Sunday, November 07, 2004

Another Big Quote

It has been a long time since I circulated that last essay by Hillel Halkin (April last year, methinks) but he is always worth reading. Here he is again:

My brother, the Other

"Get the virus out of the White House!" a Kerry campaign worker was shouting as I passed him on 93rd and Broadway a few days before the election. "Help beat the psycho-killer!"

It wasn't his private slogan; I heard the same chant elsewhere in Manhattan, where I happened to be during the last days of the campaign.

I grew up in the US and don't remember anything quite like it. The closest analogies are the Nixon-Humphrey and Nixon-McGovern campaigns of 1968 and 1972, when Democratic strongholds like New York were equally vituperative toward the Republican candidate. But '68 and '72 were essentially one-issue votes; everything was dominated by Vietnam.

In 2004 America is divided into two hostile camps that disagree on just about everything. The electoral results bear this out dramatically. Overall nationwide, it was a close vote. Taken on a state-to-state basis, however, it was close in only a few places. Bush won some states by a huge margin, Kerry others. It was one America voting against another.

To an ex-American visiting from Israel, there is something disconcertingly familiar about this. Extreme political polarization is an old story here; there has been no time when it didn't exist. In America it is new - and to those who care about America's future (which is to say, to everyone on earth, since America's future is in some ways everyone's), it is worrisome.

I don't know what it was like in Bush country. I wasn't in any of it on this visit. But in Kerry country, the president and his supporters weren't just the other political party. They were a frightening and demonized Other who were fellow countrymen only in the technical sense of the term.

The Kerry voters I spoke to assumed as a matter of course that voting for Bush meant you were either a hopelessly warped or a hopelessly misinformed individual, and in either case incapable of rational thought.

The country is split by what seem to be two mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable value systems - one urban, secular, liberal and post-modern, the other rural, religious, conservative and pre-modern. It takes a pinch to remember the not-so-distant days when America's two political parties were commonly referred to as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, mirror images of each other that had to exaggerate minor quarrels in order to create the illusion that there was any difference between them.

And yet, to return to the subject of rational thought, it could be suggested that rather than seeing the Democrats and Republicans of 2004 as representing conflicting value systems that must be accepted in toto one way or another, there is much to be said for picking and choosing from positions on either side.

The sad thing is that these positions have become so locked into a general, across-the-board gestalt that Americans have lost the capacity to consider them on a case-to-case basis.

Thus, if you are a Republican today, you are by definition for the war in Iraq, for American unilateralism in foreign policy, against reliance on the United Nations, against international treaties on environmental issues, against pro-environmental groups in general, for high-income tax cuts, for public support of religious schools and institutions, against gun control, against gay marriage, against legalized abortion. If you're a Democrat, it's just the opposite.

It's a take-it-or-leave-it package, the forces of Good against the forces of Evil.

AND YET what on earth is the logical connection between Iraq and environmentalism, between religious schools and gun control, between gay marriage and abortion? Who says that being for or against one of these things necessarily means being for or against another?

It's certainly possible to believe, for example, that the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq was a correct one whose consequences should continue to be borne for as long as there is any hope of stabilizing that country, while at the same time believing that the refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol was an error.

In general, there is something absurd about the notion that being a political conservative means being an environmental radical. (True environmental radicalism, after all, consists not of trying to conserve as much of the natural environment as possible, but of giving carte blanche to its destruction.)

When George W. Bush speaks of the need for forcefulness in fighting Islamic terror, he is wise; when he pretends that the dangers of global warming don't exist, he is foolish. Why can't one say that?

Why can't one be both for gun control and for a measure of government support for religious institutions? The argument against gun control goes back to an 18th-century Constitution that promised citizens the right to bear muskets, not concealable pistols and submachine guns.

The argument against supporting religion originates in the same Constitution, whose signers feared the creation of a European-style established church, not of dozens of equally competing Christian, Jewish, and Islamic denominations.

Super-strict constructionists should logically oppose all gun control and all state support for religion; constitutional evolutionists should be tolerant of both.

And what is the inherent link between gay marriage and abortion? Although Judeo-Christian tradition condemns both, it is certainly possible to separate them, whether by arguing that one condones the taking of life and one doesn't, or by arguing that one subverts accepted notions of sexuality and one doesn't. They're not at all the same issue, even if nearly all Americans treat them as though they were.

But one of the problems with political polarization is that issues cease to be issues and become symbols of political identity. We saw that happen in Israel a long time ago. Tell someone here that you're against the recognition of Reform conversions and for civil marriage, or vice versa, and you'll be looked at as if you had said you're for daylight and against sunshine.

And yet what, really, apart from identifying you as either "religious" or "secular" in people's eyes, do the two positions have to do with each other? By pigeonholing one another, we also pigeonhole our thought processes.

It is sad to see this happening in America, a country known in the past for the pragmatic, anti-ideological nature of its politics. Although Europeans have always sneered at these politics for being dull and conflict-free, they have in fact been a great source of national strength, allowing American voters to make judicious distinctions without having to feel they have deserted to the enemy.

The America of the Bush-Kerry election has become a country of enemies. This is bad for America and bad for the world.


Dave said...

That's an excellent essay. The only quibble I have with it (and I suppose it is just a quibble) is that - taking it as if it were directed at me personally - I genuinely do not support a single thing on the Republican agenda (that I know of). So, were I American, I coulkd only be part of the problem of division, not part of the solution.

Which is not to say that I think all Republicans are mad gaybashing warmongering plutocrats (although I do think that of the vast majority of senior government officials). I'd *like* to find some common ground, but I ain't seeing where it might lie.

Fortunately, I don't feel nearly as strongly about the Australian government. If Abbott (who I think is a smug, bullying thug who's wrapped his ambition in a greasy veneer of - to me unconvincing - righteous morality) gets up ahead of Costello, my view might become a lot more...polar.

Marco said...

I can empathise with the view there, since I feel very strongly for the war in Iraq, yet also very strongly for gun control. However, my most strong conviction is that the combination of freedom of religion AND separation of church and state, is the one fortunate combination of constitutional arrangements which is the most vital reason America has gone ahead of the rest of the world economically and socially. Look at the results of other countries which integrate church law and country's law. Also note what happens to countries which suppress certain religions through their legislature!!

Dr. Clam said...

I remember Sam the American Eagle saying to Alice Cooper once, on the Muppet Show many years ago: "I don't believe in *anything* you believe in." And Alice Cooper says: "We believe in fondue. Do you believe in fondue, too?"

I think the Republican platform is strong on fondue...

Dave said...

I cannot in all good conscience get behind any man who will willingly profess himself in favour of fondue. It's a matter of principle.

Bread dipped in melted chocolate? Now *there's* a platform that will win my vote!