Forbes recently published a list of the 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media. Now that we have officially become an Obama-nation, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on these people. There’s a couple in there that I have some respect for, the civil-libertarian Salon.com writer Glen Greenwald undoubtedly topping the list. Then there’s John Stewart and Christopher Hitchens, both very entertaining even when I disagree with them vehemently. (Of Hitchens I have little doubt, but will John Stewart be as funny or relevant in the years to come?) Topping the list, unsurprisingly is, Paul Krugman, who I despise and have already written about. Coming in at fourth is Thomas Friedman, about whom I confess much ignorance, though he seems something of an intellectual flavor-of-year to me. What I find interesting is this description:
Behind the seemingly glib sound bites lie opinions that are genuinely influential among the educated, tome-reading public and the Washington establishment.
I’m sorry, but influence among the elite (tome-reading or otherwise) doesn’t cancel out “glib”. Now, I’m a rather uneducated and non-establishment tome-reader myself, but dagnabbit do I have an uppity streak that doesn’t let me keep to my place, so allow me to re-write this sentence to properly convey its meaning: “Thomas Friedman isn’t just glib; he’s influentally glib.”
I’ll let you read the list for yourself, but what I want to examine is what actually defines a “liberal”. The criteria, according to Forbes:
Broadly, a “liberal’ subscribes to some or all of the following: progressive income taxation; universal health care of some kind; opposition to the war in Iraq, and a certain queasiness about the war on terror; an instinctive preference for international diplomacy; the right to gay marriage; a woman’s right to an abortion; environmentalism in some Kyoto Protocol-friendly form; and a rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.
Well, that is pretty broad. The parts of the checklist that aren’t historically specific would have described British Fabians at the turn of the 20th century, who were considered (and considered themselves) socialists. The “rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket” is meaningless, not only now but during the election, since many neoconservatives, such as Francis Fukuyama, supported Obama (and many have expressed admiration for uber-hawk Hillary), and the the list of liberals contains at least two Iraq war supporters (Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan). Environmentalism “in some Kyoto Protocal-friendly form” surely excludes a lot of localist and decentralist greens out there, though I don’t know that they would care too much having the term “liberal” denied them.
The list is pretty loose as well, as evidenced by the “certain queasiness about the war on terror”. Does this queasiness add up to opposition? I will assume not. “Queasiness” is not a political principle, I don’t think. And favoring diplomacy is “instinctual”, like social grooming in ape cultures.
And hey, even I subscribe to about half of the opinions listed.
It’s worth mentioning what liberal used to mean, in the days of the old Republic. Wikipedia defines classical liberalism thus:
a doctrine stressing individual freedom and limited government. This includes the importance of human rationality, individual property rights, natural rights, the protection of civil liberties, individual freedom from restraint, constitutional limitation of government, free markets, and a gold standard to place fiscal constraints on government . . .
This doctrine is found today mostly among libertarians, and many say they would like the term “liberal” back. I find that to be pretty pointless, and I use the term pretty much the way anybody at Fox News would, and if you think that allies me with them, well, I can’t help it if you have such a blinkered and ahistorical view of the political spectrum.
But my favorite definition of liberalism, in its more modern sense, comes from Robert Anton Wilson‘s Illuminatus! trilogy:
That school of capitalist philosophy which attempts to correct the injustices of capitalism by adding new laws to the existing laws. Each time conservatives pass a law creating privilege, liberals pass another law modifying privilege, leading conservatives to pass a more subtle law recreating privilege, etc., until “everything not forbidden is compulsory” and “everything not compulsory is forbidden”.
A caveat for classical liberals: oppose laws “modifying privilege”, as you should, but especially beware the “more subtle law” recreating it.