That's just how white folks will do you. It wasn't merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn't know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserved of their scorn.
Maybe the critics are right. Maybe there's no escaping our great political divide, an endless clash of armies, and any attempts to alter the rules of engagement are futile. Or maybe the trivialization of politics has reached a point of no return, so that most people see it as just one more diversion, a sport, with politicians our paunch-bellied gladiators and those who bother to pay attention just fans on the sidelines: We paint our faces red or blue and cheer our side and boo their side, and if it takes a late hit or cheap shot to beat the other team, so be it, for winning is all that matters. But I don't think so. They are out there, I think to myself, those ordinary citizens who have grown up in the midst of all the political and cultural battles, but who have found a way-in their own lives, at least- to make peace with their neighbors, and themselves..I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don't always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting. They are out there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.
The stakes involved in Washington policy debates are often so high-- whether we send our young men and women to war; whether we allow stem cell research to go forward-- that even small differences in perspective are magnified. The demands of party loyalty, the imperative of campaigns, and the amplification of conflict by the media all contribute to an atmosphere of suspicion. Moreover, most people who serve in Washington have been trained either as lawyers or as political operatives-- professions that tend to place a premium on winning arguments rather than solving problems. I can see how, after a certain amount of time in the capital, it becomes tempting to assume that those who disagree with you have fundamentally different values-- indeed, that they are motivated by bad faith, and perhaps are bad people.
But for a younger generation of conservative operatives who would soon rise to power.. They were true believers who meant what they said, whether it was 'No New Taxes' or 'We are a Christian Nation.' In fact, with their rigid doctrines, slash-and-burn style, and exaggerated sense of having been aggrieved, this new conservative leadership was eerily reminiscent of some of the New Left's leaders during the sixties. As with their left-wing counterparts, this new vanguard of the right viewed politics as a contest not just between competing policy visions, but between good and evil. Activists in both parties began developing litmus tests, checklists of orthodoxy, leaving a Democrat who questioned abortion increasingly lonely, any Republican who championed gun control effectively marooned. In this Manichean struggle, compromise came to look like weakness, to be punished or purged. You were with us or you were against us. You had to choose sides.
The underlying struggle - between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us..
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns in to universal, rather than religion-specific, values.. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. Now I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to take one example, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.