Recently, a reader wanted to know whether I was aware that Creators Syndicate, which distributes my column, identifies me as a “liberal” on its website.
Is this really the first thing you want readers to know about you? she wondered.
Her intentions were kind. I assured her I’m fine with it.
I already had been a columnist for five years when, in 2008, Creators started identifying all of us by our politics to give newspaper clients a better idea of who we are. At first, I bristled. I was afraid the label would alienate conservative readers who think liberal women hate God, men and marriage — a prevalent theme of angry mail. I also thought it defined me too narrowly. I’m a lot of things, I whined to nobody interested in listening. “Liberal” doesn’t begin to tell that story.
My editor helped me get over myself. He said I could drop the label. Like a recalcitrant teenager who crumbles in the face of parental largesse, I decided to let it be.
Really, it’s truth in advertising. I grew up in a working-class family that praised God, Democrats and union benefits. I am a liberal, out of gratitude and with no apology. Declaring that upfront is either an assurance or a warning, depending on your point of view, but at least you can’t accuse me of a bait-and-switch.
President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address has sparked a lot of discussion about what it means to be a liberal in 2013. Amazingly, he sounded like one, which made a lot of us happy and others wail like the wounded.
Much of the commentary has focused on this passage of the president’s address:
“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began, for our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.
“Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”
Listening to this was not an intellectual exercise for me. It was personal. The president talked about fair wages for women, and I thought of our own grown daughters. He spoke of gay rights, and I saw the minister who officiated at our wedding and the other dear friend who helped me plan it.
When the president championed voting rights, I recalled the recent efforts to suppress turnout in Ohio, where I live. When he talked about bright young immigrants, I heard the Mexican mother’s sobs as she described to me her 11-year-old daughter’s suicide in the town where I was born.
When the president talked about keeping our children safe, I thought of Newtown, yes, but also the high-school students shot dead a year ago in Chardon, Ohio.
You didn’t have to be a liberal to be moved by the president’s speech, but maybe you have to be one to admit it.
Some people argue that such labels serve only to limit our understanding of one another. I see them as helpful hints to get the conversation started. They tell you something about another human being, but not everything. Curiosity wrapped in good intentions will determine how much we learn. We’re full of surprises, every last one of us.
The label next to my name reads, “Liberal.”
That doesn’t tell you that my feet barely touched the ground for a week after we welcomed our second grandson into the world.
It also doesn’t tell you that Jesus smiles through a piece of stained glass in my kitchen window.
And it doesn’t tell you that last week, I cradled our 18-year-old cat in my arms and rocked her for the last 10 hours of her life — that every time she looked up at me, I kissed the top of her head, and she closed her eyes.
When she died, I cried and cried. In that moment, this liberal was like every right-winger whose heart has broken with that sad goodbye.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.