What kind of liberty do we really want?

Just saw the coverage of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on the Mall yesterday. A subhead in the Post read:  “Rally’s purpose was to reclaim mantle of civil rights movement.”  Reportedly Sarah Palin also was there and was harping on the theme of “liberty.”

If she meant individual liberty, she is confused.  And so is the Post subeditor.  The rally’s purpose was nearly the opposite of the civil rights movement’s.  I’m not condemning it for that reason; I just think Americans should be clear about what their slogans and rallies mean.

There are two big political ideas in modern America.  Both ideas are about “liberty” – but two different kinds of liberty.  The civil rights movement was about one kind of liberty.  Rallies like Beck’s are about another kind of liberty.

The first kind of liberty is individual liberty, which exists at the expense of the second kind, “community liberty” or “cultural liberty.”  The promotion of the first kind, the individual rights kind, is based on an assumption that America doesn’t need, and shouldn’t have, a strongly defined culture.  People should obey the laws, pay their taxes, consume and produce as much as possible – but otherwise pretty much anything goes.

Sometimes also called “libertarianism,” this is America’s prevailing political ideology.  It was coded into the country by the Constitution, which put a strong emphasis upon individual liberty and offered little or no support to traditional-values-enforcing institutions (e.g., churches).  This ideological seed of libertarianism might not have been very evident in the late 1700s, when America’s communities were still relatively homogeneous, and strong institutions such as churches still existed to enforce traditional values.  But certainly American libertarianism is much more evident today, after two centuries of urbanization and mass immigration, the discrediting of “states’ rights” and “community rights” arguments by the South in the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, and the media-driven marketization of most of our lives.  Even within American communities (and more obviously for the country as a whole), cultural homogeneity is mostly gone; and it seems that there are no longer any institutions that can effectively enforce traditional cultural values.

The loss of that sense of a shared, traditional culture is what motivates the second big idea in American politics, which is about allowing communities to take back the right to promote and enforce values.  When Glenn Beck says, “For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,” he means that America’s minimalist, libertarian, consumerist culture isn’t working.  His proposed fix, if you strip away all the confusing language and religiosity, is to have more “cultural liberty,” which is actually the norm worldwide — just not here.

Note that these two different ideas of liberty don’t correspond neatly to our political concepts of “left” and “right.”  There are libertarians on the right (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and on the left (the ACLU).  There are also anti-libertarians on the right – the religious right – who would give communities more power to enforce traditional moral values, i.e., to take away individual liberties.  And of course there are anti-libertarians on the left, who would take away individual rights in the name of a more powerful socialist “nanny state.”  Remarkably, Beck and Palin and others of their ilk seem unaware of these distinctions.

In any case, I suspect that many of us, even if we aren’t religious or even particularly moralistic, yearn for an America that would have less individual liberty and greater cultural liberty.  Communities would be stronger, people would have more of a sense of shared purpose (a sense that was imposed externally, albeit temporarily, by the 9/11 events), and in that sense anyway, the quality of life might be better.  Yet whether we have such yearnings or not, it seems that we are constantly dragged in the opposite direction, towards individualism.  Unfortunately it’s not a rugged, small-town individualism circumscribed by a healthy set of shared values; it’s more of a dystopian, “global village” individualism, of people who have been largely desocialized but are still loosely held together by markets and electronic media.

It’s a seemingly unresolvable conflict, made even more depressing by our politicians’ and pundits’ inability to articulate what it’s really about.