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Cover Story: In the Family Way

Reclaiming what conservatives have stolen

By Gregory Flannery · November 21st, 2006 · Cover Story
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Ali Calis



Families aren't what they used to be, thank goodness. When "family" meant only a husband, a wife and their kids, family values meant male dominance, female submission and children who did what they were told, no questions asked.

If that somehow sounds appealing, consider the rest of the picture. Whites ruled. Women stayed home. Gays and lesbians hid in shame. Divorce was scandalous. "Child rearing" described a target, the place to aim when rightful authority slapped a kid back into line.

The root meaning of "conservative" is, of course, keeping things as they are -- conserving the existing power structure, economic structure, family structure, religious structure. To be progressive, by contrast, means supporting change, progressing to better ways.

Conservatives have often been better at use of the language than progressives: The tax on inherited wealth somehow became a "death tax." Tax breaks for the wealthy are called "tax reform." In conservative parlance, it's even possible to be considered "pro-life" while backing the death penalty and pre-emptive war and opposing social services for the poor.

Perhaps the most ludicrous linguistic feat of conservatives is staking out as their own turf "family values." On the surface, the term means appreciation of the things that enhance family life. But, in practice, it's a catchy phrase for a political program characterized by opposition to sexual individuality, women's autonomy over their own bodies, regulating the distribution of wealth for the common good and new forms of spirituality.

Ironically, those who believe society should spend more on education and less on military power, who believe adult relationships should be defined by the people involved in them and who believe biology is more complex than the fable told in Genesis are somehow "against family values."

If the 2004 election was, as some conservatives claim, an affirmation of family values, the 2006 election showed that they had misused the term. What then are progressive family values?

An exhaustive list is impossible, precisely because progressivism begins with openness to change. But at this point in the evolution -- pardon the phrase -- of American society, the list probably looks something like this: Parents nurture children's individuality, rather than force them to conform. Questions, including impertinent ones, are encouraged. Women aren't just equal to men; sometimes they're superior. Differences in heritage, faith, sexuality and politics are honored. Employers do more than issue paychecks; they have policies that respect workers' need for flexibility in caring for their children and their aging relatives. Health care is seen as a right for all, not a privilege dependent on a person's income.

Face it: People whose political views give priority to children's welfare, women's equality, ethnic diversity, economic justice, environmental stewardship and sexual freedom are the true keepers of family values.

In this package of stories, we don't presume to fully define what those values are. But we do hope to show that family values are fully compatible with -- and in fact enhanced by -- a liberal political agenda.

There's another word we've let conservatives destroy: The word "liberal," after all, comes from "liberty." In this country, liberty had its roots in -- gasp -- revolution. What's conservative about that? ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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