Friday, February 09, 2007

Surprise #2 - The Soul of America

Sometimes one states an unremarkable idea and finds it gives offense. This time, I had withheld full-throated statement of an idea for some time, only to find that once uttered, the supposed offendees agreed with it. Perhaps that's a social-skills problem on my part...

Conservatives complain that the left is not serious about the War on Terror, but is treating Bush and the neocons as the enemy. Put less confrontively, the left is fighting a different battle - one for the soul of America. I had thought the overdramatic S of A phrasing would raise hackles, as if I were saying it sneeringly or ironically. But, as with my "God & Country Tribe" phrasing, the people named did not find it ironic at all, and thought I had summed it up nicely. Yes, exactly.

Conservatives are not uninterested in this Soul of America idea, and some religious conservatives also consider it more important than the War on Terror. In the long run, it is of course the larger issue. If America isn't itself, what's worth keeping about it? America is founded on a set of ideas about how government should work and people should live. If those are gone, we will retain some fondness for the appearance of the Grand Canyon, or the existence of hot dogs; the flag might still stir us and we might root for American teams in international competition, but really, what would be the point? Simple nostalgia.

There are difficulties with this Soul of America idea, however. First, it is not simply a matter of working very hard and behaving very nobly about things we all agree are the right way of the soul. We don't entirely agree on what those aims are. In this it is different than the situation faced by the Old Testament Israelites. After some grumbling and pouting, they all knew quite well what was being asked, and that they hadn't been doing it. Nor is our difference a mere matter of where to start. While prioritizing would certainly be a matter of disagreement among us, we would soon come to issues where we pulled in different directions. It's not the same.

This argument over the soul of America, then, would resemble a group of wealthy Englishmen discussing Empire after dinner over the port, while poor young Tommy is out fighting somewhere. This is, in fact, precisely what some conservatives suspect liberals of doing, and accuse them of being unserious, or blind to the real dangers.

There is an unfortunate amount of truth in this. The Arts & Humanities Tribe - my tribe - wants very much to be the well-fed gentlemen with the port. They do want someone else to do the fighting, as evidenced by how seldom their own sons and daughters go into the military. But even more, they want to be the gentlemen listened to. They are good at this talking, understanding Empire, and drinking port, and the fact that the government, heeding the words of mere business interests and military advisors, isn't doing as it's told. Not like the old days when those chaps knew their place.

After being so harsh on them, it is fair to point out that there are more reasonable and unselfish motives for liberals to want to have this other battle first, making my analogy of the bloated gentlemen quite unfair. The difficulty with this is that those other motives, noble at first glance, lead back to the same place if one follows them out to their end.

There are two parts to the battle, deeply interrelated. The first is the mere tribalism of people wanting to be Top Tribe of the Nation; the second is the ideas or methods of the tribe, which it believes are an objectively superior way of running things. The Arts & Humanities Tribe believes they are all about the latter, acknowledging little or nothing of the former in its motivations. My recent contention is that the former - the mere tribalism - is primary for the A&H tribe as a whole. For some, it is more than the primary motivation, it is the entire motivation, or something darn close. But for those others, might they not well say: Even if our motives are tainted, the ideas are superior. The rest is footnotes.

Fair enough, and I will deal with the ideas as I can, though you can find many others who do it better. (An all-star list, BTW). But first, we should deal with the mere tribalism. It is everywhere, and completely unacknowledged. That in itself should raise alarm bells. When people acknowledge a bias or an ill motive but say they are taking it into account, we might give them the benefit of much doubt. But when they insist that the Rhinoceros in the living room is not merely small, but nonexistent, we cannot trust what they say about any matter pertaining to the house. They hate George Bush's accent, they hate his ranch, they hate that he mentions his faith. They hate NASCAR, country music, southerners. They are sure that his supporters are racist, sexist, homophobes, but the evidence they give is along the lines of not saying the magic words about these pieties; they think middle America doesn't have passports (they mean, doesn't agree that the European elites have much to offer. All those military guys and people doing business overseas don't really count), doesn't support the Theatre, doesn't have any really good Thai-Italian fusion restaurants.

If you think I exaggerate, you don't read or listen closely in the traditional media. There are websites that devote their entire energy to cataloging these things, and many others that give it a shot amidst their regular work. The comments sections of political sites produce hundreds of new examples every night. It is not merely a fringe phenomenon, it is present in all the respectable left-of-center weeklies, dropped in sentence after sentence. If you don't see it, then you can't see it, and there is really nothing one might say to you. You need to drop current events altogether and go read something from another era to clear your mind: Orwell, Lewis, Mencken, Montaigne, Swift, Plato. Anyone, really. You need this so desperately. I'll make it easy for you. None of them is a neocon. None of them voted for George Bush. Ever.

On to the ideas: but this has gone long enough, and I know you folks skim. I will address them in a separate post.

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