Caustic cultural skirmishes and bulling accomplish nothing, except to recruit and raise funds for the other side. Time to agree to disagree agreeably. More from The Case for Civility's Os Guinness:
In the words of Justice Wiley Rutledge in 1947, “We have staked the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.” Justice Hugo Black argued similarly, “The wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach”—ignoring the plain historical fact that Jefferson’s wall of separation was as characteristically porous; or better still, it was as serpentine and wavy as the walls of his beloved “ackademical village,” the University of Virginia
And many nations have grown wary of “human-rights imperialism,” suspicious that “human rights” are a spurious excuse for “transnational interference” in the affairs of sovereign states. In such a skeptical climate, cut-flower rights-without-roots will eventually wither as ideals that are hollow, meddlesome, and open to abuse—while real human rights will suffer in practice after they have been weakened in theory, and at the hands of democrats rather than tyrants.
What the exodus was for the Jews and conversion was spiritually for the Puritans, revolution was politically for the founders. Similarly, what covenant was for both the Jews and the Puritans, constitution was for the founders. And what return was for the Jew and revival was for the Puritans, Mason’s “frequent recurrence” and Jefferson’s “revolution every twenty years” were for the founders.
So the future is never a rerun of the past. But the best way forward is partly to go back, so that the remembered past is the key to a renewed future, and a usable past is a liberal force rather than being purely conservative, let alone reactionary or antiquarian.
The symptoms of the collapse of public life are widespread and include a long list of broader developments: the disappearance of urban public space, the shrinking of a book-and-newspaper-reading public, the growth of gated communities and constant surveillance, the rise of political primaries and the weakening of political parties, the decline of elections into public-relations contests, the degradation of political deliberation and debate into culture warring, the dominance of television as a source of news and of entertainment and of profit as the priority in television, the growing resort to referendums at the expense of legislatures, the precipitous collapse of trust and voter participation, the rise of political dynasties and celebrity candidates, the expansion of lobbies and lobbyists, the increase of cronyism and corruption, the appearance of billionaire politicians and of the mounting power of money as the loudest voice in America, and the exponential growth of secrecy and classified documents.
Overall, the fall of public man confronts American democracy with a blunt question: What would American citizens think if they were actually encouraged to think for themselves as democracy assumes?
The journalist Fareed Zakaria has described the broad outcome of these trends as an excess of democracy, and in a non-republican direction that the founders would have feared: “There can be such a thing as too much democracy—too much of an emphatically good thing.”
James Hunter, a leading analyst of the culture wars, describes the net effect as “a public discourse defined by the art and trade of negation.” Name-calling, insult, ridicule, guilt by association, caricature, innuendo, accusation, denunciation, negative ads, and deceptive and manipulative videos have replaced deliberation and debate. Neither side talks to the other side, only about them; and there is no pretense of democratic engagement, let alone a serious effort at persuasion.
Needless to say, the culture-war industry is lucrative as well as politically profitable, and a swelling band of profiteering culture warriors are rushing to strike gold with their wild attacks on the other side, all for the consumption of their own supporters and the promotion of their books and programs. But the toll of such trench warfare on the republic is heavy. First, the incessant culture warring trivializes and distorts important issues and reduces America to a Punch-and-Judy democracy in which cartoon stereotypes rail at each other with no serious engagement, let alone deliberation and debate. Second, the culture wars demean the participants themselves.
Many who start with thoughtful positions slip into a partisanship in which team playing trumps truth, decency degenerates into malice, and constant attacks become a hostility that hardens into extremism. I can only trust that the better people at least have the grace to be ashamed in private of their conduct in public. Third, the culture wars become a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecy. In the bitter clash of polar views, the truths at stake are lost and each side becomes the other’s double, the closest reflection of the other, the main argument for the other, and the chief fund-raiser for the other. The finger-wagging, mudslinging accusations reinforce the perceptions of the other side as the dangerous and aggressive enemy. Every conservative becomes “the Far Right,” and every liberal “the Far Left.” What some do once is taken to stand for all that the enemy “is really about.” Each side, hypocritical enough to pretend that it lives up to its own hype, is equally insistent that the other side’s worst is truly all that it is. American political advertising is sinking slowly toward a level worthy of Soviet propaganda.
Conservatives are currently unashamed of demonizing their enemies both at home and abroad, whereas liberals tend to criticize the demonization internationally yet indulge in it shamelessly at home. The same people who are too sophisticated to speak of an “axis of evil” or of “Islamo-fascists” are only too happy to fire at their fellow Americans such epithets as “theocrats,” “American ayatollahs,” and “Christian fascists.”
Or yet again, the conflict can be viewed in part as the unwitting product of the “mediated” age and its need for sound bites, sensationalism, verbal blood sports, and red-meat appeals to emotionalism.
For too long Americans have allowed the warlords of the culture wars to expand their power until they dominate many of the spheres of public life like bullies on a playground. It is time for concerned Americans to say, “A pox on both your houses!” and to reclaim the public square for citizens of all faiths.