Monday, October 24, 2005

Who are we now?



"Alfred E. Newman for President."



One of the strangest aspects of contemporary politics is the intensity of the divisions in society. I believe that these divisions are primarily cultural and not political, though they express themselves in political and legal warfare, as always, in America.

It is no coincidence that the nation is about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. We are witnessing one of the meanest eras in the politics of personal destruction, which began with the Clinton impeachment effort and is approaching dangerous levels again.

President George W. Bush is a polarizing figure, mysteriously, even more than Reagan and Clinton were in their day. People hate -- even loathe and despise -- good old, mild-mannered George W. Bush, much to his chagrin. And those on the Right -- including many who are less than crazy about G.W. because he is not conservative enough -- loathe the sort of people who attack G.W., even more than they dislike him. I think each faction has a point. Regrettably, many innocent victims are caught in the crossfire. Among those victims is the U.S. Constitution.

I wish to examine these feelings (and they are mostly feelings, over and above carefully thought out positions on issues), very briefly, suggesting where common ground may and should be found. What G.W.'s enemies have yet to figure out is that the best thing that the president has going for him is his opposition.

What really pisses off some people about G.W. is that he is not into the trendy P.C. bullshit. Neither am I. Lots of intelligent Americans have just about had it with the cultural language police and bien pensant battalions who have appointed themselves as the guardians of our political virtue. These are the people who have also annointed themselves as the guardians of our intellectual life: If you speak of God, then you are a Christian fundamentalist barbarian; if you compliment a woman on her appearance, then you are a sexist pig (actually pigs have now organized and insist on being referred to as "swine beings"); and if you dare to speak of right and wrong, good and evil, then you are a primitive, "unscientific" and uneducated person, because there is no such thing as right and wrong, since everything is totally relative -- except for this one transcendent truth and all the P.C. stuff, which is objectively correct, and don't you forget it.

On the other side of this cultural divide are those good folks residing somewhere near the buckle of the Bible belt, who insist that New York is home only to homosexuals and sexual perverts, women of easy virtue and atheism. These were certainly the things that I was looking for when I moved here, but to these good folks ("rock-solid-God-fearing-tax-paying" Americans), these sinful qualities characteristic of Manhattanites explain many of our troubles with terrorism and disease. God is displeased with our sinfulness. We must repent before it is too late.

I would be happy to cooperate, after I have met some of those women of easy virtue, but (sadly) there are none in my building.

This sort of "fire and brimstone" reasoning has an ancient pedigree, as Gore Vidal points out. For example, under the Code of Justinian, homosexuality was outlawed throughout the empire, since it was generally recognized that gay sex causes earthquakes. Apparently, in the ancient world when people spoke of the earth moving, they weren't kidding. My guess is that when told this, our gay or straight friends today may respond that good sex can still cause earthquakes, if you're very lucky.

These two sides of America are not going to "come together" (no pun intended) any time soon. Most people are in the middle, as it were, since dad is a "gun-toting" Republican, and his much-loved daughter, Katherine -- who goes to Smith College and reads Sylvia Plath ("who is, like, the greatest writer ever!") -- insists on a spiritual politics without violence, except against Republicans like her dad, of course. There is simply not enough room for compromise between such polarized positions.

All of this makes for fun weekend get-togethers with the family, except that the United States can now count on the hatred of much of the rest of the world, thanks to our adventure in Iraq, but, equally, because of such things as American cultural "hegemony" (we make movies that everybody wants to see) and our economic imperialism (everybody likes our fast food, music and fashions, it's our cars they can live without).

We are "greedy and insensitive," allegedly, according to nations hoping to be even greedier and more insensitive than we are in the twenty-first century. We are "evil," say the millions who hope to get a visa so they can visit New York or L.A., several hundred thousand of whom have written a script that they hope someone in Hollywood will read. ("It is perfect for Sylvester Stalone ...")

Meanwhile, there really are evil people out there who wish to kill you and those you love merely because of your nationality, or because you are wealthier than they are. There are people who wish to obstruct the progress of science in curing diseases and feeding billions, because a "holy book" says we must not trust in anything but prayer. Paradoxically, there are also some in the most affluent societies who believe, with equal irrationality, that because science yields accurate knowledge of the workings of empirical reality, it can somehow resolve moral or political controversies, or "explain" such cultural mysteries as romantic love in evolutionary terms (it can't); or tell us what is the meaning of life or even of science (it can't).

We will not find our moral meanings "out there," in nature, existing independently of us in the empirical world; they will not be seen under a microscope; rather, moral truth and beauty may be achieved only by us, through reasoning and dialogue, neither of which are ever entirely dispassionate. This does not make such things unreal or unobjective. By same token, no matter how much we learn about the brain, we will not discover the mind "in" the brain, even after we figure out how it is that consciousness arises from cerebral processes, if we ever do. In the words of Brand Blashard from his book, Reason and Analysis:

What is present through all these expanding meanings [of rationality] is the grasp of law or principle. Such a grasp is intellectual; it is not a matter of sensing or perceiving, but of understanding. The principles thus understood are assumed to be valid independently of our grasping them, and therefore to be valid for all men [and women] alike. Hence, it belongs to the idea of a rational man [or woman] to be objective and impartial. So far as one is governed by reason, one's conclusions will follow the evidence without being colored by feeling [on this point, concerning the role of feelings, F.H. Bradley -- Blanshard's teacher -- might have disagreed] or deflected by desire, and one's conduct as well as one's thinking will be ordered by principle.

We are in this situation together folks, as Americans or just as human beings, and we need one another. If we are at one another's throats, then none of us will make it. The United States, with all of its faults, is a great and good nation -- with the possible exception of New Jersey -- and it occasionally needs to be defended from the enemies of freedom in the world. This is not to deny our right to criticize any U.S. government for its policy failures.

You already know this, and you prove it by protesting against the government that guarantees your right to do just that. Yes, there are terrorists in the world. The very people who would instantly wipe out all of those who are "different" -- gays and racial minorities, religious and cultural eccentrics. In other words, those who are different and who do not fare well in lots of other places in the world, yet seem to like it here just fine. Part of what is at the core of the United States is a tolerance of diversity, a desire to make the world safe for weirdos (like me!), that is, for persons who wish to think differently, originally and creatively ... or just to think at all.

There is much that we can agree on, as Americans, like our right to disagree. Let us build on that foundational agreement and cooperate. We need each other, as I say, now more than ever. The problems that we face are very great.

Let us begin by giving Ms. Miers a fair hearing on Capitol Hill. Do not predetermine her qualifications or capacity for the Supreme Court on the basis of attack ads. Do not oppose everything that President Bush proposes merely because the idea comes from the White House. Examine suggestions and proposals on the merits. Think of the ways in which someone different from you, is like you, is your fellow citizen, brother or sister, and that such a person will share many of your flaws and experiences in life, including the ultimate and unavoidable ones: love and death. Think of how that person sees you.

What would you wish to explain to those who have never spoken to you, but have made up their minds about you on the basis of your nationality, ethnicity, religion, economic category or music and fashion choices or based on what they're told by others, especially when you're not around to respond?

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