Friday, March 06, 2009

What Politics Has Done to Us

Thomas Ricks, a Washington Post military correspondent and author of two books (Fiasco and the brand-new The Gamble) on the invasion of Iraq, recently told of a lecture he gave near Mills Valley, CA, which generally votes quite progressive.

At one point, he argued that despite the disastrous nature of the decision to invade, American troops should stay because it is the least bad outcome. In particular, it might (no guarantees) prevent genocide. At this point people in the crowd began shouting things like “So what?” and “Genocide happens all the time.”

Now, I do not suppose that the people near Mill Valley support, or are even indifferent to, genocide. They do not hate Iraqis or Arabs generally; indeed, they undoubtedly style themselves the opposite sorts of people. It would not surprise me at all if some of the people in the audience had been active in the campaign to save the innocent in Darfur, or (if they are old enough) East Timor. Clearly, there is something going on several psychological layers under the surface, and that something is, I suspect, a feverish wish to avoid George Bush’s war succeeding.

So what can account for this? Politics is always about ambitious people seeking to set the population against one another, and we seem to be reaching a point (perhaps it has been building for a long time) where the defeat of our domestic political enemies is more important than our common success. In my own moments of weakness, I occasionally briefly find myself wanting the Dow to sink faster so as to turn the American people against the breakneck collectivization of their society. I also perhaps worry subconsciously that they will turn out to have been right, a natural but unattractive human quality in a democratic society.

The disagreement doesn’t even seem to be over issues, the way it was during the struggle to abolish slavery. It seems to be a form of cultural tribalism, the more traditional form now harder to sell in America (itself a vindication of the country). Not just the large issues such as war and peace and statism vs. freedom, but even historically small-bore issues such as gay marriage or school vouchers become apocalyptic struggles.

In a way, this is a luxury that a wealthy, stable country can afford. But for how long? Those who can afford to more and more live in neighborhoods with others with similar political views. The late movie critic Pauline Kael once famously noted that she couldn’t understand how Richard Nixon won the 1972 election because almost no one she knew voted for him. That kind of self-segregation is hardly unique to Manhattan, and is probably getting worse. As students of ethnic conflict have long known, those you don’t know well are easy to demonize, to relegate to the subhuman. Because we travel in different circles, we not only hate their policies, we hate them.

I make a point of not choosing my friends on the basis of politics. (Given that I work in academia and live in a lefty college town, otherwise I might have no friends at all.) But I wonder how common that belief is. I do suspect that the funneling of ever more disagreements into an ever-more expansive state will make this process worse, will erode the sense of common destiny that once undergirded our political differences, and will thus make the American experiment in self-government ever-more fragile. The inculcation in Americans that politics is the answer to solving their problems (go here for an example that is, because it takes advantage of young people, particularly reprehensible) is, paradoxically, making it ever-less capable of doing so.


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