Our Vanished Values

Where they went, and why—and how they might come back

Our bogus Christians' desire to totalitarianize, ironically, is the mirror image of the thing they most fear, which was the other great paradoxical source of Bush's victory: bogus Islam. If it is only in the last four decades that American Christianity has steadily thrown up walls of hostility against the complex and disturbing changes of contemporary life, Islam has had nine or 10 centuries of practice at shutting out social change. The incursion of modern technology, though, and of windfalls from the Western world's craving for Middle Eastern oil, were beginning to alter the pattern of centuries for the better: There is today a small but emphatic body of educated Muslims desiring to be both modern and moderate.

The chief obstacle to their achieving this goal has been—bitter, bitter irony—our Republican administrations, which have had the persistent habit of arming Islamic extremists and totalitarians, then turning around and waging new mini-Crusades against them. Bush's repulsive attempt to redouble his father's mistakes in Iraq, as a diversion from his failure to capture Osama bin Laden, has made this hideous situation irreparably worse, with new outrages and new devastations almost every day. If the hopes for a reasonable Islam, decisively repudiating the "Islamo-fascists" whose main interest in life seems to be videotaping the decapitation of foreigners, have dwindled rapidly, it's Bush's Christianized view of world affairs that has made them do so. Christians who believe, as many Bush voters undoubtedly do, that all Muslims are terrorists by definition should take the beam out of their own eye before criticizing the mote in the mosque next door.

Fear and prejudice, Bush's twin allies, go hand in hand with the refusal to think, something that has always been part of American politics: The Republican Party actually had its origins, in the 1840s, as a faction of the anti-immigrant, fundamentalist Know-Nothing movement. A century and a half have only upped the ante: We live in a country as flooded with information as it is with conflicting viewpoints and contrasting ways of life. To understand the mistaken half of our electorate, we have to begin with the realization that this flood of data can itself be a source of fear.

Illustration by Dan Cosgrove

The longing to be simple and to solve problems simply is a natural human impulse. We on what might be called the unfrightened side of the informational flood have to make a start at bridge building and boat rescues; those on the other side are too panicked by the sight of the flood. Ill luck and unwisdom have made them run to a man whose only perceivable goal is to lead us all, like lemmings, over the cliff to drown. So our job for the next four years, while fighting every way we can to extricate our country from the messes Bush has already made, is to reassure simple souls by educating in simple terms. And to avoid condescension, this means reorienting ourselves to them, understanding that we have a basic faith in democracy, free speech, the separation of church and state, the balance of power among branches of government. We, as well as our opposites, have often enough let our prejudices and the media barrage obscure our understanding.

As someone whose life is centered on the theater, I find it heartening that we suddenly have a surge of plays dealing in a low-key, fact-based tone with what it means to live in a democracy, what responsibilities to one's fellow citizens it entails: Guantánamo, Trying, 12 Angry Men, Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, and Democracy—is it an accident that they have all arrived in New York at the same time? And since the theater, though in an enfeebled position these days, is a source of artistic meaning, while movies and television are only imitations, we can expect a growing trend toward works that examine the political premises by which we live, calmly and unsensationally. We can hope that the terrorized will begin to come back from the darkness of the churches where they huddle, to look at the clear world outside and realize that Islam is not going to turn into the Welcome Wagon overnight, that their homosexual children will not instantly become happily fecund heteros just because gay marriage is banned, and that creationism will not make the facts of evolution disappear. At that point, those frightened souls will be reclaimable, though the price we have paid for their reclamation will be steep. Apart from offering to help any way we can, our only option now is to hope that they wake up before the nation, and the globe, are irrevocably destroyed.


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