The election campaign made it official. These are the Disunited States. There is “red America”: conservative, Republican, religious. And there is “blue America”: liberal, Democratic, secular. Everybody’s message from the election results is that red America won, and blue America must change or die.
It’s a terrible exaggeration, of course. People have different mixes of values, and states have different mixes of people. More than 50 million, or 44%, of the 115 million citizens who voted for either George W. Bush or John F. Kerry on Tuesday live in states that went for the other guy. These misfits go out in public, mingle with others and often are treated like normal human beings. (For the half-million that voted for Ralph Nader, it may be a different story.)
A moment of surprising resonance in the campaign was Jon Stewart’s Oct. 15 appearance on “Crossfire.” Taking just a tad too seriously his recent appointment by acclamation as the Walter Cronkite of our time, Stewart begged the show’s hosts to “stop hurting America” with their divisiveness. I used to work on that show, and I still think the robust, even raucous, and ideologically undisguised hammering of politicians on “Crossfire” is more intellectually honest than more decorous shows where journalists either pretend neutrality or pontificate as if somebody had voted them into office.
Still, recognizing that the mood has changed since 9/11, I have been erratically and unsuccessfully pitching a different approach. CNN is not interested. Nor are the other news networks. If anyone reading this wants it, it’s yours. Free. The idea, in a word, “Cease-Fire.” You get your politicians or your experts or your interest-group representatives, and instead of poking them with a stick to widen their disagreement, you nudge and bully and cajole them toward some kind of common ground. It sounds goody-goody, I know, but the intention would be more Judge Judy than Bill Moyers.
At the moment, though, one side of the great divide is being called on for something closer to abjection than mere reconciliation.
So yes, OK, fine. I’m a terrible person -- barely a person at all, really, and certainly not a real American -- because I voted for the losing candidate on Tuesday. If you insist -- and you do -- I will rethink my fundamental beliefs from scratch because they are shared by only 47% of the electorate.
And please let me, or any other liberal, know if there is anything else we can do to abase ourselves. Abandon our core values? Pander to yours? Not a problem. Happy to do it. Anything, anything at all, to stop this shower of helpful advice.
There’s just one little request I have. If it’s not too much trouble, of course. Call me profoundly misguided if you want. Call me immoral if you must. But could you please stop calling me arrogant and elitist?
I mean, look at it this way. (If you don’t mind, that is.) It’s true that people on my side of the divide want to live in a society where women are free to choose and where gay relationships have civil equality with straight ones. And you want to live in a society where the opposite is true. These are some of those conflicting values everyone is talking about. But at least my values -- as deplorable as I’m sure they are -- don’t involve any direct imposition on you. We don’t want to force you to have an abortion or to marry someone of the same sex, whereas you do want to close out those possibilities for us. Which is more arrogant?
We on my side of the great divide don’t, for the most part, believe that our values are direct orders from God. We don’t claim that they are immutable and beyond argument. We are, if anything, crippled by reason and open-mindedness, by a desire to persuade rather than insist. Which philosophy is more elitist? Which is more contemptuous of people who disagree?
As many conservative voices have noted, American society suffers from a cult of grievance. To put it crudely, everyone wants some of the things blacks got from the civil rights movement: sympathy, publicity, occasional preferential treatment and a general ability to put everybody else on the defensive. No doubt liberals are responsible for this deplorable situation, and I apologize. Again. As a softheaded liberal, I even like the idea that our competitive culture has a built-in consolation prize.
But be fair! (A liberal whine, I know. Sorry.) Conservatives shouldn’t assert the prerogatives of victory and then claim the compensations of defeat as well. You can’t oppress us and simultaneously complain that we are oppressing you.
Well, of course you can do this, if you want. Who’s to stop you? I just kinda wish you wouldn’t. If you don’t mind my asking. Thanks. Sorry.