The sociologist Alan Wolfe, who has just written a book, seems to have found a common belief system of the middle class, a kind of cool centrism that holds the country together despite the bombings of abortion clinics, the military games of the Christian identity groups, the race-tinted glasses we all wore during the O.J. Simpson trip to Oz. Maybe there is a common decency, a sort of sitcom coziness that binds the nation, that permits good TV ratings and miles of strip malls. It makes sense to me that most Americans, hyphenated or not, share a desire for a quiet, good life and are willing under most circumstances to grant the same to their neighbors. But is this more than the sort of agreement we make when we cross the street at the green light and expect the oncoming cars to wait? Are we really a civil society? Me, even with the light in my favor, I look both ways and make a dash for the other side.
In support of Mr. Wolfe’s centrism, it is true enough that the Republicans have discovered that they must speak in the language of compassion and concern for ordinary people, or they will lose elections. The Democrats have discovered that they must talk about money making, the free market and military strength, or they will lose. So all the wanna-be-elected sound more or less alike, and we the public have to decode political speeches as if they were censored mail from gulag inmates.
Yet it’s puzzling that even if most Americans think drugs are evil, the drug trade flourishes. Even if most Americans would tell pollsters that driving while drunk is a sin as well as against the law, mayhem on the highway continues. Americans probably would say they don’t approve of the gap between the wealthy and the poor: Would any sane citizen tell a pollster that he or she is indifferent to infant mortality rates in rural counties or to inner-city life expectancies? We all believe that tobacco is the weed that chokes, and yet the industry hires more lawyers and the crop comes in year after year. We decent Americans continue to allow our air to be polluted, our rivers to be flooded with chemicals and our schools to be overcrowded and inadequate. So it’s hard to understand how this nice centrist people manages to let so many bad things happen to so many people.
Mr. Wolfe has also found that the one matter that seems to divide the country most sharply is homosexuality. Do we accept two men, two women, two mommies, two daddies? Is the bedroom a private place or of central interest to the community? Assuming that Mr. Wolfe has counted correctly, we now know that Americans are more divided on this issue than any other. Why? How come private sexual choice still makes people hot under the collar, causes fundamentalists to send letters, sign petitions and support grass-roots movements to fight for their God-given constitutional right to continue to discriminate? Why would gender and Eros raise more hackles than abortion, affirmative action, working mothers, a balanced budget, taxes, etc.?
Your attitude toward homosexuality says a lot about you. If you can tolerate the fact that sexual attraction between adults has no right or wrong way but is instead a brilliant and sometimes terrifying private, inner jungle kingdom in which the trails that weave backward and forward are laid down in part by one’s genes, in part by one’s memories (mother’s nightgown, father’s hands, pictures seen, experiences so early we can’t remember but we do), then you know that your own choice of this partner or that gender has nothing to do with good or evil and everything to do with the great mystery of soul that makes the blood rush to the crucial body parts in response to a blonde or a brunette, small or large, thick or thin legs, the flash of Eros across our private screen. If we think of sex as a brush with our limbic primitive brains, with our instinctive lives, with our intimate fantasies, we know that man and woman is just one possibility and that God could not have created us with so many erotic responses, foot fetishes, voyeurs, adorers of the sexy photographs, lovers of tall women, whippers and the whipped, if what was moral was just the man and woman in reproductive missionary position. This view of sex and its role in our complicated lives cuts down on the things one disapproves of and keeps us in awe of the extraordinary imaginative capacity of the human being to mingle love and instinctual satisfaction right under the eyes of a watchful civilization that has its own reasons for wanting our passions minimized and controlled, often to the point of elimination.
If, on the other hand, you see sex as a temptation by the devil, as an unfortunate necessity to create a next generation always born in sin and tainted by the human birth canal, then you may see homosexuality as a great transgression against the moral order. Those two mindsets are drastically different and are symptoms of great chasms between groups of people.
One group lives in an earlier century and is less capable of understanding irony, modernism, than the other. One group has answers to questions of good and bad that are quite precise. That group is willing to enter your bedroom to police your intimacies. The other group is so confused about what is taboo and what is not, so certain that uncertainty is the right choice, that it is unwilling to condemn others for behaviors that are without public harm.
That difference between the two groups is so important that it belies all pictures of Americans as centrist with a common value system. If homosexuality still divides this country in serious antagonisms, then homosexuality must be understood symbolically as the tectonic plates of our political earth colliding. Attitudes toward homosexuality reveal worldviews that are profoundly fateful for our politics and our citizenry. We have here no mean opposition between the bigots of the fundamentalist church, in all their respectable guises, and the world-weary post-Salem, post-Freudian ( -Camus, -Proust, -Thomas Mann, -Hitler, -Stalin) ironists, doubters, urbanists, drinkers of caffè latte , denizens of the postmodern night.
The chasm between the groups is deep. Race and racism are also caught in this issue, as tolerance and respect for difference are attacked and defended. I believe that this is the battle that will take center stage across the heartlands in the near future, and there will be many more casualties like the people in the abortion clinic in Atlanta, like the children in the Oklahoma City Federal building. Yes, we are a homogenized American culture, but, no, we are not at peace with each other.
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