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What is liberal?

By John Guy on December 18, 2014 in Civic Blog
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Tea_Party_Protest,_Hartford,_Connecticut,_15_April_2009_-_013“Why are television dramas always ‘liberal,’” asks a friend.

“Not true,” I say, and soon recant, because I cannot recall a drama that is ‘conservative.’
What is going on? The answer reveals a lot about the human condition and civic interaction.

A definition of “liberal” is “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values,” to which I add, “inclined to propose change.” A definition of “conservative is “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.”

There lie reasons dramas project liberal points of view. Dramatic tension is possible only when change is either described or proposed. No dramatic tension, no audience appeal.

In a television drama such as “The West Wing,” or, “The Newsroom,” both written by Aaron Sorkin, most episodes refer to innovation by legislation. The same is true of Sorkin’s movie, “The American President,” in which The President, played by Michael Douglas, advocates jobs programs and gun control. It also projects a unique social circumstance in which he, a widower, makes love to a lobbyist while his teenage daughter sleeps down the hall. These are “liberal” situations, both politically and morally. They represent change from norms; as such, they were condemned by conservatives for whom change is a challenge.

Shows such as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Family Ties,” dramatized changing attitudes and circumstances, as did the movie, “The Heat of The Night,” in which a northern black police detective, played by Sidney Poitier, solves a murder in the context of intense southern prejudice. The officer, Virgil Tibbs, represented a new image of black men: smart, courteous, ultimately respected, a sea change from the old radio days of Amos ‘n Andy. Southern conservatives hated the change, while liberals everywhere applauded.

My favorite contemporary drama, “The Good Wife,” while not aggressively political, nevertheless dramatizes conflicts in the modern world, such as the relationship between a father, mother and the surrogate giving birth to their child. By dramatizing conflict between the parents and the surrogate, we see a new world of potential challenges to the human order in which reproduction itself, and reproductive rights, are accepted by liberals and rejected by those who resist change.

“Conservative” talk shows create dramatic tension in a ways that attracts millions of followers, but make me feel uncomfortable. These shows tend to create tension by attacking individuals who advocate change instead of the change itself. Recently, I have seen hundreds of commentaries against President Obama’s immigration decision, every one attacking Obama personally and claiming he is acting like a dictator, while none has discussed the issue itself, which is how to handle undocumented residents. Glen Beck got lots of mileage attacking individuals such as George Soros, while never commenting on changes proposed by Soros.

I comment with bias, but also with respect for what it takes to create dramatic tension. It is difficult to create audience attention through stories suggesting that young, undocumented people should not be legalized, because this hypothesis tends to prompt sympathy for those persons. However, attacking The Administration for acting in imperial fashion has a certain appeal on radio and television. Rush Limbaugh seems to imply or state that the left is stupid, while never discussing the complicated details of a circumstance. Details drown out interesting drama; they are too boring.

Liberals propose change and innovation. Conservatives oppose. Nothing new here. Julius Ceaser advocated change; Brutus disagreed. Thomas Jefferson and others advocated independence, but Royalists disagreed. Programs of The New Deal were considered outrageous by many, including my Grandmother, who was bitter about Franklin Roosevelt through the 1950s and 60s. Social Security, passed in 1935, did not gain wide acceptance until the 1940s, and some decry it today.

Perhaps the liberal attitude, run wild and unrestrained, would be too much. Perhaps society could not adjust, and, so, we have the conservatives to restrain, to slow down change. By understanding, even respecting, both points of view, we ultimately, albeit slowly, move forward.

John Guy is an investment advisor in Indianapolis and author of two books: Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale, and How To Invest Someone Else’s Money.

Image courtesy of Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons.

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