left conservatism revisited

So my wife tells me yesterday that I’m not conservative.  She asks me how exactly I consider myself to be, in any sense of the word “conservative” and I go through some of my reasons, and she says “That could be a liberal.  All those things you said could be liberal.”  I say that I think conservatism has been co-opted by the “movement.”  She says maybe I need to go with the flow.

I don’t know. I guess I don’t consider myself to be “a conservative” but rather consider the “conservative disposition” to be essential to the well-being of society.   Oakeshott resonates with me.  Limbaugh does not.

After all, I listen to NPR; watch Colbert and Jon Stewart; loathe Fox News; voted for Obama; am critical of Big Business and the military; opposed torture; support gay rights but understand the complexity of the debate over gay marriage; support legalizing marijuana; can’t stand conservative talk radio; often agree with Andrew Sullivan (who, it should be remembered, is one of the top 25 most influential liberals in America!); and the list goes on and on.  I’m pro-life but I’m not ready to ban abortion outright because I don’t think that’s the right way forward…and on top of that I’m pro-contraception.  I’m in favor of a progressive tax system because of my belief in a broad middle class which, in a capitalist economy, sometimes requires that most dreaded of sins – redistribution of wealth!  (I suppose the Catholic Church and its social teachings make it, too, a socialist organization – one place where the Obama administration and the Church can find common cause in the fairy tale land of Glenn Beck et al)  I think the history of Western Civilization is vital to our understanding of the present and future.  I think the arts should be preserved.  I think our childrens’ education is more important than almost anything else.  I think commercialism is more of a threat to our children than rock and roll.

When Garry Wills, intellectually drenched in Chestertonian distributism, asked William F. Buckley if he was a conservative, Buckley told him no – distributists aren’t conservatives.  He still let him write at the National Review until Wills publicly opposed the Vietnam War.  My own thoughts on distributism (and Red Toryism etc.) are still not fully formed, but I am critical of free trade and capitalism.  I’m critical of a lot of things that get too big or too opaque, be they governments or businesses or religious organizations.  I’m wary of globalism because it seems destined to sacrifice the “little platoons” in favor of the generals with the biggest regiments.

And I suppose this is where I begin to truly identify as conservative – despite what Buckley might say on the matter – though I’ve come to realize that perhaps “conservative” and “liberal” are really pretty meaningless.  What we have is a sort of web of considerations about modernity, economics, social stability, centralization (of capital and power), localism, and so forth.  Now, I would argue that both liberals (or progressives) and conservatives and the non-denominational can all find common cause in this arena.  Russel Arben Fox, for one, is a self-identified “left conservative” – a Christian socialist of sorts, whose many writings on the subject are all worth reading. Philip Blond’s “progressive conservativism” and the Red Tory movement in general also provide critiques of the current state of affairs that transcend the typical conservative/liberal sand-lines, though I disagree with the thrust of many anti-liberalism arguments in that I see the greatest threat to our liberty and our community arising more out of the sort of centralized capitalism and monopolization of today’s markets than out of the civil freedoms we’ve acquired over the years.

Essentially, economic liberalism strikes me as more of a threat to our moral well-being than mere “permissiveness.”  Where Blond is very much a social conservative, I am not.  I believe in “family values” as it were, but I believe that they are best preserved by building pro-family communities; by maintaining such antiquated things as aesthetic beauty, walkability, and the environment.  I am certainly not a proponent of sexual licentiousness or pornography, and I have deep, deep reservations about cloning, assisted suicide, etc. but my social critiques tend to focus on social harm and not abstractions like the “sanctity of marriage” which was, in all honesty, watered down long ago by cohabitation sans stigma and lax divorce laws.

But for the purposes of this post, I’d like to hone in on Fox’s really, really good (and really, really long) post on “left conservatism” that I mentioned above.  I have cherry-picked some passages that do a good job of explaining some of my own grappling with localism, tradition, and progress.  Because as it happens, I think I probably fit very nicely into Fox’s definition as a left conservative and a pro-tradition localist, but also a progressive.  I think the preservation of society and of western civilization rests at the crux of progress and tradition, and the balance must be preserved….

So what do I advocate–some sort of conservatism? Well, yes. But it is a very narrow and specific kind of conservatism: I believe that that are goods–real, material, moral, essential goods–that need to be conserved if any kind of decent society is to be achieved, much less maintained. Practically speaking, all this means is that I hold certain standards, certain virtues, to be larger than, and thus not necessarily subject to, individual preferences or arrangements. You might protest that almost everyone’s “conservative” under that definition, and I would agree: we all need to be part of a larger community and history, though most people seem to want to deny or downplay that fact. But even if you do consciously take such communitarianism and traditionalism to be the deep structure of civilization, there remains the question of how you respond to it, and indeed what you think there is about that structure than can be responded to…

…Tradition and community are taken to be necessary and important because they are the only things that cannot (at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions which in turn can be taxed away from you or turned against you; to the extent that the modern world sees profits, wars, borders, religions, families, markets, marriages and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle–whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress–then the modern world has gone wrong, gotten away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence….

…Traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West–but increasingly, most everywhere else as well). Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now). Or, it could be cause for calling forth a Marxist response, one carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions.

Okay, you might say: even if all this is acceptable, and “left conservatism” is more than just an odd neologism, what kind of policies does it actually suggest? Well, a whole range of them, would be my response; there would be no single left conservative platform….This could plausibly include Christian social democrats, Red Tories, egalitarian populists, various “Third Way” types, and many more. Most of these folks would surely disagree with one another in some important ways, and probably one of the few things they would agree upon would be to reject the label “left conservative,” even if they did accept my explanation of it. It makes far more sense for them to simply see themselves as liberals who happen to reject some of the more individualistic and secular presumptions behind many modern liberal arguments, and thus are perhaps critical of the Democratic party’s commitment to abortion rights, or struggle to reunify progressive causes with religious orthodoxy, or seek to articulate a liberal politics of public morality and the common good, while at the same time insisting that the real focus of any leftist critique of American society should begin and end with the real material concerns of class and culture.

And from another in media res post, this bit speaks somewhat to Scott’s writings on glocalism:

Modernity has had consequences good and bad, and some upon which the judgment is not yet final. The fecundity and diversity and complexity of modern life is one of those. For the most part, I find it worth retreating from, or at least seeking ways to make it more simple. But simplicity need not be a denial of opportunity; it may merely be an insistence upon seeing it with different eyes, seeing it first in light of the many communities of production and exchange (often local, often specialized, and almost always–at least if my experience of attending fan conventions are any indication–rather humble in their understanding of the ground upon which they necessarily stand) which it adds to and rebounds from, and not first and foremost as a possession of the individual who buys and consumes it.

I suppose in the end I believe that the cause of community, the moral critique of modernity and centralization and capitalism – all these things can come from the left or the right, but rarely do from either.  So I suppose the label “liberal” or “conservative” for yours truly is essentially not important.  Labels are useless without boxes to put things in.  Categories lose meaning.  The only way they can really take shape and exist is with some sort of movement to help the ideas form into concrete – which can be a good and a bad thing.  This world of ours, this humanity, is complex damnit.  The mechanisms of society defy any easy, clean social taxonomy.

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52 thoughts on “left conservatism revisited

  1. Who then is free? The wise man who can govern himself.
    Your own safety is at stake when your neighbors house is in flames.
    One wanders to the left, another to the right. Both are equally in error, but are seduced by different delusions.
    –Horace, Odes (23 BCE)

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  2. I saw much to sympathize with in here… except I reached a different conclusion to hit “left conservativism”.

    I asked myself what I had the right to prevent other people from doing.

    I came up with a fairly short list (though not a blank one).

    I figured that if I didn’t have the right to prevent you from doing any given thing, neither did you. And from there, to neither does The State.

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  3. Good points, Jaybird, and I pretty much agree with you. The trick is determining what the State can and cannot do, when it should or should not intervene, etc. This is where the value judgments begin being made, and where we run into trouble.

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  4. There are some fairly bright lines, though.

    Do you have the right to…

    Drink Raw Milk?
    Ask a friend for $2 for the beer he just took out of your fridge?
    Say that a friend can smoke in your home?
    Teach your children Young Earth Creationism?
    Enjoy a bowl right before a Quantum Leap marathon?

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  5. Oddly enough, I think all of those are jailable except for the only one that arguably does harm to someone else… teaching kids YEC.

    (Hrm, my first example might be poorly phrased as well. I think you can always drink Raw Milk, you just can’t legally sell it…)

    In any case, charging people for beer is something you need a license for. You can’t let people smoke in a bar (even if it’s your bar) in most states as well. Telling children something that is not true is, arguably, harm. And weed… well…

    I begin to ramble. Back on track:

    Is there any point at which society can say “sorry, your individual act is bad enough that we will not countenance it!” to something that might appear simple enough to belong in that list of (loaded) questions?

    Is your answer to that question significantly different from, say, gay marriage? If “society” can say “this is harmful to us and we shall not countenance it”, why can’t it say such a thing about gay marriage?

    From a distance, it looks like nothing more than issues of whose oxen are being gored.

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  6. Drink Raw Milk?

    Looking at it from the other side – do you have the right to knowingly endanger a person’s health through what you sell them?

    I’ve worked in a lab doing microbial food and water protection, so I have a different point of view on this. If something is unsafe, people shouldn’t be allowed to sell it. Raw milk is not a product that is safe for people’s health.

    The government here had to at one point impose on a very unwilling group of citizens that they build an expensive water treatment plant (a substantial part of the cost was paid for by the provincial government). Many of them were strongly against any sort of water chlorination; methods of cleaning water without chlorination tend to be more expensive. The fecal coliform counts (that’s an indicator of the level of bacterial pathogens) of their water supply were off the charts. Do they have the right to endanger the rest of the community? No.

    For smoking in your home, it depends on a few things. If you are sharing the house with someone else who says he can’t – or if you have children in the house – the answer is no. If it’s a business where other people are, the answer is clearly no. Again, freedom does not mean the right to endanger others.

    To the other questions – yes, you have a right.

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  7. “Looking at it from the other side – do you have the right to knowingly endanger a person’s health through what you sell them?” Skateboards, well really anything, to teen boys?

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  8. How about if I call my bar “Smokey’s”? Or “Smoke Em’s”? Or “I Ain’t Your Mom”? Or “You’re A Grownup”?

    If we can say that people will be harmed by being allowed to smoke in a bar and thus ban it, why could we not ban gay marriage due to psychic distress felt by others who disapprove? Surely the argument that “it doesn’t affect you what other people do in buildings you don’t own and aren’t inclined to enter” doesn’t apply.

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  9. Not comparable. A person can endanger themselves by using something in a dangerous way; that doesn’t necessarily make the thing itself inherently dangerous. If you’re going to sell food, it shouldn’t be contaminated with pathogens.

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  10. If I own a cow, do you have the right to prevent me from drinking its milk?

    I say thee nay. I reserve the right to go on at length and begin sentences with “you people” towards the end of the rant devoted to those who wish to use the force of law to prevent me from drinking the milk from my own dang cow.

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  11. Jaybird – it’s not about the damage to the person, it’s about the health damage to those surrounding them. You don’t have the right to give cancer to other people in the bar cancer who may be there for reasons other than smoking.

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  12. Are there really no safe uses for raw milk? Cheese?

    Jaybird: I’m not sure you’d have a problem with a bar in a private club, as long as you didn’t have emplyees.

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  13. Certainly you can drink milk from your own. You can’t sell it to other people. You have the right to act as you please with regard to your own health, but not with regard to others’; that’s the basic principle I’m working from.

    As a comparison, you and a friend can drink water from a stream running by your place. You can’t simply bottle water straight from the stream and sell it to other people as “clear fresh stream water”, because there’s a good chance it will make them sick. It might make you sick too, but that’s your own decision. There’s a distinction.

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  14. This is some tangent we have here, but there’s a solomonic approach to this raw milk problem: simply require that the hazards of consuming said milk be labeled and freely communicated.

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  15. Why does “employees” make a difference? If they don’t want to work in a smoky bar, they can go apply at “we only serve pasteurized milky’s” down the street. They can put a sign in the window that says “People who drink at ‘I Ain’t Your Mom’ are going to hell for eternity” too!

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  16. I apologize for the tangent, I’ll drop it.

    I do think that exploring the issues behind “you need to not do that… not only for your own good but for the good of everybody” and whether they’re “liberal” or “conservative” or what would make for an interesting post someday.

    In the meantime, I’ll apologize for the threadjack.

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  17. E.D., I’m gratified–indeed, almost embarrassed with delight–to read your serious and thoughtful appreciation of my old “left conservatism” post. So few people, I think, have been able to fully grasp what I was gesturing at in that (too long, I know) essay from a few years back; probably that’s predictable, because it’s a difficult point to articulate in the first place. But you seem to have grabbed onto it quite well. So, my thanks, both for what you’ve written here and for your excellent comments at Front Porch Republic.

    I have to run now, but I’ll try to check back, and perhaps add some thought to your responses to commenters here tomorrow.

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  18. The one statement I find most objectionable in the post (and I have to admit there’s not very many) is Fox’s assertion of the following:
    …Traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West–but increasingly, most everywhere else as well). Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now). Or, it could be cause for calling forth a Marxist response, one carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions.

    Specifically, I think rather we’re approaching an era of social fluidity, democracy and technology (particularly in communication) where such things have a net positive to what would be described as “community” and “tradition” vis-a-vis mass communication/media, marketing and manufacturing techniques which made these things so ephemeral and weak in the last 50 or so years.

    Centralized, top-down capitalism to me always seems to be more of a factor in undermining traditional interconnections between people, rather than permissive mores about types of moral behavior. (Whether sexual, religious or some other form) Consumerism writ large tends to I think atomize people and make them generic units of consumption rather than individuals, and there’s a pervasive top-down mentality to culture that’s produced in the same way.

    On the other hand, there’s some evidence that online communication and the way social groups form might actually help reinforce traditional diaspora communities. (There’s a few studies of this sort and online ethnic identification for example, in more political theory literature) I think it’s helpful in fact to think of the dichotomy more in terms of power structures. Are things flowing unidirectionally top to bottom? Or are they more something that’s created bottom-up?

    I think part of the assumption of conservatism writ large is the uneasiness of the former type of power structure, and a preference for a more bottom-up or I suppose a horizontal approach to power over a vertical one. In that respect I think the US Constitution is a conservative document, and in some respects can even explain some of the comfort with someone like Obama, whose campaign was based on more of a horizontal or bottom-up approach, versus say the movement conservatives who seem to have a very strong approach to orthodoxy and rigid hierarchies.

    I think there’s definitely more to be explored on how the “conservative-liberal” dichotomy simply doesn’t seem to encapsulate more and more of the debate, and it’s great to see so many efforts to grapple with it.

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  19. /sigh
    “Jaybird – it’s not about the damage to the person, it’s about the health damage to those surrounding them. You don’t have the right to give cancer to other people in the bar cancer who may be there for reasons other than smoking.”
    Dude, lissen to Homer.
    Your own safety is at stake when your neighbors house is in flames.

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  20. Russell – thanks, it’s been an extremely helpful post (posts, rather) in trying to discover my own approach to all of this, which is so often contradictory and seemingly at odds. Suffice to say, I’m grateful that it was a long post. It needs to be…

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  21. E.D. Kain,

    Just from reading your essays, I’d say you take a position of liberalism (it’s really not a dirty word) from the vantage point that advocates: equality, progress and empiricism…I could be wrong…but I think your wife is right.

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  22. Probably, Caltha – and no, I’ve never thought of it as a “dirty word.” I suppose the hacks on right and left just take the goodness of both from the rest of us and make it cheap and meaningless. I think a conservative, cautious liberalism is what we need. Progress and tradition in a sort of civilizational tango…

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  23. It sounds like you in the end admit that you may not be a conservative, which begs the question of just how you views could be briefly summarized.. Nevertheless, I think this is very clarifying essay. Every contributor to this site should write a counterpart to it, and each contributor should have an “About” page of, ahem, *his* own (rather than simply being directed to all the contributions when one clicks on a contributors name above to the left) on which his essay appears, in order to buttress your claim on your overall “About” page that your site represents all parts of the political spectrum. Otherwise, you should retrench from that claim, which might be advisable in any case, as it is actually a tremendous claim to make. My perspective.

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  24. Michael – we decided at the outset to avoid personal bios. Think of our writing as our bio – a sort of living bio – and if you doubt that we come from all across the political spectrum, that’s fine. We’re not terribly concerned with that. Fact is we have everything from atheists to evangelicals to (nearly) ordained Anglican priests to Canadians on this blog. Our political views vary but our belief in discourse is pretty universal.

    Kyle – thanks! I liked that line to, in the way that sometimes good lines surprise their authors… I may have to use it again in a post…

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  25. Michael, I don’t read “various points along the political spectrum” as a claim to cover every possible political position. It just means that we don’t all come from the same place. But keep in mind that the roster isn’t fixed for all time, and we have a new guest-posting policy as well.

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  26. William, that’s a good point. I did read it differently, but now that you mention it, my reading was wrong. Basically, I’m just saying that I perceive this as a predominantly conservative-friendly site (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), albeit one that seems primarily interested in expanding and reclaiming the meaning of the term (which is something I applaud). But nowhere is it acknowledged to be such. I’ve been leaving comments suggesting this for a while, but no one seems to want to take me up to shoot down or own up to it. I don’t have time to go through all the posts to interpolate peoples’ views. I know part of the point is to try to explore ideas apart from labels, but I don’t think it makes much sense to try to pretend that most people don’t have some basic idea of where they are coming from politically. Yet that seems to be what this site is trying to do. Most political websites with the exception of falsely “balanced” mainstream media sites cop to their viewpoint clearly, if not always totally explicitly. Ordinary Gentleman seems possibly to be laboring under the sincere belief that it is somehow politically neutral, even while not quite making even that claim explicit. I think a brief self-description from each major (not “Guest”) contributor would go a long way toward a better understanding of the site’s de facto, if not explicitly stated, general tendencies for readers and contributors alike. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a political viewpoint, in fact I think it’s basically disingenuous to deny that if you pay attention to politics at all, then you have one even if it’s jumbled. Given that, it seems like being open about it is the best approach.

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  27. As I’ve mentioned here before, I think we are starting to see people move away from people-oriented political labels towards issue-oriented political labels. That way you can be a Lefty on immigration and conservative on abortion….or whatever.

    As a self-styled progressive conservative in the Teddy Roosevelt/Disraeli model I like that most of the debate on labels seems to be happening in conservative circles. I think that exploring intellectual pedigrees is very important. Liberals tend to love the ‘big tent’ idea of a wide diversity of people but I remain convinced that coalition is fragile because they don’t address the very real disagreements between, for example, gay marriage proponents and black communities. Or between environmentalists (Greenpeace) and conservationists (union members who hunt). They don’t want to rock the boat by exploring the nuances of political ideology because that would expose their weaknesses.

    I remain very proud that the broadly-dfined ‘Right’ seems more willing to air our ideological differences and search for compromise than what I perceive on the Left.

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  28. “Oh Michael, that takes all the mystery and intrigue out of the project. We just don’t give it up on the first date around here ”

    That was funny.

    I like that the writers and most of the commentators here are ideologically heterodox. It’s a strength. It would be hard to place an accurate political label on anyone here.

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  29. Scott: C’mon, you know you want it! (It being accuracy in labeling and an forthright acknowledgement of baseline assumptions and reasonable biases.)

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  30. Michael –

    For me, personally, blogging is a way to struggle through just what it is I believe in, and why, and how that plays out. It’s evolutionary, not static. That’s why I have so many posts that are basically me wrestling with my own conflicted views. Maybe when I get more sure of myself, or my ideas take on a more solid and less fluid shape, then I can do what you’re asking. Until then, I’m just going to have to keep on keeping on…

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  31. E.D. — I am not saying it has to be any of those things (static, brief, etc.). A post like this is exactly what I’m talking about — so you’re my exemplar. If everyone here just had a similar rumination to this one that more or less represented their current thinking in an easily located spot, that’s really all I’m suggesting.

    Hope everyone’s weekends are a gorgeous as mine is here in the Upper Midwest. Thanks for engaging me on this. Cheers.

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  32. Michael – cool, thanks…I also hope more of the OG’s here can write up biopic-ish political evolution posts. I’m as curious as you are to many of my fellow blogger’s background etc.

    Cascadian – it’s temporary. We were having issues. I’m trying to isolate the reasons behind them. Should be back up and running tomorrow.

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  33. In all honesty, I give pretty resounding clues about where I stand politically in pretty much every post that I write. The most recent that links to this post is no different. One of my formative political experiences was participating in a poli-sci class in college where the professor was intentionally vague about where he stood politically because, at the end of the day, it really didn’t matter. What mattered were the ideas and what everyone thought about them, the discussion and where everyone went with it.

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  34. My friend, I could have written this piece. If it thinks ,talks , walks , and looks like a duck- its a duck
    You are a balanced thinker, you are a progressive
    go to one of those websites where you choose your position on topics. It then tells you without bias how you fall politically
    I already know the answer and so does your wife

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