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Can America Last?

The Google imbroglio leads a reader to believe the center will not hold

Reader Zapollo comments:

I think today was the day it finally hit home to me that America, as currently constituted, cannot last. Some kind of division — via secession or some other means — is simply unavoidable at this point.

The occasion for my epiphany: This Google memo thing. I was trying to have a reasonable discussion with some lefty friends on Facebook about this, and it was impossible. They just kept turning it into a burn-the-witches shout-fest. Every time I tried to steer the conversation back towards calm discussion, they doubled down on their ritual list of condemnations: Racist, sexist, homophobic, blah blah blah. They strongly implied that I should not have the right to talk about any of this stuff. I got the distinct impression that if they had the power at that moment to throw me in prison for crimethink, they wouldn’t have hesitated to do so. One of them dropped what seemed to me a very subtle hint — I could be reading this wrong, but this was how it came across — that maybe, just maybe, a Khmer Rouge-style cleansing of society was necessary.

That was scary, and that was what prompted my moment of clarity.

Thing is, I know these folks. I know them in other contexts to be good, smart, fairly normal people. They’re not just random internet weirdos. They’re not black-clad antifa bully boys out there smashing windows and slashing tires. But it became clear to me today that they inhabit a completely different moral universe from the one I occupy. I’ve read Jonathan Haidt’s book and I’ve read Alisdair MacIntyre, so this not a new concept to me. I understood it in theory. But I don’t think I really grasped it on a gut level until today.

I suddenly realized that, from my friends’ perspective (assuming they still consider me a friend), I wasn’t simply making a questionable, controversial argument. From their perspective, I was affirmatively stumping on behalf of the blackest evil. They were responding to me the way I would respond to someone trying to have a “reasonable discussion” about molesting and murdering children to please Lord Satan.

I can’t see any way this kind of divide can be papered over for the sake of political union. It is a foundational requirement for any stable and legitimate political union that all, or nearly all of the citizens are in some basic agreement about the point of their society. If we’ve both got the same general destination in mind, we can argue, sometimes quite angrily, about the best way to get there. But if you’ve got one destination in mind and I’ve got another, then at some point we have to part ways. The idea that there’s a middle ground — that we can pick a spot on the map equidistant between our two destinations, and that will satisfy everybody — is sheer folly.

If you think the state must burn the witches and I am strongly anti-witch-burning, where’s the sensible middle ground? Torture the witches? Burn half the witches?

That’s where we’re at. We have two very large groups of voters in this country whose understandings of morality — and consequently their ideas about national purpose and legitimacy — cannot be reconciled, even by the most adroit and gifted politician. Each has a vision for an ideal society that, if implemented, the other side would not consider simply misguided or short-sighted — they’d view it as intrinsically, unalterably wicked.

I am unable to see any peaceful solution at this point that does not involve some form of separation.

Well, there won’t be a separation, because you cannot neatly draw the line geographically between the two Americas. But I think we are in for a long and unpleasant future. I was on a public radio program on Wednesday in the Bay Area, and while the host was excellent, and I had some polite but challenging questions from listeners, there were a few who were lunatics. One guy said that my writing is worthy of a Nazi Party newspaper. A woman said that Christian conservatives control the South and are doing horrible things down here (I responded that I doubted very much that she had ever been to the South; unfortunately, I forgot to say, “Bless her heart”).

What struck me was the fanaticism of some of these people. The complete confidence in their own righteousness, and in the uncut wickedness of anybody who disagrees with them. I don’t doubt at all that you could find people like that on the Right if you listened to a right-wing call-in show, but this was public radio, and public radio in the Bay Area. The spite of some of these people was chilling. I don’t have any doubt what they would do to people like me if they had the power to do so. I really don’t. All in the name of social justice.

As you know, I’ve just read the liberal academic Mark Lilla’s new book urging his fellow lefties to put aside identity politics and seek a politics of solidarity, focusing on what we Americans have in common, not that which divides us. I hope he succeeds, but I have my doubts. All the energy on the Left right now is towards hating the Other. And to be fair, the energy on the Right doesn’t seem to be going towards anything constructive, either.




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