By Christopher Cudworth
As kids we played sports in the neighborhood and at the local pool. One of the key things I recall is that we always worked to make the teams fair. There would be arguments at times over who should play for each team, but we all knew the game was much more fun when the wealth of talent was balanced.
I also recall hating to lose. That meant once the teams were decided, I would do everything possible within the rules to win.
Of course there were stories about the merits of winning and losing everywhere we looked. I recall long sessions watching Popeye cartoons in which the perpetual underdog Popeye battled with his rival Bluto over the love of Olive Oyl. It wasn’t hard to see the liberal storyline behind the plot of an ordinary sailor battling the big bully Bluto. As a skinny kid I often wished there were a can of spinach available to make me stronger when needed.
Prudence for Popeye
But things weren’t always so simple. At one point my best friend pulled me aside and pointed out the fact that if I wanted girls to like me, I shouldn’t try so hard to beat them in sports. “Play nice,” he told me. “Let them win now and then. They’ll like you more.”
He had sisters, and I did not. So he knew a few things about women that could be helpful in this world. But I could never quite embrace the idea that losing to girls on purpose did anyone any good.
Later in life, when women’s sports began to flourish in American culture, I encountered women who were more talented than me in sports. On one date I lost 21-3 in racquetball. She trounced me so severely it was tough to even return a serve. It helped me realize that the whole Battle of the Sexes thing was not what it seemed. I learned that it didn’t hurt any man for a women to be as good or better than them in sports. Or anything else for that matter.
What actually hurt was people trying to keep women from playing at all.
For these reasons, sports are an interesting forum in which to test your liberal instincts. Our so-called liberalities often end at the point where we find ourselves winning or losing. It’s hard at times to be a gracious winner, even more difficult to be a gracious loser.
There’s been so much liberal-bashing in the public form the last 15-20 years that the term “liberal” has now come to be used by some people as a targeting adjective to describe someone who lives without principles. To be “liberal” in their eyes is to be nearly lawless, lacking morals and discipline in personal, political or religious life.
But real liberalism is quite the opposite. It takes much more discipline to be liberal in this world and hold to your principles during moral challenges than it is to be so set in your ways that you refuse to give consideration to other viewpoints before making decisions. A liberal believes that there is always more to learn, and that what you learn may benefit you. That’s the primary foundation of higher education. Some people seem to hate that.
But in order to better understand what liberalism really is, it helps to go back to its root definitions so that we can sort out fact from political fiction. Here, for our mutual edification, are a set of definitions of the term liberal:
1. Favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
2. Noting or pertaining to a political party, advocating measures of progressive political reform.
3. Of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individuals rights and liberties.
4. Favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
5. Favoring or permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of personal belief or expression; a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
One must challenge anyone reading those definitions to prove why or how liberalism runs counter to principles of democratic freedom or the formation of a Republic based on such? Every one of those definitions aligns with the reasons and purposes for which the American Constitution was written. They are beautiful, bold principles by which to live, especially as they relate to both the protection and expression of individual freedoms and a government dedicated to supporting those rights.
So what does all this have to do with running and riding, you might ask? Because running and riding are the most liberal of activities, that’s what.
Running a democracy
One of the things I always liked about the sport of running is that it was entirely democratic on principle. If you ran fast enough, you generally made the team. The only time there was an exception to that rule was when political interests stepped in to override the liberal principle of individual ability.
That’s where one begins to learn that life is not always fair. The subjective judgment of coaches can determine your fate just as quickly as a poor race. If for some reason a coach does not like you, the opportunity to even participate in a fair competition and prove yourself may be denied. It seems we all experience situations like that in life. Sooner or later in sports, in business or in politics we find out the playing field is not fair.
Whenever that happened to me or someone else on my team, my liberal instincts flared into action.
I recall a day when my 5th grade son came home from school one afternoon and told me that the playground soccer game had evolved into something very ugly. “All the best kids join up on one side,” he told me. “They win every day, like 10-1. So I purposely joined the losing side. I do everything I can to stop them. But there’s so many. It’s pretty hard. And then they make fun of us.”
My son’s liberal instincts were being put to the test in that situation. He saw the injustice of the fearfully composed side that cared only about winning, not the quality of play. We see that kind of partisanship in Congressional and Senate majorities that quell any attempt to pass legislation designed to help the nation. They ignore their liberal and primary responsibility to govern… especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
Instead they engage in schoolyard games, childishness and a brand of persistent bullying that began, for example, the moment Barack Obama was elected. Now Congress has taken a partisan vote to sue the President in an ironically liberal abuse of law to achieve a political statement. They are literally suing the President to make him enforce a health care law that they politically opposed from the start. Talk about taking false liberties with the political process!
But let’s admit it; Democrats and Libertarians and the Tea Party are all just as prone to political chicanery and abuse of liberal principles as anyone else. But there is such a thing as moral equivalency. Our liberal instincts are valuable in detecting these challenges.
Further abuse of liberalism
As a nation, America finds itself in the sights of overly liberal gun laws, another example of turning the good principles of liberalism into bad policy. The NRA and other gun advocates have successfully worked to pass Concealed Carry laws in all 50 states of the union. This does not indicate wise policy so much as it demonstrates a falsely liberal interpretation of the Second Amendment, which begins with the phrase, “A well-regulated militia…”
Already in Illinois we’ve seen incidents such as the case when an 86 year-old man pulled his concealed weapon and tried to take law into his own hands. The Chicago Tribune carried this bit of enlightening perspective: “The (86-year-old) man stayed outside to prevent anyone from entering, police said, and after he saw the suspect leaving through a back door, entered the store and chased him. A police officer also was pursuing the suspect but had to duck for cover when the shots were fired. No one was injured.”
That’s a fine example of vigilante justice in action, just like the Wild West. Concealed carry is technically little more than organized chaos and constitutes a form of national madness when it come to gun rights. America has more gun deaths per capita than any nation on earth, and our answer to the problem? Licensing more people to own more guns and allow them to hide them on their person.
Our current gun laws are indeed liberal in scope, yet lacking in legal and moral principle in failing to acknowledge the massive carnage and loss of human life taking place in mass shootings and gun deaths each year. There is little if any supporting evidence to suggest that further weaponizing society will have any deterrent effect on people who make their minds up to use deadly weapons to kill and maim others. In fact Concealed Carry fairly legitimizes the ability of people to hide weapons in order to plot and execute murders. That is madness, and hardly a conservative approach to an orderly society.
So we see that liberalism is itself not the problem in America, but the abuse of liberalism by those willing to manipulate society for their own purposes, such as satisfying the interests of gun and weapons manufacturers. Same goes for the military-industrial complex whose appetite for the federal budget knows no bounds. These economic interests grab the profit and socialize the costs. That is an abuse of all Americans, our civil liberties and of liberalism as a principled foundation of democracy.
That’s one of the tarsnakes of liberalism. When used properly, it represents the primary core of democracy. When it is abused, it produces social imbalance. It is true on both ends of the political aisle.
The so-called winning side
We see this lack of principle at work all the time in politics. People join up with a political party simply to be on the winning side, or to have their pet issue represented. They will compromise all sorts of principles in other parts of their life in order to see action on that one political issue that gnaws at them. Despite what many have come to believe, that is not how democracy is really supposed to work. Compromise is the moderate solution to impasse, and that appears to be something of a lost art.
We knew more about compromise as kids on the playground picking fair teams than some of the politicians today who only know how to win one way, and that is by destroying the other side. We lose so much as a nation from those attitudes. We lose our standing in the world. We lose the purpose of our government. We lose whatever exceptional qualities we might once have had to an attitude of hubris and selfish aims.
What Would Jesus Do?
It is a biblical fact that Jesus detested hypocrisy and the use and abuse of moral law to gain political power. The very liberal principles of scripture; caring for the poor, resisting the love of money, embracing fidelity and trust are tossed out the window when people are so determined to get their convictions imposed on others they turn to religion or politics and use positions of authority to make themselves feel important and justified.
But know this: there’s a major difference between seeking justice versus finding justification in your actions. It takes works to maintain justice. It only takes the stroke of a pen or a backroom deal to provide justification for actions that may not be moral at all. We’ve seen it throughout history. Wars break out when people choose not to be liberal with human rights or play fair.
Just like in the movies
The Mel Gibson movie Braveheart depicts the travails of one William Wallace, a Scottish citizen fighting for his country’s freedom under the rule of the King of England. To subjugate his Scottish subjects, first the king issues an order that all marriages must be consummated by allowing an Englishman first access to the bride on her wedding night. Wallace’s own wife then gets her throat slit by an English general trying to tame an uprising. So the story escalates into war. But what it’s all about is freedom, a liberal principle by definition.
Even as Wallace leads his nation into successful battle, secret and conservative dealings are at work all around him. The Scottish Lords want to broker a deal with the English King. But that would only benefit the privileged few. Wallace wants more.
An even more sinister plot evolves as the heir apparent to the Scottish throne finds himself in a position of betrayal to Wallace because his power-mongering father, hidden from society by his own desperate condition and physical illness, makes moves to betray Wallace into the hands of the King, where he is tortured and killed. It’s all very nasty business. Liberalities are not tolerated.
For fear of something
Today Scotland (my home country, I someday hope to visit) is still considering a move toward independence. So these stories hold more truth than fiction sometimes.
There have been many times when the backroom dealings in business have driven me to the roads in search of answers. I have run entire 20-milers trying to figure out why people act the way they do, and why they sometimes seem bent on taking positions that even run counter to their own interests.
Usually it is fear that is at work in them. They are afraid to lose their station in life, or are afraid to take a risk for fear of being seen as incompetent or a failure.
None of those things is a product of liberal thinking or principle. Liberalism has been at the source of courageous actions on every social front. It was liberalism that drove Americans to form their own country and declare independence from Great Britain. It was liberalism that drove Abraham Lincoln and his peers to condemn slavery, fight and win the Civil War over unity and civil rights. It was liberalism that also drove the march to freedom in the 1960s, defeating the worst kinds of racism and fomenting fuller respect for women’s rights.
It is liberalism that continues this fight to this day, with liberals demanding access to birth control for women because it empowers them to manage their reproductive lives.
Liberalism is also at work securing equal rights for people who are gay, transgender and bisexual, and protecting the liberal enterprises of science, medicine and even religion from influences that would confine their free expression based on constrictive ideology.
One of the most passionate forms of liberalism is creativity. The instinct to create also requires courage. And for all the supposed love for “out of the box thinking” expressed by so many companies in so many corporate presentations, true tolerance and encouragement for creativity is surprisingly lacking when the rubber hits the road. Creativity is too often seen as counterproductive to successfully established business practices.
Yet creativity is nothing more than problem solving. Creative solutions provide new opportunities. That’s true whether you are marketing a new or existing product or service. The conservative approach to business is to continue making what you are already making, selling it the same way you have always sold it and expect that business model to stay consistent and dependable.
Liberal business practices
But of course we would not have Nike or Apple or Trader Joe’s if only conservative business practices were allowed to rule. Granted, even these companies evolve their own brand of conservatism over time. Wall Street demands profits and reporting, and shareholders demand returns. These forces are creative in another sense, that of capitalism, the most liberal enterprise of all economic models.
Does that surprise you to read those words together: capitalism and liberalism? They are not by definition oppositional.
Troubles with liberalism
But in fact if there is any drawback to liberalism it is in the economic sector. To be too liberal with spending can get you in deep trouble, even bankrupt. To be too liberal with your taxation can be just as vexing. All systems require checks and balances in order to function smoothly.
No one source of liberalism is a single key to the problem. But no one source of conservative action is a cure, either. We’ve learned that through the austerity attempts in Europe.
Our genuine problem in the world today is that people seem to fear compromise most of all. That’s because compromise is also a liberal principle, and it requires giving somethin up something to achieve the greater good. That’s all that is required sometimes. Yet some cannot bring themselves to do that.
Where can we learn how to compromise intelligently? It turns out the world of sports is especially suitable to teach us those lessons.
If you are planning to run a marathon, it makes no sense to go out and run the first mile in under 5:00 if your best mile time is 5:00. You need to pace yourself. You need to compromise your near term capability to achieve your long term goals.
Same goes with a cycling race. If you try to simply ride away from a pack of 50 other riders it is unlikely you will last very long. Instead you must learn to leverage the power of the peloton to your advantage. If you are smart you even have a team to help pull you along. Using the draft is a creative solution. Conserving energy is important to success. So you find a liberal or creative approach in combination with a conservative method. That’s how you achieve success. Productive compromise.
A liberal dose of optimism
So we run, and we ride, and we enjoy both the freedom of individual expression and the honest competition it represents. Of course we can’t all be victorious in every race we enter or there would be point in it all. In some respects our supposed failure to win a race actually illustrates the merit in participation. We test ourselves and we learn where we stand, or sit, or run, or ride, or swim.
But the most important and most liberal principle of all is to respect all those who try. We must also work to protect the idea that a fair playing field is best for all. We must root out the backroom match fixing in sports and politics. And if drugs are providing an unfair advantage to athletes, we likely need to monitor and manage that challenge as well. Because cheating isn’t nice. It’s the opposite of fair.
All that said, we must all be a little more liberal with our hopes, our love and our grace toward others as well. Whether you are a person of faith or a devout humanist, these liberal principles are the best part of life. It’s why we stand on the sidelines cheering our fellow competitors on toward the finish line. It’s why we use our races to raise money for good causes.
Despite what some people may try to tell you, liberalism is a good thing. It harbors hope for the oppressed and freedom for all, as long as justice is served.
That’s why I never run, or ride, or swim away from my liberal instincts.