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Apr 29, 2004 8:16 am

The Great Divide

Television and radio commentator Bill O’Reilly is an intelligent, decent, strong, and at times astoundingly superficial person. Not long ago, O’Reilly wondered aloud why the country continued to be so deeply divided. After all, he said, didn’t George W. Bush promise to be a great reconciler? And here we are, four years later, at each others’ throats in a Culture War. The country seems divided right down the middle, just as the poll numbers between Bush and Kerry are almost equal. O’Reilly wondered how the president had failed.

Bush has indeed attempted reconciliation, and he has gone out of his way on many occasions to reach out to those who have dismissed him as a crude, insensitive servant of the rich. “Compassionate conservatism” is an effort, at least in part, to show that the Administration has accepted many of the claims and demands of the Left. But the president’s efforts have failed to mollify his critics who, in this election year, have demonized him more than ever. The truth is that the Culture War is beyond his ability to control. The Great Ideological Divide in America, and indeed throughout the West, has been developing for decades and will no doubt continue into the foreseeable future. While extremely complex, the clash is very often rooted in the meaning of human existence and cannot easily be transformed into peaceful and constructive dialogue.

A case in point. Last month the President signed into law the first recognition of federal legal rights for unborn children. (A crippling amendment, offered by feminist leader Sen. Diane Feinstein, was defeated in the Senate by a single vote.) This is “Laci’s Law,” named after pregnant Laci Peterson, who was murdered. Now it is a separate federal crime to harm the unborn child during an attack on the mother. At the signing, in the presence of Laci Peterson’s mother and an exuberant audience of Right to Life advocates, President Bush said, “If the crime is murder and the unborn child’s life ends, justice demands a full accounting under the law. The suffering of two victims can never equal only one offense.” More than two dozen states have similar laws, including California, where Peterson’s husband Scott is being tried for two murders.

As White House aide Karen Hughes has reminded us in her powerful new book, George W. Bush is a man of principle. (To the Left, of course, he is simply pacifying his religious fanatic supporters.) In taking the position on personhood before birth, the President has alienated a vast number of leftists and others who refer to the “fetus” as a thing and believe it can be destroyed without consequence. The advocates of abortion care not at all about Jeremiah I:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” or other biblical references (Psalm 139:12; Joel 31:15; Isaiah 44:2, 24) to God’s relationship to the unborn. They are actively hostile to the teachings of Christianity’s largest church concerning the sacredness of human life, from conception to natural death. The gruesome descriptions of “partial-birth abortion,” involving the methods by which physicians crush the skulls of babies, make no impact on those who favor abortion in all circumstances.

There can be no compromise between the two sides on this issue. And there are many other issues, of course, that divide the two principal camps in the Culture War. The differences are profound and hinge in large part about the meaning of life on this planet. The tendency on the Left is to see a Creator (if there is one at all) without an active presence in human affairs, a history made by man alone (meaning in part that we make our own moral standards), and a belief in mankind’s innate goodness and power to generate progress by transforming environments. The tendency on the Right is to take the opposite view of these abiding issues.

Joseph Epstein has written recently that the conservative “takes the world as given, a place always full of sin, silliness, and a rich surplus of stupidity—but also much goodness and mirth. The conservative fancies he views the world, as the philosophers say, as in itself it really is. Utopia is not his idea of a good time; it is not, for him, an idea at all but an illusion.” Epistein contends that “the defense of tradition, decency and liberty is the conservative’s job,” not the inevitably disappointing and frustrating task of attempting to create heaven on earth.

Many conservatives also believe that ultimate truth is revealed not invented, and that to deny what we have long known to be right and wrong will mean that anything goes, a prescription for the destruction of our civilization.

Most Americans, reading little, and paying virtually no attention to ideology, are caught in the middle of the Culture War battlefield, wondering which way to turn. The direction in which they lean strongly will ultimately determine the outcome. Moral relativism, in the guise of tolerance, and narcissism are increasingly popular, being touted in the mass media and in the schools. The Left has every reason to be optimistic.

The historian’s duty is to understand the warfare. And to explain to others that no single American president is likely to end the conflict soon.

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Jonathan Dresner - 5/1/2004

The idea that the complexity and diversity of opinions in this country could be adequately represented by two parties, two images, is absurd. That it looks that way is largely the result of polarizing rhetoric and bad, bad polling.

One of the historian's duties is to understand the rhetorical and social forces that obscure more important and meaningful issues, to reveal the processes under the epiphenomenal discourses, to clarify the complex and to complicate the oversimplified.

The penultimate paragraph, revealing that "most Americans" aren't on either side of this supposedly deep cleavage, reveals the shallowness of this conception. Do you suppose that "most Americans" have no view of God, no view of politics, no principles? Well, actually, you do, as you've written before. You're wrong.