HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 2, 2008
From Liberty Street

Difference in Desire

John Turner


The wide attention being paid to Scott McClellan and his book has brought back into the media spotlight the demand that we should move beyond partisan polarization.

I wish I knew what that meant, and I wish even more that the people who are calling for it had something discernible in mind. What exactly would happen if we moved beyond partisan polarization?

We labor under the delusion that we all want what's best for the country and that our disputes concern merely the methods for attaining it. We may all want what's best, as far a rhetoric goes, but we certainly don't agree about what that is. There are different tastes in countries just as there are different tastes in clothes, and ice cream, and automobiles. Nobody argues that we should all wish to dress identically or drive the same sort of cars. But there is a strong assumption in society that we should all want the same sort of country. There is also the feeling that if a person prefers a country different from what the majority are presumed to want then that person is exhibiting disloyalty to the American way, and probably deserves to be punished for it.

These ideas present us with some fairly serious problems. In the first place, we don't know what the majority wants because we won't discuss, thoughtfully, what kind of country we would like to have. There is, of course, a grab bag of goodies promoted and promised during political campaigns, but no candidate dares to set them in order or discuss what we should give up if we can't have everything. And, obviously, we can't because some of the things people say they want are directly opposed to the desires of others.

The second big problem is that we don't know how to deal with minority desires. It's a sweet thought that everyone should be allowed to want, and to get what he wants, so long as it doesn't hurt anybody else. But no society has ever operated perfectly in line with that idea and no society ever will. We don't know how much deviance from so-called normal behavior we will permit. Our legal system is a mess so far as that question is concerned.

This is no more than to say that differences of opinion, taste, and desire cannot be weeded out of society short of maintaining an overweening tyranny which turns us all into zombies. So how do we deal with these differences?

I certainly don't have a complete, detailed answer. But I do know this: we need to acknowledge and to discuss our major differences far more openly than we have been in the habit of doing. And we need to stop hurling insults and charges of apostasy at people who want things different from our own preferences.

The two biggest differences in American now have to do with the promotion and use of military power and with money. And the two are linked in more ways than any of us have fully understood.

There are people in America -- perhaps a majority -- whose personal sense of pride, egotism, and fulfillment is based on being a part of a nation whose military dominance is unchallenged. Their hearts swell with pride when they see ranks of young men and women in military uniforms marching in formation while flags fly and bands play. They think it would be a disaster if American military power were not paramount on the earth. They are willing to see the domestic infrastructure sink below the standards of the rest of the developed world in order to maintain a military force they can proclaim confidently as being number one.

Then, there are people -- and I include myself among them -- who are fed up with militarism, who get no personal satisfaction from its symbolism, and who would be content if they were told American military personnel would never again kill anyone.

For a long time to come, neither of these groups is going away. They need to acknowledge one another as persons of differing taste, and to live with one another with as little rancor as possible. And, in an open democracy, they each have the privilege of promoting their tastes as vigorously as they can.

As it is with the military, it is with money. There is a big split.

There are people who think the ability to amass vast amounts of money is the most important economic guarantee a country can make. And then there are those who think that providing decently for all citizens should be the nation's economic goal. There's no sense in fooling ourselves into thinking these two groups are not in conflict. They are, and they always will be. So the issue is how they can exist together without descending to violence -- as has happened so frequently in other parts of the world.

What I'm proposing is that we confess our tastes openly, examine where they're likely to take us, and build our country out of nonviolent struggle amongst them. That would be far more productive than the incessant moralizing we've indulged ourselves in lately.  I have no business saying that the proud billionaire who hangs flags all over his house and makes millions investing in arms sales is less moral than I. But I have every right to say that I don't want the sort of country he wants and I'm going to work against it.

And if, occasionally we can have dinner together, that's okay. I just hope, if we eat the kind of stuff he's accustomed to, that he pays.


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