Take Back the Right: Why Liberals Should Reclaim Common Social Institutions

My undergraduate was degree was officially in anthropology. I studied, among other things, the various institutions human beings have created for themselves, as well as various kinship ties, symbols, language, etc. These socio-cultural phenomena are as old as humankind, as old as Homo sapiens. So I must ask, why should these be the sole domains of the more conservative, Right-leaning factions of American society? Why has the right wing hijacked, so to speak, these institutions, and why don’t liberals speak up and reclaim them?

Take the institution of family, for example. Everyone comes from a family, and everyone belongs to a family, and a majority of people go on to have their own family, in whatever shape or form. Family is the oldest form of kinship ties since the advent of Homo sapiens. Throughout history, families were the basis of economic systems, and strove to maintain their continuity in order to pass on their wealth. Marriage was meant to support family ties, often uniting rivals or uniting wealth. Religious epics and tales were written about families: Cain and Abel as well as Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, or the Hindu Mahabharata (5 brothers’ fight to keep their kingdom), for example. Even larger than a family is the institution of a clan or a tribe; once again, these served a similar purpose as the family, and provided an identity to people in a given geographical area.

Somehow, however, in our extremely individualistic society, the Christian Right managed to claim the family as their rallying point. It became their domain, their political and religious motive. They managed to polarize those on the left, characterizing them as self-serving individuals outside of the institution. The liberals, in turn, began to identify family only with conservatism, with extremists, and with the oppression of women. With the advent of birth control in the 60s, many women fought for the right to enjoy their sexuality without procreation as a consequence. This was a necessary step; however, it gave more fuel to the fire for the conservatives to claim the family as their own. By linking sexual pleasure and freedom with individualism, rather than linking them with the natural human experience, sexuality was dichotomized at odds with family values—-unless, of course, one was extremely religious and expected to their numerous children.

But what of all of the family-oriented people who support a more tolerant society? The people who vote left of center, but would rather be at home with the kids instead of at the office over time? The people who are so committed to serving humanity both on a personal level through their family, and on a social level through politics, social work, activism, etc.? Just look at the Obama family: the President’s late, great mother Ann was a huge influence in his life, and she was committed to his well being, as were his grandparents who helped raise him. President Obama himself has often spoken of the importance of his own wife and children, and of the necessity of men serving their role as fathers, given his own father’s absence. Michelle Obama’s mother lives with her daughter’s family in the White House as the “First Granny” who attends to her granddaughters. The Kennedys are another such example—-a veritable clan rather than just the family, they are involved in all manner of political, social, and environmental activism. On a less grand scale, think of all the 60s activists who married and had children, and still continue today in towns like Ann Arbor or Berkeley or Cleveland to attend city council meetings, work with disabled children, teach, or fight for clean water. It is these individuals who go unrecognized by the media and our cultural zeitgeist. We only realize they are there when they have to leave the meeting early to pick up their child from tennis practice. Let’s not forget that America’s greatest activist/“rabble-rouser”, Noam Chomsky, married his childhood sweetheart when young and they were together for 60 years before she died.

Religion is often considered the domain of the Right. We have been conditioned to associate family values with religion. We know of the (Irish) Catholic families, Mormons, Zionist Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Christians, traditional Muslims, etc., and their large families. Somehow, as a society, we have come to believe that having a larger family equates with more commitment to a family. There could be a grain of truth in this, as it is inevitably more difficult to have a career and to raise five children than to have a career and raise two. But what of the proverbial Indian doctor and Democrat who spends all of his or her free time helping the kids with homework? The Asian-American social worker whose parents come to visit for a month at a time? The gay African-American man who takes in his sister for a while when she is going through a transition? Think of all the working parents who would love to have a much longer maternity leave, and even a paternity leave if the office will grant it, in a society that touts “family values” but does very little to foster them. This is one of the great hypocrisies of American society: it is not a child- or family-friendly culture at all. The very Republicans who seem to speak loudly about family values are the ones who do the least to foster appropriate social policies.

And then there are also quintessentially American symbols that have become associated with the Right. As a friend pointed out once, the flag is one such example. If we see a flag waving in front of somebody’s house, in America we tend to associate it with extreme patriotism, conservatism, Republicanism. Again, we have to ask why? In the tiny nation of Denmark, I saw Danish flags flying everywhere, and I doubt that the entire country is rapidly jingoistic. Flags have been in existence before the Common Era and have been used for a wide variety of purposes: battle, royalty, to represent a particular group of people, and even for prayer—-in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, I recall visiting a mountain pass decorated with hundreds of prayer flags, and in the fog, it was a very mystical experience. Flags have been used at sea, for communication across great distances (think semaphores), as banners used as a rallying point for a particular social cause. They are used as a symbol, an emblem, a visual representation of an idea that does not require words. Flags alert us to something—-fire, perhaps, or in the modern world, a particular type of e-mail! But somehow, once again, the American conservatives have claimed this basic human institution, as though they are the sole purveyors of sentiment for our country.

It is understandable that, during the post-World War II period and the 1950s, America sought to avoid all the pitfalls seen in Europe and in other parts of the world such as totalitarianism, communism, fascism, the prohibition of free speech. America was reacting to severe European nationalism, but instead, it created a ridiculous sort of nationalism of its own. Our nationalism cannot be based on fear and exclusion; nor should it be based on a foolish lack of historicity and a usurping of institutions, symbols, and phenomena that have served humans since the beginning of our existence. So let this serve as a call to liberals and those who do not lean politically to the right. Wake up, liberals! Reclaim your basic human institutions, liberals! Let’s not make “family”, “religion”, “the flag”, and other words dirty words in our vocabulary. Let us not let the silly connotations of these words created by the Right affect our own true understanding of these words that have mattered for millennia. Let us use our intelligence to attack the ignorance of the Right.

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