As promised, I am working backward from what liberals say today about their values, trying to discern whence they spring. I will return in another post to the historical data.
Liberals deplore the dividing of the world into Us vs. Them. They see the world as having gradually progressed from tribalism to nationalism, and now progressing from nationalism to internationalism. To constantly expand the categories of people to whom we show good will is to them, a mark of civilization and moral improvement. They also believe that this can be made to happen by external pressure, though not easily. School desegregation is their best political example of this, coupled with their own experience of moving from childhood to adulthood. They learned that people different from themselves are not the dangerous folks they had been taught to be suspicious of – that you could be on sports teams with black people, or visit other people’s homes and churches without going to hell.
Something like this is the way to world peace and understanding. They are not dogmatic about how this is to be accomplished, and in fact are quite flexible and creative about finding ways to accomplish this. This is a large part of why they see themselves as openminded, and conservatives as narrow, and prone to bigotry. Nor are all progressives starry-eyed about this. Many willingly concede an enormous difficulty in getting this to happen, especially on an international level. They agree that there are dangerous nations which must be contained at times, treated firmly at others, and not everyone is an ally.
But they believe deeply that we must continue to try – that one or all of the strategies of putting people in contact with each other in an attempt to hear each other’s point of view will eventually bear fruit. Even if it takes a hundred years, with many setbacks, this is the goal of brotherhood we must seek.
There is an enormous weakness in that argument I will not go into here. Just now we are trying to discover where the belief comes from.
The roots of the idea can be traced to both the monotheistic religions – the brotherhood of humankind under one God; and to empire – the equality of citizens of many nations under one empire. The development of this concept is an entertaining subject, which I may return to, but it is the 20th C versions of this I am concerned with here.
After WWII there were great changes in how the world turned. The Europeans moved away from their version of nationalism, seeing that as the driving force which had gotten them into two catastrophic wars. The US moved (relatively) rapidly in the area of rights for African-Americans, resolving to finally make good on its American Dream for everyone. The national unity during the war was no small part of this, and the extension of said rights was often framed in terms of how blacks had also fought, well and honorably, in the devastating war. Though NATO and the UN had different, even opposing goals, both were transnational organizations in which the US played leadership roles. Israel was founded, the first nation created by international consent. (Ironic it is now the one thing the international community seems to want to take back.) International trade, communication, and travel expanded enormously.
To the left, everything seemed to be moving according to plan, albeit slowly. The world was learning the necessity of internationalism, and peaceful change, and talking through difficulties. All that Esperanto, unionism, One-World sentiment, colorblindness, civil disobedience, cultural exchange, and elevation of the common man seemed to be paying off. Ignore for a moment how much information they had to overlook to perceive things this way. It was easy to ignore, because the problems were underreported. I understand this feeling well, as I felt it – still feel it, despite my suspicion of its limitations.
It is important for conservatives to remember that much of this was not illusion, but largely true. All this does work sometimes. By changing external circumstances, you can get people to change, at least a bit.
To the far left, the idea that the Soviet experiment might also come true, perhaps more slowly, did not seem farfetched. The world seemed to be moving in their direction, though not in the way predicted. People were getting it somehow. The world was changing.
I hesitate to break the mood of understanding this aspect of what drove liberals and still drives them. It is a noble sentiment, consonant with Christian, Jewish, and Enlightenment thought. I will say only that the progress was glamorous, the difficulties subtle and harder to notice.
One hint: American nationalism was not like other nationalisms.