The Color of Beliefs

From the introduction of the book Blood of the Liberals, by George Packer.

“…At twenty I thought I was the author of my own life and could go on willing it into any shape I wanted–being myself had nothing to do with being my father’s son. In my thirties I discovered how much had been fixed by the accidents of birth. Not just the twisting chains of nucleic acids that gave me the broad mouth of a long-dead Jewish grandmother, the freckles of southern cousins, my mother’s temper and flair for rhetoric, the listening gesture of cupping chin in hand that came from my father along with high cholesterol and a tendency toward depression. Along with these, I also inherited a history that went in one direction back to the Jews who came to New York City around 1900, and in another down into the defeated and impoverished South. I was born, like everyone, into the legacy of a genetic makeup, a family tree, a historical moment–even a worldview.

“Call it liberalism. A notoriously elusive term: like “irony” and “culture,” it has multiple nuances and shifting emphases, sometimes meaning opposite things. Goethe said that there are no liberal ideas, only liberal sentiments. But sentiments and ideas are more closely related than we usually think. Few people reach a political decision by deduction from an abstract system of philosophy; most feel their way into the opinions they hold, often contradictory ones, and are hardly aware of the forces within and without that drive them. Among the liberal sentiments that run in my family are a tendency to side with the underdog, to feel that society imposes mutual obligations from which no on is excused. The rational mind, unconstrained by religion or tradition or authority, has the capacity to solve our problems. Progress is possible, if not inevitable; reason is the means, human happiness the end. Politics is lifeblood, an arena of moral choice, and more often than not a place of pain. Each generation has prided itself on being practical, yet found its own way to avoid the worldly success that might have come with compromise–the temptation to lose on principle has seldom been resisted. In general, the men in my family have been defeated and the women have endured.

“But the ideas that these sentiments produce can clash between the generations, or even within a single individual. Personal troubles change the color of beliefs. Historical tides go out and leave people stranded with convictions that no longer have any way of being realized. The meaning of key words like “freedom,” “equality,” “democracy,” “truth” can be turned inside out…”

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