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Mike Walter's Politics Page


"...the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand." -Isaiah 32:8

Over the years I've discovered three things I value in public life: courage, compassion and loyalty properly understood. These qualities of character mean more than a particular philosophy or ideology because they frame a person's choices in both public and private life. The people I admire most, whether I agree with them in every respect or not, are those who make sacrifices to do what they believe is right, whose decisions carry a certain personal cost. The ideal public person for me is someone liberal in spirit, conservative in temperament; someone who knows himself and strives to understand the circumstances of others. He will be, in the words of Sir Ivor Jennings, a true democrat: someone who will consider the possibility that he might be wrong. The true democrat will also have another quality: he will understand that the purpose of politics is to imagine the world as it ought to be and to pursue that vision with persistence tempered by moderation. For the true democrat, the end will limit the means and the means will justify and ennoble the end. To illustrate this, let me share with you some words from courageous and wise people I deeply admire:

From Winston Churchill:

Grudge no toil.
Withhold no sacrifice.
Seek no sordid gain.
Fear no foe.
All will be well.

* * *

From Robert F. Kennedy:

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, will determine destiny.

* * *

From Eric Sevareid:

Facts alone do not move men to action, nor words when we speak of moral leadership...we mean a will that spreads by contagion, we mean a courage that communicates itself to us. Fearful men can lead us by our fear: courageous men can lead us by our hopes.

* * *

From Pastor Martin Niemoeller (attributed):

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up.

* * *

From Philip K. Dick:

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

* * *

From Dag Hammarskjold:

Only he deserves power who every day justifies it.

* * *


We are all prisoners of our times. What we believe and how we translate belief into action depends on where we live and when we lived there. We have no right to think of past generations as less enlightened than we are just because their lives were lived earlier on history's learning curve. Abraham Lincoln is no less great because he temporized on the place of freed African-American slaves in a reconstructed Union. Lincoln's personal struggle with the question opened the door to the idea, if not the immediate reality, of full citizenship for former slaves. He moved in the right direction. He just ran out of time. So will we. If we make of liberalism nothing but a laundry list of fashionable causes, then history will mark us as wanting in the element of struggle that gives birth to humane progress. We must do justice, love mercy and not overrate our own wisdom.


Liberals have wide loyalties. While conservatives glorify the clan, the tribe and the nation, liberals seek to link those narrow loyalties to wider ones that transcend accidents of birth. Liberals can be narrow and mistaken in their loyalties, but they look for doors in the walls that conservatives tend to think should be higher and thicker. It is good to know who we are and to celebrate the courage and wisdom rooted in our particular corner of civilization. But it is better to know what we can be when our horizons become ecumenical. There is peril as well as promise in this view of things. Doors have locks for good reasons. But the voice that asks, "Where is the key?" belongs to the liberal.


A final word: power, like fire, is a fact of life. It can be a useful tool or a fearful weapon, but it cannot be wished away. The true democrat accepts this reality and seeks to deploy power humanely. But good intentions alone won't achieve that result. Even someone as humane as Franklin D. Roosevelt deprived Japanese Americans of their liberty without due process of law. Therefore, power must be hedged, banked, checked and balanced. That goes for private power as well as governmental power; for the power of majorities as well as of minorities. Our safety rests with a diversity of interests cancelling each other's common terms, leaving a small increment of difference. That increment is what constitutes political choice in a democracy. It is the task of the true democrat -- the liberal -- to strive to infuse that choice with justice and respect for human dignity.

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