It has been said that H. G. Wells was the father of science fiction. This prolific author and socialist coined the famous phrase in describing WWI> “The war to end all wars.” A pacifist during the Great War, his ardent wish for peace can also be found in his plea “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”
One of the sublime ironies about WWI — which included massive death and destruction, hand-to-hand combat from trenches dug in close proximity to each other, and weapons of war that must have seemed at times to be out of a science fiction novel — was this. Even with the incredibly fierce fighting that transpired for most of its four years, on Christmas, both sides would observe a cease fire. Men would put down their guns, the sound of canons would go silent, and some would actually venture into no man’s land and fraternize with the enemy. In the midst of sheer madness, there was a glimpse, if for just for a moment, of sanity.
Today there is a war waged every day, a culture war between the left and the right. It is timeless and it appears endless. It uses media of every kind to blitzkrieg the opposition, and those left standing are entranced with the idea “we live to fight again.” The notion of peace is nonnegotiable, and compromise is considered surrender. The right and left of this country will do battle, and hostilities do not stop even for the most important and significant day of the year during which believers espouse peace on earth, good will toward men. One need only turn on the television or access the Internet to see polarizing figures like Miley Cyrus or Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty lobbing shells of extremism at the other side, a shock and awe strategy intended to evoke harsh and bitter feelings from the “enemy” and provoke a response filled with hate and hysteria. And while it may seem to some just harmless fencing, it has in point of fact caused deep divisions in this country, where walls of intolerance are fortified instead of torn down.
Over 200 years ago, the forefathers of the Constitution crafted with wisdom the tenet that there must be a separation of church and state. But what they could not have foreseen was that our culture would become a fundamentalist religion in and of itself. This brings not only a blurring of the line that demarcates our public policy pragmatism from religious zealotry, but it adds a new ingredient to an already murky mixture. Cultures that claim superiority over others and ask their politicians to adhere to a strict code of belief poison the well for meaningful reform and progress. Issues like climate change, unwanted teen pregnancy, women’s equality in the workplace, and sensible gun control that would otherwise have a transparency as they are dealt with in a bipartisan fashion are now litmus tests by the right to prove a candidate or a piece of legislation is conservative enough. And if that person or bill is found to lack cultural purity, it is to be discarded without the slightest moment given to consider a broader meaning.
The left can also be guilty of puritanical worship of populism. Failing to see that progress can be made incrementally, they brought the wrath of President Obama early in his first term with his telltale remark, “I urge all of us not to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary.” Obama’s frustration with his liberal base created unnecessary early pressure on an administration trying to find its footing. This may have resulted in a hasty rollout of the Affordable Care Act that needlessly tarnished Obama’s signature piece of legislation and caused undue headaches to the delight of the GOP. Both liberals and conservatives continue to feed this culture-war beast thinking that one day their way will become galactic and their ideology will vanquish the other. That kind of intrepid yet anemic ethos has only enunciated more strife and more misery for the left and the right and especially the vast majority in between.
A society’s courage can be measured by its resolve to change when it becomes reasonable to do so, to not cling to tribal customs that are easily proved to be unfeasible in the times we live today, and to look toward the future with the foresight that will say to the next generation that our time was spent in critical thought and not dogmatic and outdated beliefs that clung to an irrelevant past.
World War I, the war to end all wars, did nothing of the kind. And it was a culture of “winner take all” by the Allies that drove Germany to Nazism and Adolf Hitler. WWII followed in fewer than 20 years, causing even greater destruction than its predecessor. America need not follow that example by fighting a culture war in which there will be no winner and many losers.
Jeffrey R. Moualim lives in Santa Ynez. He is treasurer of the Committee of Ten Thousand, a national grassroots advocacy organization for people with hemophilia, HIV, and HCV, based in Washington, D.C., and Santa Barbara.