Here's the news: Celebrities are at the barricades protesting an unjust war, the religious right is screaming at the liberated left about who, exactly, owns a woman's reproductive system, and whites are trying to figure out what to do about minorities in the classroom.
To some of us, this sounds unnervingly like the 1960s. In an unsettling jolt of deja vu, we debate issues we thought had been retired a generation ago: whether to engage a small foreign nation in battle; whether to allow women the right to terminate a pregnancy; whether to endorse affirmative action. There is a difference, though. This time around, the underlying issues are far more complicated.
Current events can make even the most committed partisan feel like an ideological jellyhead. We long for clarity. I was seized a few weeks back by a compelling desire to listen to the music of my youth, when I knew where I stood and why. I ordered a Bob Dylan greatest hits CD and waited for enlightenment.
Life was so straightforward, back in the days of the counterculture. We were at war with a country whose crime was to espouse an ideology we rejected, a country that had never heard the phrase weapons of mass destruction and had neither threatened us nor committed acts of aggression in our direction. We sustained a striated social structure that denied opportunity purely on the basis of gender and race. Reproduction was destiny; a woman's place was in the home. Color was fate, as well; all a black person had to do to cause a civil explosion was take a seat on a bus or walk up the steps of a public school.
Change might have been difficult to implement, but it was oh so easy to know what to do. We needed to get our boys out of Vietnam, our women into the world outside the home (including their doctors' offices, if they so chose) and minorities into previously segregated classrooms. Issues were cast in high relief, and nobody had much of a problem figuring out their loyalties.
This time around, there is no such thing as an easy answer. Iraq, with its weaponry, its threats, its atrocities against the Kurds, is not the same as Vietnam. Every morning the headlines affirm what I have wrestled with for months -- that this is the puff-pastry era of global politics, with as many layers of reality as there are in a good mille-feuille. The enemy may be playing a shell game with weapons inspectors, but our president sounds too often like a playground bully who cannot figure out, to quote West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, how to "find a graceful way out of a box of our own making." I do not trust anyone on either side who can utter the words "weapons of mass destruction" without quaking in his boots, whether they are of the desert or cowboy variety.
A good child of the Nuclear Age, I cling to my antiwar stance because I do not want to be a mote in a mushroom cloud by dinnertime -- and not, I confess, because I comprehend the nuances of foreign policy. But then, I am not sure that anyone gets all of it, even the people on the inside. Holding fast to a position, these days, seems to require the ability not to see certain things.
Abortion is just as perplexing, because we have had 30 years to see how difficult choice can be. Not as painful as a back-alley abortion, or dropping out of school at 14 because no one fully explained birth control to you, or living forever with the consequences of incest or rape, but painful. We have learned the hard way that supporting choice is not the same thing as endorsing abortion, that what once seemed an emblem of women's liberation is, in truth, a last resort.
The current focus on late-term abortion has to gnaw at the conscience of even the most committed pro-choicer, for it is a truly repellent notion -- and yet banning the procedure could endanger women's hard-fought right to control their reproductive future. So the pro-choice movement defends an option we all hope never to have to use, lest the ground give way beneath us. How much simpler it was to fight for any choice at all.
Simpler, too, to support integrating our public schools and colleges: How could any moral person oppose a child's equal education? Now the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy is under attack by an administration that complains about a quota system and yet supports the kind of legacy favoritism that gave George W. an advantage over first-generation applicants at Yale.
Run that by me again: President Bush says it is OK for a white, middle-class student to be shouldered out of the way by a college applicant who has even more advantages than she does, but it is not OK if that slot goes to a nonlegacy minority applicant. I would like someone other than a university development director to explain the logic of that one.
The truth is that any program designed to offer a helping hand to one group will, by necessity, show the back of that hand to someone else. As long as we keep pretending that diversity looks like a pie chart, some well-intentioned Caucasian parents will wonder why a minority child with third-generation money, professional parents and a private-school lineage is considered a proper target for a lowered-expectation recruitment program. We could talk about an economics-based program, but any admission that the issue is more complex than we first thought sounds, sadly, like vulnerability.
The peace movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement: Progress, in each instance, means new subtleties, contradictions and issues that confound efforts at consensus.
Still, confusion can be very good for accountability. In a rather remarkable display either of arrogance or myopia, Bush has said he was not moved by recent antiwar demonstrations around the country. He is so sure of what's right, unlike many of his countrymen, unlike the heads of several European nations, that he is prepared to move forward rather than reconsider. He is similarly underwhelmed by three decades of choice, and by hard work on diversity. I never before thought of the president as a '60s kind of guy, but he is so, well, polarized. Hard-line.
In the face of such clarity, I have no choice but to set aside my situational bewilderment and get back to basics. I rail at the headlines. I play the Dylan CD for my teenage daughter on the way to school. I dig through the current morass and reclaim my indignation. The real test of our principles is whether we uphold them in such a complicated world. Let us not forget the fundamentals. We can sort out the fine points as we go along.