Our Vanished Values

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

The election's over. The Dow's up 300 points. Obviously somebody's happy. Just as obviously, it isn't me.

I turn 60 next May, and am contemplating another four years of this administration's policies with increasing gloom and trepidation. What I see ahead is a further ballooning of the already insane federal deficit, a deeper descent into the hideous and bloody quagmire of Iraq, an accelerated decaying of environmental conditions, an increase in the voracious looting being carried on by the corporate leaders who pull the strings of the dim-witted, corrupt, smug puppet about to reoccupy the White House, and a steeper decline in civility, tolerance, individuality, and the shared common pleasures that once made life in America worth living.

The rotting of our justice system, the crumbling of our constitutional rights, and the misery four more Bush years are likely to inflict on minorities and the poor I don't even dare contemplate. Nor do I care to think about our new standing as the laughingstock of Western civilization, or our increased vulnerability as the war-mongering prime target of international terrorism.

Illustration by Dan Cosgrove

All these sorrows are the fault of the Bush administration's first four years. Certainly they were present before—nobody claims that Clinton's America was devoid of problems—but Bush and his crew have failed dismally to do anything about any of them. In most cases, he has aggravated them. His administration's record of failure is the worst in the history of the American presidency, making the rotted eras of Grant and Harding look like baby games. And over 51 percent of voting America has chosen to reward his failure with another four years. You can fool some of the people all the time, but how does it happen, in an era of instantaneous news coverage and easy access to vast information resources, that a fraud carried out on this scale can fool more than half the country?

There is no question but that we have failed, and failed deeply—perhaps fatally. The spoliation of our national forests by Bush-based economic interests, joined with the accelerated melting of the polar cap, the lowered federal inspection standards for food products and industrial safety, along with the decline in access to affordable health care for an ever larger number of Americans, will bring on what must surely be an increasing parade of natural disasters, pandemics, outbreaks of disease, and a still further decline in general living conditions. The very rich and the maximally isolated will be protected—to some degree. But as the sun gets more dangerous, the air less breathable, the water less drinkable, the hurricanes more frequent, fuel oil and gasoline more expensive, and the workers who create their wealth angrier, the 1 percent whom Bush has benefited will begin to suffer too. On Election Day itself, a woman in North Carolina walked into a Caterpillar plant from which her best friend had recently been fired, and took several people hostage. There will be more such incidents, and when the workers wake up from their film- and TV-induced drug haze and figure out who to blame, their targets will not be from the lower echelons.

That is, assuredly, an evil prospect. But the paradox of this election is that it was won not on the basis of the issues at stake or the actual conditions of our life, but on matters of good and evil. The majority that voted for Bush—the slimmest an incumbent president has received since 1916—did so not because they agreed with him on any important issues, but because they viewed his opinion on matters like abortion and same-sex marriage as good, and any alternative opinion as evil. The two great failures of this election were the failure of democracy as a concept in the public mind, and the failure of Christianity as a religion.

For make no mistake, this is the election in which American Christianity destroyed itself. Today the church is no longer a religion but a tacky political lobby, with an obsessive concentration on a minuscule number of social topics so irrelevant to questions of governance that they barely constitute political issues at all. These are the points of contention tied into what are blurrily referred to as "moral values," though they have almost nothing to do with the larger moral question of how one lives one's life, and everything to do with the fundamentally un-Christian and un-American idea of forcing others to live the way you believe they should. The displacement of faith involved is eerie, almost psychotic: Here are people willing to vote against their own well-being and their own children's future, just so they can compel someone else's daughter to bear an unwanted child and deprive someone else's son of the right to file a joint income tax return with his male partner.

If this isn't Christianity—and it isn't—still less is it in any respect like democracy. The whole meaning of America was predicated by the founding fathers on the right of citizens to practice their own faith and conduct their lives as they saw fit; to interfere actively in others' lives, on the basis of "moral values" about which there is no agreement, is the most radical repudiation of constitutional values in our electoral history, reducing the word conservative to absurdity. Today the Republican Party is not the right wing of anything; it is a band of violent radical reactionaries preaching medieval totalitarian bigotry. And Christianity as currently preached and practiced in Middle America is virtually Satan, by the standards of anyone who strives to follow the teachings of Jesus. Having degraded themselves to the level of political lobbies, most Christian churches should certainly be compelled to register as lobbyists and pay taxes.

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.

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.


mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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