Friday, July 29, 2005

Letter to Anonymous

I received an interesting comment from “Anonymous” last night. It follows, complete, so that you can have a frame of reference when you read through my reply. The comment was made in response to something I said in my post titled “”Kansas Interlude” about my feeling somewhat like the war correspondent now I’d once dreamed of being and observing that I’m in a sense a reporter in a culture war. Here’s the comment:

“What's going on culturally in America right now is a “war” only to the extent that one person’s vision of the country cannot abide another’s. When one part of the nation wants to curtail free speech or free expression in the name of “morality” (one that is religiously based) or “patriotism” (however ill-defined), I think that goes against the spirit of what the Founders had in mind. Not that I'm all for shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, but a free society should be open-minded and soberly weigh the concrete costs — not only the theoretical benefits or short-term partisan gains — of any restrictions of expression.”
“I’m saddened that Phil thinks of American culture in terms of a “war.” That implies that only one cultural viewpoint should prevail — while others must be defeated unconditionally. To call it a “war” leaves no room for negotiation or compromise. And this lays the groundwork for an all-or-nothing attitude.”
“As the writer Shelby Foote said in the PBS documentary The Civil War, that internecine conflict came about “because we [Americans] failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise; our whole government is founded on it, and it failed.” “Government, it appears, is no longer about compromise. It's now about steamrolling the opposition. It's now about declaring a “mandate” with a 51% majority — while the other 49% can go jump in the lake.” “I sometimes wonder if those who talk of American cultural disagreements in terms of war wouldn’t mind seeing some shooting — as long as their side wins, of course.”

As you can see, it was well written, well thought out. The commenter, it seems to me, is an eminently decent guy, the kind of person who does his best every day to contribute to his communities, both large and small. But I also think he missed the point of what I was trying to say. I’m now going to try to respond in letter form, hoping that he can have a better grasp on me and my thinking and also open the opportunity for further dialogue. With that said, here goes.

Dear Anonymous:

There’s much that you and I can agree on. I’m especially in tune with your thoughts on restrictions of free expression. I also agree that they shouldn’t be taken just to further some partisan agenda.

I think that your problem might be that you don’t know me well enough. You’ve read some of what I’ve written and I think you’ve made some assumptions about me that, if you read further, you might find you were wrong about. For example, I’m all for compromise. I’ve even said so. You can dig through my archives if you like and find it. It’s a little piece titled “Compromise is not a Four Letter Word.” You see, I’m an American and as such I have always seen myself as one part of a greater whole. I clearly understand that I’m one of hundreds of millions and that it is critical to our national success to find avenues of agreement, common ground upon which we can all build our lives.

I’ll even take it a step further. I’m a Christian American as well. I’ve not made that a secret and I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to share about the things that matter most to me. Folks know that I have some strong views. I’m not a Darwinist, but I’m not a flat-earther either. I supported, and still support, our effort in Iraq and the larger war on terror. I do so for both political and theological reasons. I’m a John Kennedy Democrat and cut my political teeth on the notion that freedom is America’s responsibility to propagate. The words to his first inaugural have found a place in my heart. Further, I also believe in the cause for theological reasons. I’ve examined Holy Writ and the teachings of the universal Church (Augustine and Aquinas, for example) in this regard and have found that the current cause fits within the guidelines of what we Christians call “just war.” That’s why George Bush’s words resonate so with me in this regard. I really do believe that freedom is God’s gift to humanity. Now I know that we cannot spend our time imposing freedom at the point of a gun, but I also recognize that there are times when we have more than the right, we have the solemn obligation, to intervene. If that weren’t so muggers, murderers, rapists, extortionists, stock swindlers, pedophiles, wife-beaters, and thugs could act without any fear of retribution. I do so not because I’m a George Bush lover. I suspect there are lots of things he and I would disagree about if we ever had the opportunity to meet. But, that and my Democratic Party leanings aside, I believe he’s right about this one, and I think it would be foolish to adopt a political view based solely on my feelings, positive or negative, about the man. My personal feelings about this man have little to do with what I believe. My belief system is built on the best reason and faith I can muster. As I survey the social landscape these days I see little of that, to be honest. I see many fire eaters, their hearts filled with hate, waging war against someone they hate. I suspect it’s they, not me, that you should be targeting for their inflexibility.

You also mentioned that I seem to have an all or nothing view of this. Actually, that’s not true. Again, if you had the opportunity to dig a bit into my archives you would find a little something I wrote just after the national elections. It’s titled “A Mandate to Serve, not Rule.” The title really says enough, but I’ll try to expound a bit further. I have absolutely no desire to be boss of the world. Nor do the overwhelming majority of Christians I know. But I’m not so jaded that I can’t see, or refuse not to see, the war that’s going on for the soul of this nation right now. Just the other night, for example, my wife and I were watching an ABC News report on internet pornography. I was stunned. I found out that, since the turn of the century, the number of internet porn sites has grown from four million to over four hundred million. That’s a one hundred fold growth in five years. It’s astounding! It’s frightening! But that wasn’t all. The smut peddlers have gained a huge audience. ABC reported that about forty percent of teens aged twelve to seventeen view pornography regularly. And, they represent seventy percent of the overall audience viewing pornography. Seventy percent! It doesn’t take an expert in regression analysis to see what’s happening. The older generation is tuning out; the younger generation is tuning in. And it doesn’t take a “Summa-Cuma” to figure out where this all heading. Do you think the porn kings are going to relinquish seventy percent of their audience to decency? No way. They’re going to cling to the First Amendment every time someone tries to take a teenager out of their clutches. And, respectable lawyers from the ACLU or other organizations will support them. They’ll fight for every last kid and tell us they’re doing it to preserve the principle of free speech.

I won’t pretend to prophesy on how it’s all going to come out. But I’m smart enough to see a war when it’s going on all around me. The smut peddlers and the lawyers can see it. They’re fighting tooth and nail for every kid they can get. I’m at a loss to understand why so many others can’t see it. I guess they must be too busy living the American dream.

Yes, Anonymous, there is a war going on in America, and this one, like the war in Iraq and the war on terror, isn’t one I’ve chosen. It’s just come my way.

Like you, I support the principle of compromise. But that principle has its limits. You mentioned Shelby Foote and the Civil War in your comments. Foote was a good writer and the Civil War was a good war. I’m not an expert on it, but I do know that the nation tried many avenues of compromise before the blood letting began. I know that Lincoln himself even contemplated a plan that would have sent all African-American slaves back to Africa. I’m thankful he rejected that compromise. I’m thankful he had the opportunity to draft the Emancipation Proclamation and write his second inaugural before he died. He was wise enough to see that there are critical times in history when compromise will not do. Foote was, as I said, a good writer. And you seem to be a very good thinker. Given that, what compromise would you have offered that would be satisfactory to your African-American brothers and sisters? I’d really be interested to know, because I can’t think of one. The only thing that seems clear to me is that, given the opportunity, I would gladly have laid down my life as one part of a national purchase of freedom for those enslaved. I shudder to think of what we might now look like if, as a nation, we had taken the low road during those terrible, fateful years.

Well, Anonymous, I’m done for now. I have more mundane things in mind right now. There’s a window that needs to be painted and a lawn that needs to be mowed.

I await, with interest, your response.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Phil:

I'm surprised you thought my post was worth responding to, but thank you for doing so. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to read every single post on your extensive website, and my impressions about both you and your writings are probably not as complete as would be ideal. So, I appreciate your comments on the issue of compromise. However, there are some views on your blog that I don’t agree with, and I’ve posted responses to them when appropriate. I do not write on this site to stir up acrimony — there are enough trolls out there — and I hope that no one thinks I have.

In fact, the reason that I post on this site in the first place is because your own writings are so thoughtful. As I’ve said before, I have no illusions of converting opponents to my way of thinking. I post here because your writing inspires me to clarify my own thoughts. I mean that as a compliment. I also post here just to remind certain readers — in a non-confrontational way, I hope — that other points of view exist.

First, I don’t mean to hide behind the nom du lâche “Anonymous.” It must have escaped notice, but I sign all of my postings “Rob in L.A.” For those reading who wonder why I do this, it’s because my name is Rob and I live as an East Coast transplant in a certain southern California city. I’m a writer in my 40s recovering from major surgery — in other words, with way too much time on my hands. While trying to figure out how to get my career back on track (or at least pretending to), I lollygag the hours away surfing the ’Net. Since I don’t have my own webpage, there’s nothing for me to link my postings to, so I use the “anonymous” button on your “reply” page to submit my comments — thus the “Anonymous said...” above what I’ve written. That’s all I’d like to say about myself for now. I don’t mean to abuse my residual anonymity.

On the subject of “culture wars,” I understand that the term has been hyped by the media as an exaggerated way to describe social disagreements within America. However, the term has taken on a disturbing ring of reality. Where I think that our republic (do we still say “democracy” after the 2000 election?) thrives on reasoned and considered discussion, the political media thrive on hyping arguments to the extreme. Why watch a level-headed debate on TV when more people will tune into a shouting match? Why put readers to sleep with a lucid argument when you can boil their blood with bombast? Heat sells; light doesn’t. (Fortunately, this doesn’t apply to your own website.) I think this has had an adverse effect on public discourse. As a result, most media-savvy politicians and pundits speak in absolute terms which don’t allow much room for compromise, terms repeated by their audiences. By positioning uncompromising audiences as far apart as possible, modern political speech leaves little space to come together, and this is what gives the phrase “culture wars” a meaning beyond the metaphorical.

Consider this statement by Bush political advisor Karl Rove to the New York state Conservative Party earlier this summer:

“Conservatives saw saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might of the United States militarily against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to submit a petition.... Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said, ‘We will defeat our enemies.’ Liberals saw what happened to us and said, ‘We must understand our enemies.’”

Putting aside Rove’s apparent disbelief in the old adage “Know thine enemy” for the moment, this is appalling talk for someone so high up in the administration. For starters, it’s untrue: Most liberals — including myself — were horrified by the 9/11 attacks, put aside petty partisanship, and supported President Bush and Prime Minister Blair in their call to hold the Taliban in Afghanistan accountable — by military force, if necessary. True, not everyone wanted to rush into a shooting war, but most agreed that some kind of tough, judicious action was required. Hey, if the Taliban (however uncharacteristic it would have been of them) had voluntarily turned over the al-Qaeda leaders to the U.S., a shooting war wouldn’t have been needed. Rove suggests that anything less than a shooting war would have been wimpy.

Secondly, Rove’s speech is extremely divisive in ways that are different, I believe, from pre-9/11 partisan rhetoric. Now, I realize that all political parties have had their “red meat” speeches to true believers that exaggerate differences between themselves and other political organizations, but Rove’s pronouncement went further. Rove basically said that “liberals” (e.g., Democrats) countenanced a murderous attack on our own soil that left more than 3,000 people dead. He basically said that we liberal Americans are unwilling to do what it takes to defend our own country. He basically said that to be liberal was to be disloyal.

I believe that if Bush and Rove really regarded this country as being at “war,” they would recognize the need for bipartisanship on issues of national security, and they would be doing more to bring this country together. Instead, they are hyping 9/11 for short-term Republican Party gain. This doesn’t look like leadership in a time of war; it looks like crass partisan politics.

This kind of fiery rhetoric, fanned by much of the media, is hurting this country. Every time I hear the phrase “culture wars,” I’m reminded of the bellicose tone of political discourse. It seems to me that this war-like posturing could turn into the real thing if we’re not careful. If we could think of our cultural disagreements in terms other than “wars,” it would go a long way towards positioning those disagreements as reconcilable, as something other than an all-or-nothing confrontation. What is reconcilable and what is not? This leads me to your next point.

The reason why I mentioned Shelby Foote, the Civil War, and compromise in my last post is because it reminds us of what happens when we Americans fail to find common ground. We should all think very carefully before we say we believe in a cause strongly enough to take up arms against our fellow citizens. Timothy McVeigh, Eric Robert Rudolph, and those who murdered abortion doctors in the name of being “pro-life” did their causes no favors. It’s people like these who chillingly make the term “culture wars” more than a metaphor.

As for African-Americans, their tragic history of forced servitude didn’t end with the Civil War. For almost 100 years thereafter, as I’m sure you know, the South perpetuated a caste system through legal segregation and a Jim Crow mentality. For all its importance as a step forward in human rights, the victory of the Union in the Civil War couldn’t break this American version of apartheid as completely as one would wish. Why did the slow march of the civil-rights movement succeed where the sudden trauma of the Civil War could not? Time, of course, is one answer. However, the best explanation that I’ve read is that a post-World War II America could no longer abide segregation. As an isolationist country, America could practice segregation without caring what the rest of the world thought. But with the Soviet Union vying as a rival superpower during the Cold War, America had to present itself as an exemplar of freedom to those countries which it wanted to join its sphere of influence. Many of those countries were Third World nations inhabited by non-white peoples, to whom legalized racial discrimination in an supposedly “free” land would have seemed hypocritical. For the sake of America’s global standing, segregation had to go. This isn’t to say that fighting and dying for the Union in the Civil War wasn’t a noble cause, but even great problems can sometimes be solved non-violently — or, given the violence during the civil-rights era, at least short of a shooting war.

Regarding George W. Bush’s rhetoric about bringing freedom to the Middle East, his words don’t resonate with me. His strained and convoluted oratory (if that’s not too generous a word) about Arab democracy sounds to me like a fall-back position. As I’ve said on this site before, we went into Iraq militarily because we needed to “disarm” Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, which he was going to use against us at any moment — or so we were told. Throughout 2003, I gave Bush the benefit of the doubt whenever he asserted that Hussein had weapons. Now that no WMD have turned up after more than a year of looking for them, now that Bush’s rationale for going to war has proven untrue, now that we know we were egregiously unprepared for the aftermath of the invasion, Bush is changing the subject. All of his talk about bringing democracy to a troubled region sounds to me like Bush is making the best of a bad situation — a situation made bad in the first place because, I believe, Bush thought that a shooting war with Iraq would be quick, easy, and good for him politically in the 2004 election.

As I said before on this site, if the U.S. had some kind of moral obligation to remove Hussein from power as its primary causus belli, Bush should have just made that argument from the very beginning and tried to convince the American people to go to war with Iraq for that reason. The fact that he hyped WMD at the start suggests that a majority of the American people needed another reason for removing Hussein militarily. In other words, Bush’s new rhetoric about democracy in the Middle East after dire warnings about Hussein’s (non-existent) WMD comes off as bait and switch. Today, I’m astounded that so many Americans are giving Bush a pass on how wrong he was about WMD and how badly he’s mismanaged the war. I guess that some Americans (present company excluded?) were just so eager for revenge after 9/11 that they are willing to forgive Bush anything as long as the U.S. got to show some muscle in Iraq.

This post is already pretty long, and I haven’t addressed all of the topics that you mentioned in your blog post. Pornography especially is a complicated topic that doesn’t lend itself to short discussions. Suffice it to say: While I’m sure there is plenty of pornography out there that I would find distasteful, I don’t think that the genre — be it Playboy magazine or something stronger — is a 100% bad thing. Also, while the First Amendment, like pre-war intelligence, can be abused, I’d rather have it abused than not have it at all. Erotic entertainment has always been with us, though it was more carefully closeted before the 1960s. Its new availability via the Internet and other electronic delivery systems presents new problems regarding parents controlling what their children consume — problems that I expect will eventually be solved. But in this new availability of pornography, I do not see the fall of Western civilization.

To conclude, my bottom line is this: The more that we talk about cultural differences as “wars” and the more we present them as an either/or choice between two polar extremes, the more we lose sight of our ability to negotiate and compromise. Inflaming passions needlessly may boost ratings or rouse a partisan audience, but it also frays social civility and our need to live together. Some may think that I’m obsessing too much over a trivial and harmless catch-phrase like “culture wars,” and they may be right. But I have never seen this country so polarized, both politically and culturally. Call me over-imaginative, but I can picture this metaphorical war turning into a non-metaphorical one if we continue not to listen to each other. In the years to come, I hope that we Americans can stop talking about “culture wars” and start talking about “culture peace.”

Sincerely and respectfully,
Rob in L.A. (a.k.a. Anonymous)