday, January 28, 2010

 

Love and Liberty II – One Person, One Value (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.2)

Continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, today’s instalment is the heart of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism. It was born out of a political trip to the USA back in 1998 and three separate things that struck me there – a museum, an interview and a terrible event – which together rekindled my rather burnt-out political determination of the time. It sets out just why I think love as important a political standard as liberty, and why Liberal ‘family values’ should be nothing like the narrow, exclusive conservative claim to them…

Love: One Person, One Value

The first speech I ever gave on political philosophy started off by asking whether my audience of fellow students wanted to hear standard “Liberal Democrat rhetoric” or “hippy shit”. They opted for the latter; the speech was not an unqualified success. Since then, I’ve steered clear of using the word “love” in a political context, though I’ve always been keen on thinking about, writing about and talking about Liberal philosophy. Instead, terms like ‘equal dignity’, ‘equal respect’ or the terminally uninspiring ‘equal treatment’ tend to be thrown around, bound together by ties of ‘duty’. This time, I’m not going to be shy.

Love is better than ‘equal dignity’, because it means more; it sounds less mechanical. It goes straight to many people’s basic beliefs in a way that the often colder, more technocratic language of politics doesn’t. Perhaps people would feel less dismissive of politics if it sounded more often that it came from the heart, from what really matters to them – and love chimes with many humanist and many religious perspectives in seeing each person as of unique worth. It implies ties of duty and mutual respect through common humanity. Every single individual has their own intrinsic value. It doesn’t have to imply liking: when I was younger, I sat through a great many sermons and very few lingered, yet I still vividly remember hearing a sermon on love where it was defined as still being there even when you’re feeling “Right now I can’t stand this bloody person, I’m really pissed off with them, but I still love them.” It’s about commitment. Treat people on that basis, as part of a family, and you can never dismiss or dehumanise them. It’s probably easier for Liberals to see everyone on these terms, as we tend to be less hung up on exclusive definitions of what a family entails.

This notion was brought forcefully home to me while in the United States last Autumn – particularly as I was there in a group of “young political leaders” from all parties in the UK and Ireland, aimed at making a small contribution to the peace process. Within the space of a few days, I was moved by the national Holocaust Museum, inspired by catching an interview with the American liberal Mario Cuomo, saying “Treat each other as brother and sister, even if you don’t like each other, to make it work,” and horrified by the death of Matthew Shepard… a 21-year-old gay man battered and left to die because of others’ hatred of his sexuality. It felt like a political wake-up call, and it’s that feeling that gave me the heart of this essay.

Liberal Family Values Are Wider

The most appalling actions are only possible for most people by stunting their own thoughts and perceptions, a practice Liberals are uniquely placed to overcome. Quakers did not fight slavery only to free slaves, but also to fight its effect on slavers and ‘owners’. Hatred in politics and society and everything along the road to Auschwitz are made possible by dehumanising individuals into faceless members of an alien ‘group’. Liberalism, based on individuals rather than groups, cannot afford hatred. Instead, it should be underpinned by love for every member of the human family.

So why love and liberty? Because Liberalism is about freedom – but it’s built on certain assumptions. They’re not the same as freedom, but they’re necessary to make it work. Liberalism is a living, practical philosophy, so it isn’t just about an abstract concept of liberty in isolation from people’s lives. Surely the only Liberalism that works is social Liberalism, a human Liberalism that relies on love for every unique, precious individual to make liberty real. Love implies duties which we all share; not in the fashionable, crass understanding that every right should be tied to a specific responsibility (you don’t have to sign up to something for not having homophobic attacks made on you in the street) – we all need rights to make our own decisions about our own lives, but we have a duty to ensure those same rights are there for everyone else. We can't be out just for ourselves and let the rest go hang, whether in this country, across the world or for future generations. To do so would deny our humanity.

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the consequences of putting love at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!


Back to I

Forward to III

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Comments:
That's absolutely wonderful.

On a slightly related note, given your musical tastes I think you should check out Kristian Hoffman, whose album & I talk about in PEP! . The reason this came to mind is that one of his songs on & , Scarecrow (a duet with Rufus Wainwright), is an absolutely beautiful song about the Mathew Shepard murder. The lyrics can be found at http://www.kristianhoffman.com/lyrics.htm#scarecrow but it works better with the music. I'll email you an MP3 file tonight (Hoffman's music isn't on the normal streaming sites) if you want...

Sorry for going off on a tangent, incidentally. This is a wonderful piece and sums up a lot of my thinking. Just don't have much to say because I agree...
 
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