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May 23, 2011

Captain America: Godless Liberal, or Birther?

Captain America
On Frum Forum, a conservative site run by David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, there is an homage to Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America. The author calls Captain America the greatest American superhero (this was written even before Superman renounced his American citizenship). Kirby fought in Patton’s army in WW2. He declared himself a New Dealer and liberal, but the author points out that some of Kirby’s motivations were clearly conservative in origin.

This reminds us that, when we say that someone is X, it is shorthand, a generalization. Such descriptors, in almost every case, obscure the complexity of people and their views. We use these labels on ourselves as readily as we do on others. We should ask what the labels mean, and see how divergent are the answers. Then we can see how comfortable we are in applying them to ourselves.

Every election cycle there is a questionnaire online. (For example, see here.)You answer maybe a couple dozen questions and it puts you on a graph, showing whether you are, socially or fiscally, a liberal or conservative. I have found, while doing such questionnaires, an impulse to answer in a way that will place me in a particular quadrant on the graph. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. It is like an impulse to be told that what I think about myself is, in fact, true. Like quantifying my own mind. I know it can be useful, to advertisers and pollsters and such. But is it true? It’s a lot more accurate than a label. And if you discuss, not results, but individual answers with friends who apply the same label to themselves as you do, a fascinating conversation may ensue.

We have all read (or written) that “Liberals/Conservatives are _____,” “Christians are ______,” “Muslims are _____,” “politicians are _____.” As the article about Kirby illustrates, such broad generalizations are as false as they are common. I want to talk about what conservative values mean, or could mean. I want to foster a conversation, not slap a label on you and pack and ship you out. Along the way, I want to challenge the idea that conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different because their values are incompatible. I believe

The term “Conservative” is so attached these days to Trump, Bachmann, Palin, Tea Partiers and so on that conservatives who do not fit the stereotype must despair: like Christians who feel that their faith is a responsibility, and not the carnival sideshow that draws gawkers to its most bizarre manifestations (Rapture, anyone? Intelligent Design? Fred Phelps?). Why do the people who fit the caricatures get to take up all the time in the mass-distributed media, while people of more substance and breadth, who ask questions of themselves as well as others, must content themselves with talking to their choir, who know where to find them?

Many conservative principles – “fiscal conservatism” and “family values” among them – appeal to me. I just don’t like what is done under cover of the terms. I know that some conservatives feel the same way. (The exasperation of the title, “Can We Stop Questioning Obama’s Legitimacy Now?”, an article on Frum Forum, makes that point nicely.) We impoverish ourselves and our conversations by assuming that Christianity means creationism, bigotry, and next-worldliness, or that Conservatism begins and ends with birthers, or Liberalism with 9-11 truthers.

I’m prejudiced. Anything that denies me the chance for a good conversation must be wrong. Acting as if labels and caricatures adequately represent anyone’s views accurately would deliver me to the conversational equivalent of Flatland. I.e., Hell. I like the hard questions. They generally lead to better, longer conversations.

In my next installment I will talk about one of the archetypal conservative values, e.g., fiscal conservatism, family values, pro-life. I haven’t decided which one yet.


  1. It's very interesting to me, all these labels. I don't watch a lot of news or participate in a lot of activities that expose me to many of the terms you've mentioned, and while I suppose I could Google them, I sort of enjoy my ignorance. You can't dole out a label that you don't know. It was likewise interesting to take that online questionnaire for the first time. It actually had a lot of very difficult questions, many of which I wanted to answer with "it depends on the circumstances."

    And I whole-heartedly agree that liberal and conservative aren't two different animals. How can they be when each of us has both liberal and conservative views on different issues. Sure we may lean in one direction more often then the other, but the world is not that black and white and neither are we. I also can't wait to see where you go with pro-life, like where you stand on whether someone can you be pro-life and pro-choice? I suppose it depends on the definition, but I think yes.

    And as for my label? I'll keep it to myself, but suffice it to say, according to that quiz, I landed pretty much exactly where I feel I belong and not because I targeted my answers. :)

  2. And while we're on the subject of labels, the Art of Non-Conformity blog had a post on the topic today as well that you might enjoy.

  3. it would just be SO nice if "Conservative" in this country truly meant "smaller government" and that they wanted it out of people's personal lives. i.e., and e.g., both--not butting into women's reproductive choices or having to do with what two consensual adults want to do in the privacy of their bedrooms. If it weren't for abortion and gay rights, the Republicans wouldn't have an emotional platform they so badly need--and use--to stand on. If they didn't have these two things, they couldn't get their base excited.

    Well, except for the fact that there's a BLACK MAN, of all things, in the White House.


  4. Maybe the moderates in the Republican Party just need to hear more from people who see value in what they could, without apology or equivocation, stand for as conservatives, instead of painting all of them with the brush provided by the likes of Palin, Trump, et al. Yes, there are racists in the party. But I've read some pretty horrific things from our side, too. No, that's not right: they vote the same way I do, but they are not on my side, nor am I on theirs. If they advocate or wish for violence to happen to people with whom they disagree, they are more my enemies than members of a political opposition.


Because I Need to Know If McAndrew Is Full Of It