Election 2004

Personal Voices: One Country, Two Moralities

I must abandon the solace of thinking my political opponents benighted, uneducated and cognitively impaired. But I refuse to think them more moral.
For four years, I consoled myself with intellectual snobbery. The man was fascinated by that little book about the pet goat, I reminded myself. He asked the president of Brazil if they had blacks too; talked about speaking "Mexican"; joshed with reporters that they ate "Brie and cheese." Surely this was just a poorly acted farce, a sort of Being There starring someone far less astute than a gardener?

The skin of my upper arm turned black and blue from all the pinching I did to remind myself that he was, nonetheless, the president of the United States. Still, I thought, we should be kind. Surely some miswiring deep in the brain had scrambled his speech, impaired his thought process.

But as the death toll rose in Iraq, our president's blatant stupidity made me insane. "The man can't think his way out of a paper bag," I snapped at a Republican colleague at work. "He has the lives of thousands and the future of the world in his hands, and I'm not sure he knows the names of more than three countries."

Shortly before the election, the New York Times reported George W. Bush's SAT scores and an analysis that placed his IQ higher than John Kerry's.

The news stunned me more than his victory.

The possibility that the president might indeed possess a modicum of measurable intelligence should have been reassuring. Except this meant that either he was too arrogant to waste mental effort better spent on the golf course, or he was smart enough to act the fool, charming people who are bothered by big words.

I had to regroup; rethink actions I had deemed stupid and macho and in consequence, cruel. OK, the man might not suffer a cognitive deficit, but he most certainly did not demonstrate the depth or breadth of intelligence I associated with wise, compassionate leadership.

Silly me.

One's greatest strength is one's greatest weakness, and George Bush's is his absolute refusal to tolerate complexity.

I settled back in my chair, smugness returning.

Then a thought jolted me upright.

Was the classic liberal refrain a copout? Do we murmur about complexity because we are incapable of simplifying? Or afraid to be bold and decisive? Are we perhaps so good at being open-minded and tolerant and making excuses for everyone, including ourselves, that we have forgotten to uphold principles that cannot be compromised?

Well, maybe. Under certain conditions.

But I refuse – there, see? I speak boldly – I refuse to accept the current implication that because people voted for Bush for moral reasons, morality lies on his side.

There are indeed sides, but the dividing line is not morality. It is the ability to tolerate uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, unknowability, relativity.

And this tolerance is less a matter of brainpower than of temperament.

I know this when I am with conservative friends. With one couple, it's a running joke: by mutual agreement, I do not urge abstract art, take them to experimental theatre, or suggest what they call "eclectic" restaurants. They prefer the clarity of classical music; the abiding joys of Shakespeare; the reliability of steak, potatoes, and a wine of known vintage. They are smart and cultured and excellent company, courteous and civilized.

The asymmetry occasionally perturbs me, because I can appreciate their tastes far more readily than they can appreciate mine. But I would wager that our differences have even more to do with genes than they do with upbringing or education. Desire for novelty and risk aversion are both hardwired.

So I must abandon the solace of thinking my political opponents benighted, uneducated and cognitively impaired.

But I refuse to think them more moral.

There are as many moral values at stake in opposing the slaughter of innocent Iraqi children as there are in opposing the abortion of innocent unborn children. As much moral sensitivity in defending the world's wilderness from exploitation as in defending our ... er ... homeland security. And as much moral courage in supporting the rights of people of all sexual orientations as in supporting traditional marriage.

Two different moralities vie for power in this country. (Actually, there are infinite variations on the continuum, but that is far too liberal a distinction to make right now.) The difference between these two moralities is not, as sorely as I would like it to be, IQ. Nor is it, refreshingly enough, socioeconomic status. Thorstein Veblen's leisure class has taken quite a few strangers into its bed.

The difference is the Bible. Or at least what it represents.

Many of the evangelical Christians who came out in droves to re-elect George Bush did not even bother to vote in 2000. But they have come to see Bush as their sort of Christian: A man who speaks with faith's simple certitude, claims himself saved, accepts the Bible as God's will, and aims to follow its precepts without question.

When I hear Christian Republican friends speak of the moral issues that trouble them most deeply, there is fear in their voices. There is fear in my voice, too. But theirs alternates with firm resolve, because they are convinced that God's rules will see us through. Without those rules, they envision chaos and decay, sometimes even hellfire. One man freely admits that he needs the Bible's teachings to ward off internal chaos and sinful impulses in his own life. He automatically extends this distrust of self to his fellow Americans.

I ask that he kindly not include me, and I wonder to myself how we are all going to continue living together when we don't even share the same definition of sin. How does one participate in a democracy in which more than half the people want righteous certainty at any cost – and a significant minority despises this certainty as ignorance, bigotry and cruelty?

Jokes about Canada have flown since Nov. 3. At home, my husband and I narrow it down to Newfoundland, teasing about new careers fishing cod. Then I meet his eyes. "How can we stay here?"

Andrew looks into the distance and begins – this is why I love him – to talk about John Quincy Adams. "He represented an ideal that was quite simply blown off by Jacksonian America. Great dreams torn asunder: spending money on scientific research, the supremacy of federal law. If anyone had reason to despair, it would have been he."

"So what did he do?"

"I'm not sure. But I do know what he did not do: Tuck his tail and give up, or flee to Europe. He lost his bid for re-election to the presidency, but he later returned as an ordinary congressman from Massachusetts."

I wait, still hoping.

"What do the right wingers say? 'I love my country but I fear my government'? That may not be a bad attitude for liberals and progressives to take," Andrew suggests. "Not hate our country, but mourn the fact that, instead of being a positive force, both at home and abroad, we have become a destructive force, both at home and abroad. Instead of seeking consensus, we allow ourselves – and the rest of the world – to be polarized. And liberals are probably as guilty of that as conservatives."

"But how are we supposed to talk to these people?" I wail. "There are two Americas."

He shakes his head slowly. "I think John Edwards is wrong. We are several Americas. But the conservatives and Republicans have done a very good job of coalescing naturally allied groups into one movement.

"In reality," he continues firmly, "there are many gradations. And 'those people' aren't monolithic. If somebody's a homophobe, don't talk to him about gay unions, but maybe you can talk about universal healthcare or prayer in school. Meet people where they are willing to be met."

I wince, dreading the prospect. "Yep, there are a lot of angry people out there," he says, reading my mind. "But beneath the anger is fear, and that's what moved people in this election. Physical fear of terrorism, and psychological fear of social change."

It's as simple as that.

And talking it through may demand more intelligence than I can muster.
An award-winning journalist in the alternative press for more than a decade, Jeannette Batz Cooperman holds a doctorate in American studies and writes regularly on religious and spiritual issues for the National Catholic Reporter.
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