A Tuning Fork in Armageddon

Things to do instead of a Boogaloo

“Has it ever occurred to you,” Evangelical pastor A. W. Tozer asked, in his spiritual classic Pursuit of God, “that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other?”

He was talking to Christians about God, and while I think talking about God is a great idea, Tozer’s point can also be taken more generally. Modern free societies generally rest on the faith that, left to our own devices, we tend to ideologically harmonize, and converge.

And that convergence is crucial: In order for a state to have a peaceful, functional democracy, it must comprise, to no small extent, a single nation — i.e., a people held together by a sufficient number of shared values and binding agreements. We can see that necessity especially clearly now, because it’s failing to occur in the U.S. in a major way. Partisan battles have become so entrenched that militias — militas — are appearing in public places, and one side is so inflamed that it is seriously considering no-holds-barred attempts to undermine elections.

Forget about who’s right and wrong for a second to see a simple reality:

  • Currently, America may no longer be a nation in the strictest sense of the word.
  • If America cannot find a way to become a nation again, to cooperate across its left-right divide, it may cease to have a fully functioning democracy.
  • Summarily defeating the other side is simply not a lasting solution.

In a recent podcast with Braver Angels, conservative commentator David French framed America’s partisan conflict this way: liberals fear minority rule and conservatives fear majoritarian tyranny. If so, note that each of these is an existential threat, and the primary way we are trying to prevent one threat is by inducing the other.

In other words, we are attempting to have a free society while roughly a third of the country regularly lives under ideological dominance of roughly another third.

It should be obvious that this is no solution at all. This isn’t Survivor. We can’t just vote seventy to a hundred million people off the island. But yet this idea of total defeat of the other is a notion that’s so imminent, and yet so intolerable, that one political party resorts to increasingly nefarious manipulations of the electoral process itself in order to survive.

It’s worth considering that, at this point in American history, maybe it’s just not righteous enough to be trumpeting the righteous anthems of your tribe only. We might consider that if we like America enough to live here, then we have a role in taking care of the nation, too. Because the nation appears to be ripping itself apart.

This isn’t about false equivalencies

Nazism did not burble up universally across the political spectrum in Germany, and there are not wholly incomparable ideological asymmetries in the America. The quality of information is not symmetrical: American conservatives are much more consistently engaged in a pitched battle agains straw men to a greater extent than liberals or moderates. And Republicans are breaking rules and norms more than Democrats. And Russia’a promotion of civil unrest through disinformation campaigns appears to have more traction on one side than the other. There is simply not equal blame to go around.

One wonders, then, whether talk of becoming one nation at this point is merely the Neville Chamberlain position of our moment, and when instead we need to be Churchills.

Certainly, we have to accept some constraints:

  • We will not be able to build bridges with those who are fundamentally incapable of grappling with their own shortcomings.
  • We will not be able to build bridges with those who believe that winning the culture war is more important than being a nation.
  • We will not be able to build bridges with those who cannot accept good-willing ways of life that are simply different from their own.

There will be times when we have to say, “No.” There will be times when we will have to fight.

The point here is not appeasement. The point is, simply, that political defeat of one side is, in our current situation, not a final solution.

And the point is that if we want to have a functional democracy then ultimately the “we” who is saying “no” to the unrepentant and the unscrupulous, and the “we” who is winning the battles must often enough consist of liberals and conservatives standing together for common American, and common human principles.

Two battles, conflated

Truthfully, there may be no final solution that saves the country at this point. But if there is, here are some suggestions for what it might entail:

One, we have to realize — really realize — the extent to which we live in narrative bubbles, the ways these bubbles impair our ability to allow, and to tolerate the other, and the need for us to get out of those bubbles more fervently.

Two, America really does seem to be in an existential clash between something like light and something like darkness — and in order to succeed in that battle, we must get much better at understanding it.

Most essentially, it is important to see that the culture war, and the existential war have been too conflated. To be a nation, I think we simply must separate — almost surgically — one from the other.

The culture war: getting out of our bubbles.

In the furor leading up the Iraq War, Fareed Zakaria once observed, “War is a collapse of dialogue.” Bubbles are a collapse of dialogue, also. They feel good, and they can help us grow in the direction of ideologies that we value. But taken to an extreme, they make us allergic to diversity and stunt our critical thinking.

This is happening now. People on the right see a relative mote of left-wing violence in America, for instance, while ignoring the beam of right-wing militancy and violence. People on the left erupt over the anachronistic, but essentially harmless eccentricity that Mike Pence calls his wife “Mother,” and immediately pour derogatory projections into his religious choice not to dine alone with other women.

It should be obvious that we cannot build a healthy nation around tenets like, “The Democrats are evil,” or “The Republicans are evil.” But it should also obvious that we can’t build a nation with tenets like, “Liberalism is wrong,” and “Conservatism is wrong.”

Under ideal circumstances, conservatism’s natural attention to government bloat and abuse of public services, reverence for a national mythology, and desire for the U.S. to remain a stabilizing force in the global order can complement and counter-balance liberalism’s attention to leveling the socioeconomic playing field, celebrating diversity, and having a national conscience about both domestic and international behavior.

Is there really nothing about liberalism itself that you feel meaningfully belongs in the American conversation? Is there really nothing about conservatism itself that you feel belongs in the conversation?

This is not always going to be fun. But it’s worth remembering the stakes:

If we come up with enough of these things that we can allow about the other, we can a be nation. And if we don’t, we can’t. And it’s possible that America will cease to be a fully functional democracy.

The other battle

It seems to me that increasingly Americans feel America is in a battle for its soul — a tension between archetypally positive principles and archetypally negative ones.

And, frankly, I think we feel that we are engaged in pitched battle between light and darkness because we are engaged in a pitched battle between light and darkness:

Intelligence over ignorance.
Honesty over lies.
Loving-kindness over hatred.
Self-restraint over impulse.
Freedom over dominance.
Cooperation over dominance.
Soulful effort over materialist complacency.
Etc.

I also think it’s a real mistake to map this casually onto the culture war. It’s certainly tempting to do it. But it seems to me in doing so, we are actually more likely to lose the battle.

If we see things only in terms of red and blue, we’re likely to miss that consumerism, self-centeredness, and complacency are widespread problems, for instance. We miss that departures from wholesome living unmistakably contribute to social decline, and we miss that social decline unmistakably contributes to wealth disparity.

Americans many more values in common that the prevailing narratives indicate. If we can overcome the distractions of the red/blue divide, perhaps we can find ways to stand together around those values.

In fact, perhaps we’ll ultimately discover that we do not need the strength to defeat other people in the country so much as what we need is the strength to defeat the unregenerate parts of ourselves and our spheres of influence — together, in similar directions.

A proper tuning fork

Which, if so, brings us back to Tozer: What we need is a proper tuning fork: a common set of uplifting values by which we can agree to be a nation. If we were all really living by a truly complete, supportable set of human values, would the nation still be imperiled the way that it is?

Suppose a common tuning fork is indeed what we need. How do we get one of those, one that everyone generally agrees is the tuning fork? And how to we get that in front of everybody? I don’t know that anybody knows for sure. But here are some suggestions:

A shared rubric for truthfulness: A surprising amount of America’s political division results from the fact that there are asymmetries of information, and, importantly, a surprising amount of it results from the fact that people are proceeding from different rules of evidence. A great deal of political animus results from average people treating speculation as though it is an accurate account of events, or as though it is an indication of a likely eventuality.

On the left, people feared Neil Gorsuch’s and Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the highest court because they are conservative, even though Gorsuch has proven, generally speaking, to be less interested in partisan leveraging than in sober interpretation of the law and Barrett shows evidence of being capable of the same. On the right, examples abound: the Hunter Biden narrative, Benghazi, Uranium One, the U.S. will become Venezuela, emailgate. Sometimes people use one rule of evidence for evaluating allegations their preferred side and another for evaluating allegations on the other side.

It is not hard to articulate rules of evidence that all reasonable people could agree to, and which would purify our political conversation of a great deal of the distorted roil that currently fills it.

Timeless compasses: There is a possibility that we could reach greater agreement about even more subjective narratives, too, if we allowed timeless wisdom to be infused intelligently into our national dialogue — as it has successfully been before. To some extent, America faces utterly novel problems, but to some extent America faces problems that appear novel because they are deeper than our relatively shallow contemporary cultural stories can understand.

The American notion that Americanism is inherently good is making America cannibalistic and grotesque. We must to stop acting like we have arrived, and we must resume more essential, timeless human pursuits of goodness. I think we do this best if we include incorporate into our spiritual diet forms of wisdom that are older than we are, and weave these with emerging, new perspectives generated from intelligent contemplation of current realities.

Receptive, interconnected community: Any new habit is nourished in attentive community, whether it’s an individual habit (of being a person committed to re-building the American nation), or a collective habit of doing the same. And we have to make sure that the communities to which we belong are open.

Openness is challenging, and our communities can be grappling with what constitutes an appropriate degree of openness looks like. But I think that we have to allow that, generally speaking, there is something absolutely better about opening than being closed. We have to be opening to one another, and we have to be in groups that are opening to one another.

A detox narrative: Modern industrialized life has brought great material benefits, and it has also been inherently alienating, and this alienation in its multifarious expressions has affected us all. In the quest to be a nation, Americans must allow that we are not only seeking personal and collective progress, we are called to detox, personally and collectively, from an ambient culture that neither fully promotes healthy individual living nor healthy social cohesion anymore.

Another way to say it is that the essence of the detox narrative is — and this is a loaded, but not inapt word — repentance. We all must admit that we are imperfect and that we are in a process of self-development and self-purification, and we must agree to meet in the context of this humbling admission.

Agreeing to get out of our bubbles, agreeing to talk about a battle between light and darkness, cultivating scruples, and making the effort to parse the culture war from the battle between good and evil will not, of themselves, solve our problems. But I would argue that it’s vital to keep these distinctions in mind, because without them, we are not fighting our battles clearly. We are trying to go to war with weapons that are too big and misshapen even get out the door.

Here are some questions for would-be nation-builders.

  1. Are you thinking critically — really critically — and not just drawing on the best wisdom of your tribe? The essence of critical thinking is considering things from multiple perspectives. If you are not seeking multiple perspectives on contemporary issues — including outside your bubble — I think you are not engaging them intelligently enough.
  2. What are your rules for accepting something as true? What are your timeless compasses? How do you know any of these are rigorous enough? We become best suited to be part of the solution if we are rigorously engaged in a wisdom journey.
  3. Are you using your compasses to transform yourself? Not just to make yourself more effective or more successful, but to deepen and purify yourself in useful ways? (I am not suggesting that you use any particular model for doing this; I would suggest, though that if you ask yourself about this journey, you will know what to do about it.)
  4. Are you part of good groups? Do they connect meaningfully with other groups?
  5. Are you sitting down with the “other?” I think at this point, we cannot be morally right simply by making the effort to be right. We are truly morally right if we are also bridging.

America has lived through precarious times, and it is hard to judge the precariousness of the time one is living in against the precariousness of all the times in American history. But our time is certainly precarious.

And while our national fate is uncertain, it is perennially true that societies can renew themselves. And some have. We can hope that America can do this, too.

If we do the work. If we try.

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