A couple of days ago, as the US Supreme Court prepared to visit the interminably vexed question of gay marriage, I had an interesting exchange of views with a Facebook friend I deeply respect, Michael Potts, Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C. A Christian of a powerful intellectual bent, Michael expressed the view that “we can’t go on the way we’re going without the culture war turning into something more than a metaphor”, and that the eventual solution might be a move towards setting up semi-autonomous communities of like-minded individuals.
The same idea—taken a bit further—has been floated by a number of individuals, including some libertarian billionaires. Their proposals essentially envision de facto city-states with their own governments and laws, sometimes with the goal of creating tech hubs just outside US territorial waters so as to circumvent the US visa requirements which are increasingly threatening to put a brake on a strongly resurgent tech industry. Other groups driven more by ideals than business considerations just think it would be really cool to experiment with new types of social order, and I confess the idea holds great allure. Most of these ideas involve seasteading, the locating of these new communities on manmade islands or even simply recycled oil rig platforms.
There are strong arguments both ways. At the same time as I think our only hope as a society, even as a species, is to learn to compromise, reach accommodations, and work together with a shared vision, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this is a lost cause. It seems to me that conflict and struggle are so deeply hardwired into our primate psyche that there isn’t a hope in hell—absent forced external tampering or thought control, and none of us want that—of ever resolving our deepest differences. Not, at least, within a pluralist, democratic system, and least of all within a dog-eat-dog capitalist society with free speech and free media. And we know how well the alternatives worked.
I remember back in the early oughts talking to some fellow who was worried about the “black helicopters” and the UN’s “New World Order,” a popular right-wing meme about the Antichrist forcing free nations into a single world government. I pointed out that the maps of Eastern Europe were being redrawn every few months, it seemed, in the wake of the collapse of communism, and that the exact opposite was happening, with people everywhere who’d been welded together under strongmen like Tito wanting instead to secede and govern themselves.
The internet has of course added fuel to this particular fire, both directly and indirectly, with traditional media forced to ratchet up controversy and partisanship to compete for a shrinking audience. And while I—an extreme social liberal on many issues—would like to think that we can reach accords on the issues that divide us, and daily hear Rodney King’s impassioned words, I know the chances of this ever happening are close to zero.
The irony perhaps is that while we of social liberal or true libertarian bent (as opposed to the neo-libertarian conservatives) are willing to let others live the way they want and not impose our ideals on them or dictate their lifestyles, it’s just about impossible for a devoted Christian to take that stance. Much as it drives me nuts, I refuse to take the easy way out of the rabid atheist and absolutely dismiss their worldview. While deep religious faith may to me be at best a comforting crutch and at worst delusional, to others it’s part of who they are. And you can’t demand respect without giving it, however grudgingly. We can disagree with someone without making them the enemy.
In conclusion, I’m going to quote Christian White, one of the protagonists of my recent thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules,” who finds himself pondering these same issues in the hills of Afghanistan after a narrow brush with death, and has just been reassured by an Afghan friend that “God is good”:
There were times when he’d have given body parts for real faith, for the comfort and unburdening it would bring. As a consequence, he thought about faith a lot, to the point where sometimes he felt downright stalked by God, as if God really needed him to believe, wanted his pathetic soul.
But try as he might, whatever powerful feelings he might have in the throes of fear and need (and didn’t everyone have those? Didn’t finding yourself in a foxhole turn everyone into a believer?), he couldn’t overcome his rational doubts. And you couldn’t fake these things, couldn’t fake belief. Oh, he knew plenty of half-assed believers, people who used church as a social club and mouthed religion as a good gambler might hedge a bet, and they seemed content enough. Not him. You didn’t try faith on like a pair of shoes, walk around in them a while to see if they fit before committing. If it wasn’t genuine and from the heart, it was hollow. And any God worth believing in would see through that.
Yeah, we’re never going to get along. It might well be time to experiment with some new social structures, because the current ones, and maybe even the whole edifice of western democracy, is threatening to burst at the seams. Expect a strong backlash from governments when the first city-states become viable.
Your comments are welcome.
Floating semi-autonomous communities
My own earlier post about tolerance and America’s culture wars
Michael Potts’s excellent, thoughtful blog (As a sample, check out this terrific post in which he addresses Christian misconceptions about Goth culture )
9 responses to “Why We CAN’T All Get Along”
Dario, here’s the rub. It truly is a culture clash with two sides who see the world so differently they can’t understand each other’s viewpoints well. I have the advantage of having traveled and lived and worked outside the box of my Christian people more than most, which gives me a perspective, aided also by the fact much of this work was focused on listening and learning about other cultural points of view, that I can at least understand that such differences exist and are very real barriers, even if I am flabberghasted at times by the conclusions people draw. The Social Justic Warriors, as they’ve come to be dubbed, particularly flummox me. They can’t even directly argue with you. Instead they quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or deflect your question while hounding you with their own and violating the very quotes they use while failing to see so. It’s a vicious circle. It’s blindness of a rare sort, echoed of course by some Fundamentalists in Christianity and Islam both. But that kind of limited thinking and tunnel vision remains foreign to me. Still, we are at an empass as much because we can’t recognize the dual cultures exist as our failure to understand them and accept them as valid, if flawed, ways of looking at the world.
True liberalism isn’t the problem any more than true conservatism. But I wonder if either exists any more. We really are locked in a rigid two party system that doesn’t represent the broad spectrum of beliefs anymore. And trying to shove them into two distinct lines is impossible, making compromise difficult as neither side can find a quorum of agreement. My original thought was domestic partnerships would be the solution, rather than defining marriage, but this war has been lost. The ideological demands were a clear win by one side over another and they’ve won this round. Domestic partnerships are not going to be the way this is labelled. And we have to accept that. It’s damaging to the church to continue this fight. It paints us as bigoted rather than a loving institution concerned about sin and righteousness and compassion. The dialogue has been redefined, like it or not, and moving on to a position where we can continue to have a seat at the table is what is most important for the long term now.
It is only possible to dialogue with people of such radically different premisses if they are willing to sit down and talk reasonably. Having been in academia for years, I have found that conservatives are generally open to talking with people who differ from them, as well as some of the old labor union liberal Democrats. The radical leftists, though, refuse to listen to any world view other than their own. They have exactly the same personality as rabid Fundamentalist Protestants, only on the opposite side of the camp. Yes, we should show mercy and compassion, since we are all sinners, but the church should never compromise on its teaching of the truth about marriage, at least so believers can be reminded of where they should stand.
Thanks, Michael and Bryan, for this interesting discussion. I think Bryan’s position on the issue is a realist one. As an avowed non-ideological, free-thinking agnostic with some extremely liberal views on societal issues, I can’t agree on the “domestic partner” issue, nor with the Church’s position and teaching on marriage, but I *do* respect and understand that position. I will, though, agree *in general* with your point about the ultra-radical left’s unwillingness to compromise and its “take no prisoners” line being similar to that of the rabid fundamentalist protestants. Of course those same people (on the left) would point to the equivalence of your own refusal to compromise on this issue (the definition of marriage, etc.)*.
Again, I understand where you’re coming from, and you’ve been very clear on this thread about the identity component and marriage being an institution of the church. So we can only, I think, agree to disagree; despite our mutual openness to dialogue, I don’t think any compromise on this particular issue could be reached–you both regard marriage, and even the very word itself, as sacred and inviolable, whereas I simply don’t. But the fact that we can have a civil dialogue over this and learn something about one another’s positions is what we should be all striving for, because once you understand the other person and are able to listen and be heard, it becomes much harder to demonize them.
*The sticking point here of course is that for some social liberals, equality in marriage is every bit as much an article of faith as is its sanctity for yourselves. Of course, if you take the position (as Michael stated) that liberalism “violates human nature”–a position I see as extreme and profoundly judgmental–this is impossible to understand or condone. Essentially, the two sides are speaking in different languages on this issue.
I agree with you on the cultural divide being the real threat. The immigration issue is so overblown. I do think we can do better with immigration, and I think national ID cards are a perfectly valid way, but we are not all Americans anymore. It’s us vs. them, and that’s a scary thought. As an evangelical Christian, I can say, yes, it’s very hard to separate faith from everything else, because it’s a lifestyle when you’re truly committed, not just a belief system, and thus is embued in everything you do. I think the current issues are far more complicated than most Christians have ever faced or been asked to think through. The issue of a secular state is particularly a confusing one. I don’t want a church state, because it’s too easily perverted into ideological control. Thus, I must accept that my secular state, to be truly free, will allow and protect the rights of belief systems that violate my own. That’s why I backed away from the gay marriage issue, for example. While I still believe homosexuality is a sin and that marriage was meant to be one man and one woman, I also believe the state has a right to redefine secular marriage. And as long as they don’t force my church to violate its theological convictions, then I accept that my state won’t always reflect the values of my church. But the way around that for some Christians is to want to conform the state to the church. I just don’t see how that can be done without walking all over the true core freedoms we so allow.
At the same time, not all Christians have fully thought this through or would even be capable of it. And I have the advantage of years of cross cultural travel and work and also working in a secular field where I interact with people of varied beliefs every day, all day. For Christians who live in a bit of isolation mostly surrounded by likeminded people, it’s hard to realize how great the divide is let alone understand why someone else sees the world so differently. But to me, we really do have a problem with unity in this country that threatens the core of who we are far more than anything else.
For a country founded on compromise, one only has to look at how legislators refuse to compromise and can’t even find middle ground anymore to see how far we’ve steered off course. Some of the greatest progress our country has made has come from compromise but I sometimes wonder if compromise is even in the American character anymore. I truly hope I’m wrong and it is, but the reality sure is discouraging.
Bryan, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I very much appreciate your nuanced view, and your willingness to see beyond ideals and dogma (I use these terms in the broadest sense) and recognize the complexity of today’s world and society, and the need to reconcile conflicting needs and make accommodations. Your point about preserving the freedom you value in a secular state even when some of those freedoms challenge your core belief and identity is very well taken. The core problem in America (and beyond) seems to be that we’re living in a era where everyone feels their identity, at both the individual and group level) is threatened and under fire–and of course the media and internet exacerbate and magnify the sense of threat.
It scares me too, and I frankly feel that this country is headed for bloodshed unless people learn to speak to one another and work to establish trust and find middle ground. It’s give and take.
John Davidson Hunter wrote a book called *Before the Shooting Starts*. I hope and pray the situation never comes to that. You are right that marriage, properly speaking, is an institution of the church. Perhaps the state can allow for domestic partnerships that can even include two friends living together as friends without any sex being involved. If the state is out of the marriage business, then those Christians who still believe in the truth can have their form of marriage, and pagans and heretical Christians can define marriage the way they wish. Our society abandoned Christian marriage as early as the latter part of the nineteenth century when it began to allow divorce for trivial reasons. Personally, I am doubtful that a society as individualistic as the United States can survive. Liberalism violates human nature and destroys itself–its fall is inevitable. The issue is whether what takes its place is better or worse than what was before.
Thanks for the post and for the kind words. Certain secular ideologies, whether they be Marxism, Anarchism, Classical Liberalism, or Social Democratic Liberalism, can be part of people’s identity as much as religion is for religious people. Differences in world views are the reason why the Enlightenment vision of a multicultural “community” in which we all “just get along” is a pipe dream. Pat Buchanan has, like you, noted the split along historically ethnic lines that occurred after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. As Americans try to destroy what cultural identity they had by allowing unlimited illegal immigration, the Balkanization of the United States is assured.
Welcome, Michael, and thanks for commenting 🙂 A LOT of people read this post, but we’re the only ones discussing LOL. I think I must agree with you about you the Enlightenment vision…it was a noble one, but epehemeral and idealistic. I’m sure you’ve read Will and Ariel Durant’s wonderful “Dialogue in Elysium” between Voltaire and Pope Benedict XIV? If only. I must disagree with you and Pat B. over illegal immigration being the chief threat to a cohesive American identity, though. It seems to me the cultural divide between bona fide US citizens is a far greater and more irreconcilable threat. Besides which, though you can certainly deport known illegals, do we really want an America run by people like Joe Arpaio? I think not. We both know that with borders as long and porous as this nation’s, the only way to really secure them would be to emulate the old Soviet Union, which actually did quite a good job of keeping its citizens *IN* the country…but it took a KGB roll of something approaching 2 MILLION people to keep the lid on that state, and a pretty darn serious abrogation of freedoms.