From Liberty Street: The Great American Divide

John Turner

From its inception the United States has been split between opposing concepts of meaning and morality. The founding fathers were men of rational, aristocratic temperament whose religious beliefs were essentially deistic and who viewed the nation as an instrument for bettering the lives of the people. Their ideals were inscribed in the nation's foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And they have continued to receive universal lip service to the present. These values were not, however, typical of the general population, not at the time the Constitution was ratified and probably not today.

Most people in American when they attend seriously to politics call up emotions that have little to do with Enlightenment philosophy. That's because politics engages them primarily when they are fearful and angry. Then, they respond with feelings far more visceral than devotion to the rights of man.

The main political occurrence that can seize the imagination of the American people is war. When bodies begin to be strewn, limbs lopped off, and skulls eviscerated the people start to pay genuine attention. This is the case regardless of how widespread the war is. Viewed rationally, an effective health care system or an equitable distribution of goods and services, may have greater power to protect and save lives. But no other political action approaches war in arousing basic passions. And these for a majority of Americans are expressed through a theology of rage.

No other deity is worshipped in this country as fervently as the God of War. When he roars, the gods of peace, compassion, and rational mind scurry into the corners. We are supposedly a monotheistic nation but that's just a sweet fiction.

The first tactic of the God of War is to embody himself so that the people can have more palpable contact with what they are worshipping. He has to set a visage before the people to cause them really to bow down. In the modern world the mask he selects is the nation. Not for him the pallid Jeffersonian notion of the nation as a tool for the well-being of the people. Who are the people compared to him? It is their duty to pour out their blood in his interest. They sacrifice for him, serve him at his call, offer up their sons and daughters proudly, gladly. The idea that he should sacrifice for them is not only ridiculous, it's unthinkable. We are not to ask what the nation can do for us but what we can do for the nation.

Naturally, the God of War needs his minions. When he's in the ascendant he gets politicians who think only of service to him and, of course, the perks that always go with that service. We get -- mostly -- presidents, vice-presidents, cabinet officers who are forced to concentrate their entire minds on squashing others to increase the power of their nation, their God. Imagine Dick Cheney getting up in the morning without somebody to hate, somebody to ruin, somebody to kill. What would he do? I suppose he could amuse himself for a while by killing little non-human things, but that would shortly pale compared to the real deal.

There are, however, two factors which save us from being in perpetual thrall to the God of War.

One is a certain heretical portion of the people who refuse to worship at the shrine of national bloodletting. At the moment in the United States that portion may account for twenty percent of the electorate. They actually want to live in a democratic republic and see their government restrained by a vigorous system of civil rights. By themselves, they can't win elections, but they can make a lot of noise. When they start, their complaints are generally dismissed as the chirping of kooks. But as time passes their din starts to have a cumulative effect, like the successive rings of a phone summoning you from a nap on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.

The second factor is the God's intellect. In the pantheon, Ares or Mars, as the God of War is sometimes called, has never been seen as a paragon of acuity. He's fearsome but he's not bright. And when he picks his captains on earth he mostly chooses people in his own image. Now and then he'll get somebody who's adept but for the most part his followers foul up most of what they touch. They try to excuse themselves with refrains like war is never easy and we have to expect mistakes. But over time, as the mess they make piles higher and higher, their excuses wear thin. In America, the limit for accepting nonsense as wisdom and determination seems to be about three and a half years.

At that point, the people who flow with the prevailing winds begin to turn in the other direction, and the lonely twenty percent can fairly quickly swell to seventy.

From the beginning, the experiment called the United States has tried to investigate whether any people can set aside the ancient calls of blood and group hatred to achieve a society in which meaning and accomplishment can be sought in individual ways. We've failed often, but at least the experiment goes forward. The hypothesis that a rational and beneficent society is possible has not yet been disproved. And every time a single person is helped across the gap, and rather than shouting, let's kill those creeps, begins to want to know what's actually happening, the God of War is pushed  a littler farther back towards his cave.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 29, 2007