Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What’s in a label?


A few weeks ago, a couple of old Berkeley friends of mine were described in The New York Times as "VW bus-driving lefties." He is an established, high-profile attorney in Berkeley and she is a respected book editor. They have raised two intelligent, well-educated, accomplished and ambitious children who are carving out notable careers in their own fields of choice. My friends are lovely, bright, engaged people whose friendship I both cherish and enjoy, but in the 25 years I have known them they have never owned or, to my knowledge, driven, a VW bus. In earlier times they very likely did.

The "lefties" label is another matter.

They are associated with the label primarily because of two things: In the early 1960s, they were Freedom Riders, part of that courageous and committed group of civil rights activists who, at great personal peril and using the non-violent strategies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, rode buses into the South to protest and subvert the illegal (and immoral) practices of racial segregation that were the Jim Crow status quo in that time; and a few years later they were activists in protesting the war in Vietnam.

That is, they are "lefties" because they believed (and still believe) that it is not in America's (or humanity's) best interests to not allow people to enter a restaurant, store, bar, bus, school, church, bathroom or hospital because their skin is not white; and they believed that the war in Vietnam was an unnecessary, unmitigated disaster for America, to say nothing of what it was for Vietnam; and, most important, they believe that patriotic, good citizens speak up, speak out and act to change the unacceptable.

Lefties. That is not how I think of them, nor, I believe, is that how they think of themselves.

Depending on who is attaching the label and with what intention, the terms "lefties," "lefty" and "left-wing" can indicate a wild and wide range of meanings, from the honorable to the smear, from a source of pride to a source of danger to the Republic, from highly principled to disreputable.

The terms "left" and "right" in this sense grew out of the French Revolution of the 18th century and referred to the seating arrangement of the French Parliament. Those who sat to the left of the president's chair favored the Republic, while those who sat to the right favored the monarchy. The left label was later attached to such movements as socialism, communism, anarchism, social liberalism, social democracy, liberalism, feminism and, in contemporary extreme cases, to the Democratic Party. As political/philosophical/social labels, it is worth considering that the terms "left" and "right" are no longer very useful and do not describe very much with accuracy, depth or, really, sincerity in the political discourse of our society. I mean, the same label to describe monsters like Stalin and Mao and true heroes and heroines like the Freedom Riders is language that is more confusing than clarifying. Like the "lefties" label itself, whether that confusion is intentional or part of a larger confusion is another matter.

A couple of years ago, the results of an experiment were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience that seems to indicate that people's left or right political orientation is related to how different brains process the same information. Psychological studies (as well common observation) indicate, according to the Los Angeles Times, "that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences." The study indicated that liberals are more likely than conservatives to accept new social, scientific or religious ideas. It's not surprising that the brains of those who, for instance, support a republic do not work in quite the same way as those who favor monarchy. One could choose any number of examples from contemporary life to make the point, but, for example, an attentive listening to the words of Vice-President Joe Biden and those of his predecessor Dick Cheney clearly show that their brains do not work in the same manner.

But to label either with a direction of thought and let it go at that is to understand neither. There are liberals who support lower taxes and there are conservatives who support abortion rights. There are dishonest, corrupt liberals, conservatives and (an oxymoron) independents. To put a label of left or right on someone as a means of understanding or explaining something significant about them is akin to performing brain surgery with a sledgehammer.

To paraphrase an oft-quoted sports motto: "It's not whether you're right or left, but how you play the game."

I mean, whatever the label, those Freedom Riders were all right. And, as history proved, those who supported the Vietnam War were left behind.

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