People have a hard time figuring out the political allegiances of Coloradans. Just last year, two seemingly contradictory events occurred which transcend the traditional scope of the political landscape: we ousted by recall two state senators because of their affirmative votes on some gun-control measures, and we also legalized recreational marijuana. What could account for such a vociferous and paradoxical political frontier?
I've explained to friends outside the state that it's really summed up by the emotions of libertarianism, but not libertarianism as an organized political machination. Rather, it's a libertarianism defined by a "live and let live" ethic. This is noticeable in the city of Denver by the fact that very few people are from here. In the average urban or suburban neighborhood, that placelessness results in neighbors that don't really know each other, which only further fuels social isolation and individualism. In addition, the history of this place is the rugged, individualistic west. We thus side for the individual when it comes to conservative aims economically, and we side for the individual when it comes to progressive aims socially. It's an ethic that's more libertine than truly libertarian. We like guns, and drugs. Just leave us alone, whoever you are.
This is a powerful emotional appeal, and it's used by both sides of the political aisle. I give you two case in points.
The first comes from the American Rifleman. In an article by Chris Cox, he challenges former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's crusade against gun rights:
Bloomberg believes he knows much better than you about how you should live your life and take care of your family."
From the right side of the aisle, we have the appeal to live and let live. But this argument works both ways. As evidenced by a political ad (tis the season!) by Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall about pro-choice/life rights, he claims at the end of his ad,
"You have the right to live life on your own terms, your own choices."
You see what has happened? An unquestioned libertine social convention has pervaded the popular mindset, so much so that most of us agree with this phrase at various times and places without even questioning it. The problem with such an ethic is that, though being a powerful emotional appeal, it's hardly an argument and quite a dangerous vision of the good life.
I'm reminded of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) which sought to narrowly restrict the access of American children to pornography. Eventually, the law, which was passed in 1998, was set on permanent injunction by the Supreme Court in 2009 and never went into effect. The broad case rationale is that it cut too closely to a freedom of speech. Live and let live. It doesn't matter if we irrevocably harm children. The means of freedom matter more than the ends of the true health of children.
So, what else has happened? In American culture we have inculcated a vision of the good life that sets the means above the ends. It might be a rather tawdry thing to say to either a liberal or conservative, but freedom is not a virtue. It's merely a means to pursue virtue. Freedom cannot be reduced to an end, such that it doesn't matter what we do with our freedom. It matters a great deal.
And, however precarious that may be to establish laws that eventually or to some degree restrict certain freedoms, we should not let that mean we can't challenge the emotional appeal of libertinism.I'm not necessarily making an argument to restrict freedoms, for that is fraught with other historical concerns.
What I am arguing for is a return to caring about the common good. I'm not talking some utilitarian "good for the most amount of people" project, but the true common good. This should be our vision, our emotional appeal: our care for neighbor.
In the dust of a culture that destroys itself with its own freedoms, perhaps we can see the way forward. Maybe the path through the mire lies with the people who will actually care about how they and others around them live, but not in a puritanical way. They'll care how others live by serving, loving, and at the very least knowing their actual neighbor.