We used to live on a planet defined by collectivism/communism and individualism/market capitalism. It was a crude way to describe the second half of the 20th Century, but it worked relatively well. Vast, stultified masses were toiling under the disproven theories of dead Victorians in Russia, China, and parts of South America; while the West either endured a kind of socialism (in Western Europe/India) or a more robust capitalism. We know how that struggle played out. What we didn’t know was what would replace it, when India, China and Russia – let alone South America – embraced, in varying degrees, the tangible success of the market in making people’s material lives more pleasant than at any point in post-hunter-gatherer human history.
But we know now. Market capitalism could not be restrained merely to the economic realm. It necessarily empowered individualist challenges to tradition and totalist faith – and, empowered also by the information technology revolution – these challenges could not be geographically contained any longer. And so in the increasingly fundamentalist Pakistan, one of the most popular Google search terms is “gay sex”. In Nigeria, 30 school children are burned alive for the crime of getting educated outside of religious rote indoctrination. In Tehran, ecstasy is easy to find, while in the Iranian hinterlands, young gay men are hanged in public. In Turkey, middle class secularists are in open revolt against creeping Islamization. In Israel, the once largely secular socialist country is becoming more and more dominated by religious fundamentalists who are now shaping its foreign policy in such a way as to provoke religious war rather than prevent it.
In Egypt, we have just witnessed a key precedent for civil war. The secular pragmatists and liberals – having lost to Islamists in the last election by a landslide – have engineered a counter-coup against the incompetence and fundamentalism of the Morsi government, which showed not the faintest clue of how to run a country. What is particularly striking to me is how each side now has a clearly different set of facts than the other. For the secularists, it is a given that the Muslim Brotherhood started the fracas that became yesterday’s massacre. For the Islamists, and anyone with open eyes, the overwhelming evidence is of a premeditated slaughter of unarmed citizens.
In America, violence, mercifully, is held at bay in these struggles, but the political system has effectively ground to a halt under their weight. Despite getting fewer votes than the Democrats for president, House and Senate, the Republicans are using their gerrymandered majority in the House to block even executive branch appointees from approval. They are determined to destroy universal healthcare. They are launching a national campaign to shut down abortion clinics. They deny climate science. They voted against tax cuts – purely because a Democratic president proposed them.
There are relatively easy compromises to be had right now in a sane republic: short-term stimulus accompanied by long-term structural tax and entitlement reform; reform of universal healthcare to empower individuals rather than burden companies; pricing CO2 more aggressively to abate climate change; investing in infrastructure to help accelerate growth in the long run. There are good arguments to be had in all these areas – how best to tackle climate change? what share of the economy should the welfare state take as boomers age? – but the differences, compared with the crises facing many other countries, are relatively minor.
But the cultural gulf has rarely been as deep or as wide. My view on this is that our division is not really about politics or even ideology. Ideology is an often ill-fitting misnomer for something much more powerful – deep cultural alienation between the two parts of America. That alienation, in my view, is at its core the same alienation we are seeing in countries as diverse as Turkey and Egypt and Iran and Israel. It’s about the response to modernity – a choice between fear/rejection and relish/adoption. It’s between a red world and a blue world. Or rather an increasingly blue world in deadly conflict between an increasingly red one.
David Brooks reviewed Charles Taylor’s masterpiece, “The Secular Age”, today. Money quote:
Taylor’s investigation begins with this question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?
The real question, however, is how societies can retain their coherence and unity when they are caught between the reassuring certainties of fundamentalism and the exhilarating disorientation of modernity. The worldviews are from such different places – and are now penetrating cultures which, before the globalization of information, were able to keep them at bay. And so a mutilated woman in Saudi Arabia can see unfathomable sexual pornography with a click of a mouse. And young, hip Tehran youth look on in disbelief as the crudest forms of religious frenzy guide an economy toward the rocks. If you go from the central cities of these countries and venture further and further into the rural heartlands, you will find not only that the blue parts of these countries are getting bluer, but that, in response, many of the red parts are getting redder. Soon, both parties create a different set of facts, as well as beliefs, about their world. Until they are barely able to communicate with each other at all.
The places where these forces are not as strong are in Western Europe and China – where traditionalist religion has either died or was killed by decades of brutalizing communist atheism. But in those countries where fundamentalism has not lost its power, and where modernity has not lost its seductive appeal, the conflict is deepening. I thought Barack Obama could somehow transcend this, and help move us forward. He has in many ways, but he is not engaging in an argument with his opponents, because in a religious and cultural war, arguments are just less potent than symbolism, resentment, identity and a divine claim to absolute truth. My fear is that these two forces are intensifying the strength of the other. Egyptians now have their own set of facts about yesterday’s massacre – but we in America have FNC and MSNBC. And the more the fundamentalist forces recoil from a multi-racial, multi-cultural, sexually free society, the more secularists are tempted to move from condescension to outright hostility. Before long, we have atheism in its most unadulterated form banishing people of faith from any role in public discourse – and vice-versa (think of climate denialism among those declaring God in control of the weather).
All of this is an epic struggle for meaning – and the possibility of meaning in any communal sense. That’s why it’s so intractable. That’s why it is tearing countries and cultures apart. That’s why reasoned debate, however vital, is so disarmed right now. Because pride, honor and identity are at stake. The ressentiment in the rural heartland is echoed by the bigotry of liberal, urban Americans when they discuss their fellow citizens in the redder, fundamentalist states.
I’m not sure there can be a political resolution to this in the short term. Obama was as good a try as any – and he has made under-appreciated pragmatic progress in reforming America, shifting our foreign policy back toward sanity, saving us from a second Great Depression or the fate of much of Europe, and even winning universal healthcare. But there comes a point at which he simply hits a brick wall, just as the Islamists did in Egypt and the Green Movement did in Iran and the secularists have in Turkey and the liberal individualists in Tel Aviv against the settlers on the West Bank.
The only way through this impasse is through religious reform, in my view. This may take more than my lifetime. But proving the ineptness of theocracy, exposing the fallacies of the fundamentalist psyche, while treasuring varieties of religious experience that include within them a toleration of the conscience of others, is surely the only way forward. It will not be easy getting to a more purple world. But if it is not possible, then we face a century of warfare and social dysfunction. The unanswered question, to my mind, is whether this dynamic has so purged religious institutions of free thinkers and writers and theologians and saints that it has sealed its own – and everyone else’s – demise. As a Christian I refuse to believe that. But as a writer and observer of the world, it becomes harder each day.
(Photos in descending order: Reproductive rights advocates fill the Texas capitol celebrating the defeat of the controversial anti-abortion bill SB5, which was up for a vote on the last day of the legislative special session June 25, 2013 in Austin, Texas. By Erich Schlegel/Getty Images.
A woman protestor plays with a water gun on Taksim square on July 6, 2013 before clashes on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. Riot police fired tear gas and water cannon on July 6 to disperse some 3,000 demonstrators who tried to enter flashpoint protest spot Taksim Square in Istanbul. By Bulent Cilic/AFP/Getty Images.
Donna George of Houston, TX, stands and prays during the non-denominational prayer and fasting event, entitled ‘The Response’ at Reliant Stadium August 6, 2011 in Houston, Texas. Thousands attended the event organized by Gov. Rick Perry in order to pray for God to help save ‘a nation in crisis’ referring to America. By Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images.
An Orthodox Jewish man chants slogans to protest against members of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall who pray with traditional Jewish prayer apparel for men on June 9, 2013 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City marking the first day of the Jewish month of Tamuz. By Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images.
Egyptian supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi sit in front of barbed wire fencing that blocks the access to the headquarters of the Republican Guard in Cairo on July 8, 2013. By Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images.)