One Nation Indivisible? Tell Me Another One.

Damn, I forgot the “under God” part. Seriously. I wrote it that way without even thinking about the latest (1954) addition to the Pledge of Allegiance – that historically contentious, often coercive, semi-secular American ritual. Almost since its inception in 1892, the government-sponsored (sometimes required) public recitation of the Pledge has been criticized and legally challenged on several rational and persuasive grounds. If we’re going to be stuck with a pledge – and personally I don’t like it, with or without the God reference – it would be a more respectful and culturally mature practice if it didn’t promote a particular form of religion. Separation of church and state just seems like such an enlightened and prudent idea, seeing that it protects everyone’s right to believe and worship, or not, as they choose. What could be more quintessentially American, more in the spirit of “with liberty and justice for all”?

(Never one to pass up an opportunity for irony, I am obliged to point out that the Pledge was written by a Christian socialist and Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy.)

Now on with the latest rambling rant. . . . The Pledge is just one relatively minor, albeit revealing, flashpoint in the pervasive and incessant culture wars that have almost come to define this country of late. So I’ll say it one more time: the U.S. is irredeemably and dangerously polarized, at least for the foreseeable future (and I fear depolarization cannot be accomplished peacefully.) Every day the very idea of a United States is belied in the print and broadcast media, on the internet, in our national and state legislatures, in churches, and in too many schools.

There are cultural and political fault lines everywhere; but the big one – the San Andreas of our fractured landscape – is right versus left, conservative versus liberal. It can also be characterized as ideologically-driven denialists versus the reality-based community. There I go, defending reality again. Who would have thought that reality – along with its intimate partner, science – would need defending in the 21st-Century United States? But you know it does, unless you’ve been ignoring all the right-wing religious and political rhetoric.

Actually, I want to put liberal in quotes due to the unmistakable rightward lurch that has both expanded and demonized the term over the past 30 years. What used to be moderate is now labeled liberal, usually derisively when used by those on the right. The lockstep Republican base is now so extreme that former conservative icons would be considered “too liberal” today unless they pandered to the deluded ideologues who hold the Republican Party in a death grip. I’m talking about transparent pandering as practiced by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, with the seeming exception of Ron Paul.

Speaking of Congressman Paul, it should be noted that he sponsored the Sanctity of Life Act, which would define human life as beginning at conception. (I can’t be alone in thinking that the only possible rationale for such an absurd position has to be religious. And don’t you agree that any and all laws based solely on religion, without a compelling secular justification, should be ipso facto unconstitutional?) It seems oddly inconsistent that Paul, who bills himself as such a consistent, libertarian proponent of individual freedom, would take the lead in trying to criminalize the act of removing a clump of cells from a woman’s fallopian tube or uterus. His excuse that he inadvertently witnessed the brutality of a “partial-birth abortion” fails to make a distinction between a zygote and a nearly full-term fetus. Such blatant contradictions are typical of right-wing ideologues: they don’t try to justify their positions with logic and evidence but merely offer plausible emotional reasons to satisfy the incurious but dogmatic political base. 

Now I don’t mean to say that all the Republican candidates are adopting extreme right-wing positions in their speeches and debates only for political advantage. That would be giving Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, for example, far too much credit. It’s clear they really believe much of the bizarre ideological nonsense they’re promoting. But in any case I’m not going to focus on the political and economic issues that are making most of the headlines. That assignment is being handled admirably by others here at TPJmagazine. What I want to discuss are some very fundamental differences between people who identify as conservatives versus those who place themselves somewhere on the moderate-to-liberal spectrum. In the process I will reference and quote a couple of remarkable, recent articles: the first has the provocative title, Promising new research hints at possible treatment for Conservative Personality Disorder. It is an entertaining and informative tour de force written this past February by a gifted, progressive New York City blogger who writes under the pseudonym, Iris Vander Pluym. The second article, titled New Confederacy Rising: Testing, once again, whether this nation can long endure, was published at In These Times on October 5 and rerun at AlterNet, my favorite political website, on December 8. The author is Theo Anderson.

Anyway, I’m thinking I now have an assigned topic – Compare and Contrast Liberals and Conservatives – that I can roll with through most of 2012. And unless someone gives me a good reason not to, I plan to include moderates along with liberals on the grounds that it is not possible to be a moderate conservative these days, or maybe not an independent moderate, because half way between Republican and Democrat is still extreme conservatism. So except for low-information voters, it’s nearly impossible to be a moderate, much less an informed, thoughtful moderate. Also, I doubt that there’s any meaningful role for moderates in the shrinking tent of the Republican/Tea Party (what Steve Jonas calls the GOTP).

That leaves us with that strange breed known as Independents, who might better be labeled “Indifferents,” or “Shruggies,” to appropriate a term first used, to my knowledge, by Dr. Val Jones at the Science-Based Medicine blog. On second thought, a lot of Independents are best classified as low-information voters who perk up, but never catch up, during major election years. That makes it ironic, and frightening, that people who spend about five minutes deciding which candidates are most attractive often hold the balance of power in elections. There are, of course, other groups that will deserve attention from time to time.

Like most of my friends and perhaps a majority of Democrats, I’m politically left of center, but not what most people would describe as far left. Regardless of what the right says, we are not socialists; we don’t actively oppose well-regulated capitalism. But we do recognize and oppose corporate and big-money domination as a serious threat to fundamental democratic values. We all support an evolving social safety net and the importance of strong and effective Federal government. And yes, we certainly believe in fiscal responsibility. Where did the idea come from that the economy is better under Republican administrations? Republicans, I’m sure. But show me the data, and I’ll listen.

In my previous column I confessed to being addicted to reality – hence the pen name, Science Junkie. In essence, I am compelled to acknowledge good evidence as likely being true and to make appropriate course adjustments whether or not the evidence supports my current beliefs. From a political-values standpoint I identify more with European social democracy than with any political movement in this country. But I am always prepared to modify my beliefs based on sound and reliable evidence. Anything less would be arrogant, wouldn’t it?

So next time I’ll begin to take a close look at the major differences between conservatives and liberals, citing research data where possible, to try to determine why the U.S. seems so hopelessly polarized. But to conclude on a more hopeful note, a podcaster I respect recently suggested that even fundamentalist and evangelical Americans are more secular than they think they are. And on those rare occasions when I watch network TV, I’m actually encouraged by all the crass and tacky superficial materialism that dominates our favorite prime-time, mass-entertainment medium. Call it hopeful ambivalence: the millions of people who watch that inane, vulgar programming can’t really be foot soldiers in the the repressive right-wing religious and political army. Can they?

In the meantime, I wish you all the happiest of holidays.