Sunday, March 18, 2012

Roots of Culture Wars

Jonathan Haidt traces the roots of the re-emergent culture wars in The New York Times.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

Haidt points out that the left worships equality and justice for oppressed groups while the right worships individual liberty and traditional moral order.

This is why we’ve seen the sudden re-emergence of the older culture war — the one between the religious right and the secular left that raged for so many years before the financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party. When sacred objects are threatened, we can expect a ferocious tribal response. The right perceives a “war on Christianity” and gears up for a holy war. The left perceives a “war on women” and gears up for, well, a holy war.

The timing could hardly be worse. America faces multiple threats and challenges, many of which will require each side to accept a “grand bargain” that imposes, at the very least, painful compromises on core economic values. But when your opponent is the devil, bargaining and compromise are themselves forms of sacrilege.

Haidt's last point is crucial. Our country is now faced with problems such as globalization and mounting government debt that cannot be solved by one side alone. This is why the cost of waging the traditional partisan food fight is too high. I tend to be harder on the Republicans than the Democrats. The GOP's increasingly extreme policy positions and hostility to compromise are the main reasons why.

--Ballard Burgher

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