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Os Guinness on Culture Warring

Many of the issues dividing the two sides are substantive, critical, and fully worthy of democratic debate. They are issues on which all responsible citizens should take a position, and issues that will be decisive for the republic. Not for one moment am I advocating any stifling of the issues or a helicopter politics that hovers above the issues and never lands. At stake in the resolution of passionate issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are competing views of the freedom, justice, and humanity of Western civilization. All these topics and many more are issues that require resolution and not a stalemate. ¶ The trouble comes from the manner in which the issues are being fought. … 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 pretence 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.

And so it goes — and the unsurprising outcome is a permanent hostility that is the fulfillment of the prophecies and savage rending of the common life.

Can anyone separate the snarling dogs in the culture wars? Is it impertinent for a foreigner to suggest how? After thirty years of visiting the United States, and twenty of living here, I can hardly describe the mixture of sorrow and anger with which I witness almost daily the stupidity and destructiveness of the culture warring over religion and public life — on both sides. Do they not appreciate the legacy entrusted to them by the founders and its uniqueness in history? Have they never pondered the dark logic of what devastated Belfast and Beirut earlier and what devastates Baghdad now? Do they not care enough for their descendants to look beyond the horizons of the immediate and self-interested and look at the long term and the common good?


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