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Oct. 5: Whose Values are “Real” American Values?

A talk by Art Farnsley, executive director of the American Values Alliance

When: Wednesday 5 October, 11:00 AM — 12:30 PM

Where: North United Methodist Church, N. Meridian St. at 38th St.

With each election cycle, disagreement over “real American values” seems to become shriller. How can we discuss the important issues facing the country without having it degenerate into mudslinging over values? Addressing this issue will be Art Farnsley, frequent researcher for Polis, author of many books and articles about religion and politics (including the splendid new Sacred Circles, Public Squares), and head of the American Values Alliance, a new organization created to defuse the self-destructive tendencies we see in so much of politics these days. Art is one of the good guys, and this should be a very good event.

It is part of the Mid-North Shepherd’s Center’s “Domestic Decisions 2005” series. Questions? Contact 317-924-0959 or mnscenter@aol.com

For more information… Look back more than four decades to Richard Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and you’ll see today’s conflicts are not new at all. That is no reason for complacency: Hofstadter wrote in 1964, just as American politics began crumbling (for good and for ill). You can find a nice collection of resources and articles at a website called Beyond Intractability, which seeks to find novel solutions to apparently “intractable conflicts” in the US and the world.

If you like this event, check out …

An addition: Art's talk was excellent. A voice of provocative moderation. It was a most auspicious kick-off for the American Values Alliance. You can catch a tape of his talk on public access cable repeatedly at random times in the middle of the night; or contact Dotti Gerner at Mid-North Shepherd's Center to ask for a video of the talk. Or read it right here. This is a preliminary version, but it deserves an electronic home until http://www.valuesalliance.org/ gets up and runniing. I'll replace it with the version Art delivered when he sends it to me.

Shared American Values

The Problem: A Culture War

To hear the partisans talk, you might think that America has become irretrievably polarized. The June 10th Washington Post reported that Howard Dean, the Democratic Party Chair, said that he “hates Republicans and everything they stand for.” He has also said that “many of them have never made an honest living in their lives” and that Republicans are “pretty much a white Christian party”.

George W. Bush received 62 million votes in 2004 and was the first candidate since his father in 1988 to win an outright majority of the popular vote. Many of those 62 million voters must have been surprised to learn from Howard Dean that they were the idle rich. I suspect that a number of Democratic Senators who have never had to make an honest living cringed nervously.

I suppose most Republicans are of European descent and have Christian backgrounds. That’s true for the majority of Americans, though not so much for Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Committee. His mother fed him kosher when he was growing up because she, at least, thought he was Jewish. But if your intention is to drive a wedge as deeply as possible, why hold back from saying that you “hate Republicans and everything they stand for.” After all, can you ever get too much distance from the “Party of Lincoln?”

On the other side, Republicans repeatedly make such blatantly polarizing claims that it is hard to choose a single example. But here’s one with local color: The June 21 Washington Post reported that Indiana congressman John Hostettler claimed "the long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives" and "continues unabated with aid and comfort to those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage being supplied by the usual suspects, the Democrats." Not content to stop there, he went on: "Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians.”

Given that most Democratic Senators and Congress members have Christian roots and that Rep. Hostetler surely knows this, we’ll have to assume that he didn’t mean Democrats denigrate and demonize all Christians. He meant the kind he likes; you know, the “real” kind.

Statements like these from Dean and Hostetler are not debating points nor are they strands of a reasoned argument: they are fighting words. These partisans are certainly contesting elections, but they are also going far beyond that. They are waging a culture war, doing their best to elevate our disagreements about public policy to the level of a battle over the nature of right and wrong, good and evil.

And this is not simply a matter of academics using a catchy phrase like “culture wars” as a clever way to describe some minor disagreements. The partisans themselves see this as a battle. When reviewing Ralph Reed’s book, Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics, Richard John Neuhaus was moved to say “the term culture war is not hyperbole.”

If you listen to the partisans long enough, you too will hear the martial language. Conservatives—especially the Biblical conservatives—claim that liberals are waging war on traditional values. Liberals—especially the kind who favor income redistribution as a way to advance economic equality—say that free-market conservatives are waging war on the poor.

A casual observer could easily come away with the idea that America has an unbridgeable chasm running down its middle. And, in fact, public debates are often framed as if this were the case. My distaste for Fox News, for instance, comes NOT from its tendency to offer a more conservative interpretation of the facts; you could reasonably argue that America needed a more conservative view of the facts, so Fox fills an important market niche. No, my bone to pick with Fox is that it presents issue after issue as a shouting match in which the only alternatives are two distant, rigid positions offered by shrill partisans at the top of their lungs.

If middle-Americans come to believe that the O’Reilly Factor represents how debates should be framed and how decisions must be made, then they must either choose sides or opt out of the conversation altogether. And you know as well as I do that this is what has happened. A relatively small number of citizens have chosen sides and dug in to defend their positions no matter what. For instance, on the very difficult issue of abortion they end up either arguing that no abortion is ever permissible under any circumstances, even though a vast majority of their fellow citizens disagree, or they argue that abortion must be a woman’s unfettered right at any time up until birth, which most people see as morally reprehensible. But time after time, this tendency to frame issues as right or wrong, all or nothing, good or evil, creates artificial dilemmas.

The partisans are so worried about the slippery slope that they are afraid to give an inch. Consequently, they waste all of our time defending that last, controversial, 5% of their arguments rather than building on the 95% where there is widespread agreement.

But that’s for the small percentage who have chosen sides and dug in. You know as well as I do that a much larger percentage of citizens have decided not to dig in on one side or the other and have no interest in fighting the culture war. So they either sit it out altogether or, when elections roll around, they choose their constellation of issues and vote accordingly. This is what is now known as “independence” and many people think it’s a good thing. Folks love to say “I vote for the candidate, not the party”. But I’m not so sure.

Obviously, I’m not arguing that America would be better if more people were hard-shelled partisans, but what passes for “independence” looks to me more like “non-involvement.” I wouldn’t want everyone signing a pledge to listen only to Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken, but I wouldn’t mind if more people were involved in the ongoing social dialogue because they saw it as a reasoned process involving evidence and fairness. The current state of widespread disengagement makes it much harder for people to think critically about a wide range of complex issues and therefore much easier for savvy salespeople like Karl Rove to put together a marketing strategy.

Forced to Choose: Whose Moral Values?

After the 2004 election, we were told that “values voters” made a big difference. As you all know, this referred to people who hold what are called “traditional” or “family” or “conservative Christian” values. Not to put too fine a point on it, but gay marriage and abortion became the litmus tests for “values”. Let’s be honest: many people are concerned that open acceptance of homosexuality somehow tears at our traditional moral fabric, whatever that may be exactly. And you are well aware that many people believe abortion is tantamount to killing unborn children, which is a claim so strong that it moves other considerations to the back burner.

It would be impossible to gather enough evidence to prove that these moral issues swung the 2004 election, especially with a war on, but it is easy to see why they exerted such pressure. If you truly believe that abortion is murder, then you are likely to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole political or cultural worldview that surrounds it. What other issue could be important enough to sway you from this underlying conviction? If you equate liberalism with abortion, then you are likely to dismiss liberalism altogether.

I think gay marriage is less all-encompassing for most people; that is, they don’t feel nearly so strongly about it—but the easy part is, they don’t have to. All they have to do is vote for the status quo which, in this case, fits with their own worldview and their own personal comfort. Unless you are gay, then a vote for gay marriage is portrayed as a vote for principle, not for your own interests. When political debate is so polarized, the message to citizens is: “Vote your own interests and personal feelings; everyone else is.” In such an environment, gay marriage is a tough sell.

The coalition coalesced around these traditional moral concerns are now called “values voters,” and the politicians who pander to them claim a monopoly on values issues. But there’s a similar coalition on the political left that lays claim to the term “justice”. They demonize capitalism and the “big businesses” that profit from it. Populism runs deep in American culture—from academia to the working class to the genuinely poor—and Democratic or independent politicians—even wealthy ones—are not above using social class to drive the wedge when they can.

Speaking to the AFL-CIO this year, Senator Edward Kennedy said, “Make no mistake – there’s an organized movement against organized labor. This organized movement is called the Bush Administration, and it stands against working families – against fair wages – against decent health care – against Social Security – against the 40 hour work week -- and against over time pay. It stands against all the progress we’ve made in bringing fairness and justice to hard working families across America. Together, we will make clear that we have only just begun to fight.”

I could list as many examples of these class warfare gems from Democrats as I can “Christian values” classics from Republicans, but you don’t need me to. You already know that both sides are looking for a place to drive a wedge, so long as they can find a place that leaves 50%+1 of the voters on their side.

This way of conducting elections—indeed, this way of conducting our national policy dialogue—skews the results absurdly. Because we act as though we lack the language and the symbols to communicate our common values and common interests, we end up creating mythical poles of left and right, red state and blue state, that are much farther apart in our mental constructions than they usually are in real life. We caricature complex issues; in fact, candidates and their handlers do this on purpose. We turn every question into black and white, yes or no, up or down, and make it unnecessarily difficult to imagine a center that is widely shared but unprofitable for politicians.

The Way Forward: The Language of Shared American Values

I do not, of course, mean to suggest that the early 2000’s are the first time, or the worst time, in American history when it comes to politicians’ use of hyperbole and exaggeration to discredit their opponents and build their own coalitions. This is what Americans do. And a lot of what we hear—from Hostetler’s silly remarks on the House floor to Dean’s baseless bluster to Kennedy’s rallying call to labor to Republicans’ shameless exploitation of the Terry Shiavo case—is preaching to the choir. These tidbits are not really meant to advance policy debate for the broad public, but to mobilize the troops.

No, my fear is not that politicians will exaggerate in order to get their base jazzed up, my fear is that we as a culture and as a body politic risk losing our ability to talk about shared American values at precisely the time when a globalizing world economy calls us to acknowledge, defend, and promote the very values that define us. We do well to stop at this critical juncture in world history to consider what those values are.

Americans are fair. We disagree strongly about equality of outcome, but it is difficult to find an American who would not argue for equality of opportunity. We believe everyone deserves a fair shake before the law. For all that people whine about liberal judges letting the bad guys go, most Americans are willing to risk setting an occasional felon free to make sure that the innocent don’t go in.

Americans are tolerant. I know, I know: the Klan, failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, vehement reactions against gay marriage. But you cannot honestly look at our society and say that those are our defining features. No, America is defined by its gradual inclusion of immigrant groups that have always come and continue to come. America is defined by people who are willing to mind their own business and to assign basic civic, political freedoms even to people they disagree with or dislike.

Speaking with Tucker Carlson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell put it like this: “Civil rights for all Americans, black, white, red, yellow, the rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, et cetera, is not a liberal or a conservative value. It‘s an American value that I would think that we pretty much all agree on." That’s fairness and tolerance rolled into one, especially coming from someone who liberals like to paint as the bad guy.

Americans are civil. Not always, of course, but we have it in us. I lived in Britain for 2 ½ years and I never stopped being taken aback when a reporter would try to trap a interviewee, especially a politician, with a loaded question. Americans would just find that rude. If you’ve ever seen the British arguing in the House of Commons and compared that to the floor of the US Congress, you know what I mean.

It is possible, of course, that Americans are too civil and that we sweep too much under the rug, but I far prefer this to the alternative. And in fact, I’m hopeful that this inbred civility might help save us from our current propensity to paint both sides in every debate as irreconcilable opponents.

I’m hopeful the recent confirmation of Judge John Roberts to the US Supreme Court might be an example of this civility playing out. Some noted Democrats voted “no” on Roberts as a strategic set-up for the next confirmation hearing, but the overall tone of this discussion was subdued even though many people expected Armageddon. President Bush was forced to put forward a high- quality, not-too-ideologically-motivated candidate and his opponents were forced to respond politely and reasonably because Americans would not have stood for too much exaggerated name-calling. This was too important.

After all, we still share an underlying sense that “the government” is an impartial, balanced mechanism, even when very partial, one-sided people are in it. In Europe, when people say “the government”, they mean the party in power. The other side is “the opposition”. But in America, we see the government as a thing that represents us all, no matter that it contains different proportions of Republicans and Democrats.

And we see the Supreme Court as fair and impartial even beyond that. I remember once hearing a British talking head say that the United States had a “Republican” Supreme Court and it just sounded odd. The Court must strive to be above politics and, the 2000 election decision notwithstanding, I think the justices generally agree on this point. We all insist that the ideal be impartiality, even as we cautiously guard against the reality of partisan interests.

Finally, Americans demand and respect evidence. Over the last couple of decades, our country has moved zealously in the direction of outcomes-based evaluation for pretty much everything. Admittedly, we don’t always agree about what counts as evidence. For instance, is ISTEP the best way to measure educational outcomes? Or on a much larger issue, do the millions of pieces of archaeological and now genetic evidence validate the general theories of natural selection and evolution? But many other times we do agree on what constitutes proof. We are a people who insist on hard evidence in courtroom trials and we are offended when that evidence seems to go unheeded.

These American values are cherished by billions of people around the world. But we Americans have a special advantage that cannot be overemphasized: we not only share these values, we have codified them in our founding documents. The Constitution, especially, serves as a covenant between ourselves, our ancestors, and our children to uphold and maintain these high ideals.

There are, to be sure, other values, encoded in other documents, that inform our way of life. Values from the Bible, for instance, mean different things to different people. The 10 Commandments have surely shaped our culture as they have all of western civilization. But even they are not universally shared, so when partisans try to use them to insist that certain core religious beliefs should govern everyone, our truly shared values of fairness, toleration, and civility kick back. Some may see this as a loss of traditional culture or a relativization of moral content; I see it as an attempt to build a system of values that could be embraced by a shrinking, globalizing, incredibly diverse and complex world.

Compared to grandiose claims about God’s Will or Armageddon or culture wars, the words don’t seem like all that much, do they? Fairness, toleration, civility, and respect for evidence; these are just common sense. But I believe their virtue lies in the fact that they are common. These are truly shared American values.

And so today I’m making a simple request: from now until the 2006 Congressional elections, every time you hear someone insist that their personal values should be the standard by which others are judged, ask yourself how those specific, particular values look through the lens of our shared, common values. Is the claim being made in the spirit of fairness, toleration, civility and respect for evidence? Is there room for reasonable people to disagree and to move forward toward some sort of mutually-acceptable resolution? Is the goal to find common ground, of which there is much, or to establish a beachhead by turning a point of genuine disagreement into a metaphor for the cosmic struggle between good and evil?

A small-but-growing group of us have now banded into an organization called the American Values Alliance in the hopes of raising these kinds of questions over and over. Whenever we see a politician use hyperbole or exaggeration in a way that engenders division, we will point it out. Whenever we see media ignoring evidence or pushing people toward incivility, we will call their hand. Whenever activists of any kind seek to drive a wedge between Americans, whether men or women, rich or poor, gay or straight, black or white, generations-old residents or relative newcomers, we will question their claim that what separates us is stronger than what unites us.

But we know it is not enough simply to react by pointing out where others are intentionally creating division. We hope to press for political reforms that make partisanship less profitable for its practitioners. For instance, we believe that an independent, non-partisan redistricting commision could do a MUCH better job at setting political boundaries than the current, highly partisan, system we have now.

Gerrymandering is a political sickness that far too many of us have come to accept as a normal part of politics. It creates non-competitive elections in which most candidates, even for jobs as important as the US House of Representatives, barely even have to run, much less to explain and defend their records. It is simply unfair. But only a genuinely non-partisan effort can really create this change, because both parties are too tightly-identified with their own interests. It is difficult to stir up non-partisan activism—it is disorganized by its very nature—but we’re going to give it a shot.

The best way to keep partisanship from paying, and to keep the culture war from spreading, is to eliminate the spoils of that war whenever possible. When citizens insist on institutions that are fair and evidence-based, and when they punish candidates who intentionally mislead and drive wedges rather than engaging in reasoned debate, then things change because they must.

Cynics would not bother to attempt these reforms, but starry-eyed idealists are unlikely to get far either. We know that no matter how civil the debate and how strong the presentation of evidence, people will still disagree about when human life begins or what distribution of income is fair. But surely no one here believes that either of those national debates are improved by choosing sides, digging in our heels, and screaming at one another across a line drawn in the sand. Each of us recognizes that a fair process of argument with respect both for evidence and for the fellow citizens on the other side will bring us closer to an agreement that everyone could live with.

I know the partisans think that “compromise” is a dirty word, but not me, because I know that the alternatives are “stalemate” at best and “war”at worst.

My goal, our goal, is to remain non-partisan, so today I am not asking you to support any party, to vote for or against any public spending, or to consider any candidate. I am only asking you to look inside yourself to see whether fairness, civility, toleration and respect for evidence are your values, values you share with hundreds of millions of other Americans and billions around the world.

If they are, then I hope you’ll join me in rejecting political ads that intentionally mislead, refusing to participate in push polls, insisting on media clarity, and ridiculing hyperbole, exaggeration, and wedge-driving whereever we see it. I hope you’ll insist that whenever possible, government—federal, state, or local—replace the spoils system with decisions based on fairness and competence. But most of all, I hope that every time you hear someone say that their values are pure, while those of their opponents are tainted, you’ll remind them of the core American values we all share. If we recognize that fairness, toleration, civility and respect for evidence unite us , and if we refuse to listen to, vote for, or donate one red cent to those who hope to profit by dividing us, then we can move toward the kind of political dialogue aimed at solving problems, not merely at winning elections.

1 comment:

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