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Thursday, September 23, 2004

Beware 'Old Testament' comparisons.

I say this as a liberal who often can't fathom the allure of conservatism: Novelist Roland Merullo's op-ed in Monday's Boston Globe about America's fractured political culture was truly embarrassing. (Since I'm going to pick it apart here, you might want to read "A Puzzling America" first.) It starts off promisingly:

For a long time now I've been pondering the reasons why conservatives decide to be conservative and liberals to be liberal. Part of the motivation for this pondering is rooted in the fact that I'm a left-leaning independent with a number of conservative friends.

I thought — I hoped! — we might finally get to hear from someone still engaged in real dialogue across the dangerous partisan gulf that has opened in American civic life. But no. He immediately adds, "Some of these right-wing friends are close relatives, people I love dearly, people who still forward me nasty Internet jokes about Hillary and Bill with a certain kind of triumphant glee."

I don't doubt that Merullo has relatives and "friends" like this, but we can see right away that he's about to contrast a very specific sort of conservative (and a rather hostile sort of "friend") with a very idealized sort of liberal. My right-wing friends and relatives simply don't engage in odious behaviors like this — at least toward me — but, to be honest, a number of my liberal friends do. What bothers me in Merullo's essay is his refusal to acknowledge that liberals can hate right back, and that many conservatives don't dip into the gutter. I have all sorts of partisan reasons to think that my friends are better than my enemies, but it's no tribute to my critical thinking (much less my Christianity) if I rely on my prejudice and imagine my enemies only in their bad-guy role. Conservatives are people, too; I hope the ones who know me can think of at least one liberal they respect.

And then there's religion. Merullo starts by describing a reporting trip he took during the 1996 presidential election:

I drove from Bob Dole's birthplace (Russell, Kansas) to Bill Clinton's (Hope, Ark.) via Ross Perot's (Texarkana, Texas). I traveled back roads through small towns, stopping occasionally to ask people what word first came to mind when they heard the name "Clinton," "Dole," or "Perot."

Not surprisingly, the responses to "Dole" were more positive in Kansas than in Democratic eastern Oklahoma, and Clinton was better liked in Hope than in Russell. What did surprise me, though, were the kinds of things conservatives said about Clinton and the obvious hatred with which they said them: "Monster." "Nonhuman." "Worm." "Antichrist." "Devil."

I have no reason to doubt that people responded with such malice. But has he been to Cambridge, for example, since November 2000 and asked what words spring immediately to mind when someone says "Dick Cheney" or "George W. Bush"? Instead, he offers a theological explanation that he can't afford to explore fully:

That was the Bible Belt, where one might be more likely to hear the term "Antichrist," but the general pattern of vitriol held true in other parts of the country. I began to form the impression then that the conservative mindset springs from what, for lack of a better term, might best be described as an Old Testament world view: Life is harsh, God is angry, enemies ought to be treated without mercy. An eye for an eye. There is good and there is evil, and the distinction between them is as clear as the line between sin and righteousness. These days, the words of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, or George W. Bush only reinforce that impression.

I know we all grasp right away what he means by "Old Testament world view" — but that doesn't minimize the problems this phrase represents. For one thing, not to put too fine a point on it, it's tacitly anti-Semitic, rooted in a specifically Christian pattern of contrasting the harsh "Old" Testament with the loving "New" Testament.

The Christian Old Testament is, after all, the Jewish Bible. It's full of love and mercy and praise and wonder, mixed right in with vigorous depictions of war and sex and sacrifice. Denigrating Judaism by representing it as a primitive or unfinished precursor to the maturity of Christianity is one of the ways Christian theology and culture have nurtured anti-Semitism. Many branches of Western Christianity — including the Roman Catholic Church and several major branches of Protestantism — have formally abandoned "supercessionist" doctrines that portray Judaism in such a light. Relying on stereotypes with this sort of baggage, even when one is employing them innocently, taints one's argument.

So that's one problem. But Merullo's anxiety about religion in general seems to keep him from being explicit about the other half of his comparison. Conservatives are "Old Testament" meanies; liberals, on the other hand, are "New Testament" softies — but of course he can't bring himself to say so. Maybe he recognizes that claiming Jesus for the post-religious is going to be a hard sell. Maybe he has read Paul's epistles and knows that Christians didn't jettison judgment. So he simply moves on to a panegyric to the liberal appreciation of nuance.

The binariness of his column is simply breath-taking. I know there are deep, perhaps fundamentally unresolvable differences of worldview that make dialogue between some conservatives and some liberals impossible. So, sure, on one level I agree with Merullo that "The two Americas, conservative and liberal, worship two very different gods." But I'm convinced that many more of us can at least imagine and appreciate these differences; that many of us, liberal and conservative alike, believe we worship one God. (Or maybe I'm just a moderate.)

But I've saved the best for last. Behold! blind liberal self-aggrandizement:

At their essence, conservatives are on guard, bristling, armed with a righteous anger, prone to mockery of their enemies, sure of themselves, unwilling to criticize America, especially by comparing it to anyplace else. The attacks of Sept. 11 only confirmed their world view: We are constantly at risk.

Liberals are mannered, sensitive, armed with intellectual cynicism, self-critical, eager to learn from other cultures, wanting there to be no pain in the world. The attacks made them sad and angry, too, but their reflex was more pensive than vengeful.

If he were characterizing pundits, he'd be comparing apples to oranges. (Rush Limbaugh vs. Hendrik Hertzberg? What about Fareed Zakaria vs. Michael Moore?) But he's trying to explain the cultural differences between conservatives and liberals more broadly, and that's where his contrast seems off the rails.

If I'm related to more than four liberals on the entire Mormon side of my family — upwards of sixty first cousins! — I'd be amazed. (I think I know maybe a half-dozen conservative Democrats among them.) But Merullo's characterization doesn't fit them. They're conservative and deeply religious, too; we disagree on many things; but "bristling" and "prone to mockery" they're not. I respect them, and I think the ones who know me best respect me, too.

Meanwhile, living in Cambridge and knowing a very large number of Unitarian Universalists and various lefty folks, I can attest that not every liberal is "mannered," "self-critical," or "pensive." If only. Some of them entertain the most remarkable conspiracy theories you've ever heard.

I refuse to believe that most Americans have deliberately sequestered themselves in ideological ghettos. My guess is that most of us simply don't know how to start a conversation about political and worldview differences in a respectful way. We rely on stereotypes because more restrained conservatives and liberals are harder to spot in our churches or workplaces or neighborhoods than the crazies that make it onto the news. We're afraid of offending other people. On the left, too many of us think that all conservatives are "fundamentalists," a word that has become synonymous with evil in some so-called liberal minds. On the right, too many think that liberals are traitors, a debasement of the intellectual roots of American constitutional democracy — thanks, Ann Coulter! But we can do better than that. For the sake of our country, we must do better than that.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 23 September 2004 at 6:18 PM

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September 29, 2004 02:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

Maybe he was living in the deep south, and keeping his mouth shut about his beliefs in unfamiliar territory for fear of the consequences, while simultaneously being bombarded by emails from relatives, people who supposedly love you, describing how you hate America and are going to hell. Wait, that wasn't him, that was me.

I certainly understand where he was coming from, after our requests for the cessation of nasty emails and verbal attacks from family members led to a major familial rift this election year. And having been around a few other liberals (not too many), I agree with your assessment that some can be just as hateful as the conservatives to whom my husband and I have the misfortune of being related.

But for the most part, liberals in the rural south huddle together too scared of losing jobs or being attacked for our beliefs to get around to attacking anyone else. And we know if any of our message is to get out to change anybody's mind, it must be tempered with much moderation. So we are the good guys in my recent scenario for the most part.

I'm glad your family is better, because I wouldn't wish what we have been through on anyone.


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