November 16, 2013


I just accidentally deleted a very civil comment I had overlooked. Damned touch screen device...

November 15, 2013

Irreconcilable differences

In the autumn of 2008 I lived in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, and worked in a village of about 2000 people, forty miles away. To make an otherwise hypnotic commute between corn fields more interesting during that election season, I got into the habit of counting campaign signs along the way. At the beginning of my trip, driving through my deteriorating middle-class suburb, the signage was overwhelmingly pro-Obama – about 5-to-1 Obama to McCain if I recall correctly. In the middle portion of my route I drove through parts of two towns, each with a population in the 20-40,000 range. These were about evenly split between McCain’s midnight blue signs, and Obama’s electric blue signs with their curious Grant Wood sunrise logo. After leaving the last full-fledged town, the McCain-Palin ticket reigned supreme. In the village where I worked (and still work) there was not a single Obama sign.

America is one country, but it contains two nations. Arguably there are more than two, but the primary division tends to push any lesser distinctions into one or the other of two camps – the predominantly urban liberals on the one hand, and the predominantly rural conservatives on the other. I don’t use the word “nations” lightly. We are not, at this point in our history, talking about a few minor policy disagreements, or about some superficial differences in habits or tastes. American liberals have more in common with their European counterparts than they do with most of the people who populate the vast interior of America. American conservatives, for their part, tend to consider places like New York City and Los Angeles as loci of crime and moral degeneracy – places entertaining to peer at on TV, but certainly not safe and wholesome places to take the kids. Each side stares at its image of the other with incredulous, smug contempt – only some of which, in either case, is actually deserved.

I have lived, worked, and traveled in both nations. It is plainly obvious to me is that neither side is going away. Elections change policies but, short of actual genocide or similar draconian actions, they do not eradicate cultures. Consider the Roe v. Wade decision. Legal abortion has be settled law in America for forty years now, but people who oppose abortion still number in the tens of millions, and are still as active and determined as they ever were. Like it or not, both sides of this issue stand on deeply held principles – beliefs about which they are unlikely, at any point, just to shrug their shoulders and say “Ok… you win.”

The two opposing nations are about on parity in number. If this were not so, neither Bush nor Obama could have won a second term. Despite this, each side likes to characterize the other as merely a radical fringe. Most people are surrounded by other people like themselves. Conservatives like to say we are a center right nation, and that liberals only make up about twenty percent of the total population. Again, unless you believe in election fraud on a truly massive scale, no right leaning country would have elected our current president after witnessing his first term. It may be that only a minority of the public self-identifies as liberal or progressive, but there are obviously plenty of others who either want to ride that train, hate the opposition, or both. Likewise, the idea that the Tea Party represents only the lunatic fringe of a generally pliable Republican base cannot be true. Despite an ongoing war of suppression by the media, the Democrats, and the Republican establishment, the Tea Party remains an active force. Its sympathizers, if not its actual members, are as thick as corn in August. The supposedly more mainstream Republican establishment, on the other hand, does not appear to represent anyone other than themselves – and, perhaps, a handful of very wealthy donors.

When separate incompatible nations vie for power within a single political state, the ultimate outcome is likely to be the oppression of the weaker by the stronger. The stronger side may see themselves as benefactors, “re-educating” their wayward or backward cousins, but this is really no more than a rationalization of what is really the same old exercise of dominance. When the US Army finally defeated the last of the native American tribes on the great plains, the government rounded them up and put them in reservations. They then took their children away to be re-educated in government schools. Government functionaries cut the children’s hair and forbade them to speak their native language. This is conquest. This is what the attempted eradication of a culture looks like. It is all done with the best of intentions, by people who are certain that they are doing the right thing. It seems harsh and shameful only in hindsight. In the moment it seems the best and kindest thing to do. Why would anyone not want to be like us?

If we were as enlightened as we like to think we are, we would leave Montana in the hands of Montanans, and New York City in the hands of its residents. We would not be so happy to see a level of cultural control inflicted on other Americans that we would find appalling to see inflicted on foreigners. We would not take for granted that our own ideology is so virtuous that its imposition on others by force or deceit is still a blessing.

It is probably wishful thinking to believe the two contending cultures of America will ever get along. It is probably wishful thinking, too, to imagine they can stand at arm’s length amicably. Contemporary liberalism is an internationalist movement. Not to keep Montana in line would embarrass American liberals in front of the French. Obviously, too, religious conservatives are unlikely to give up their effort to proselytize. Their unexaminable faith commands it. Thus, two enormous titans beat each other bloody in the dark. Both sides strengthen the growing police state, even though no ordinary person wants it. Year by year, it gets harder to say “I believe this” or “I believe that” without falling prey to the brutal orthodoxy of the question “are you one of us – or one of them?”

Note: I wrote a much more detailed but rather rambling essay on the same topic under the title of The Great Divide.