Why we fight (about culture)

It's now settled dogma that there are two different "sides" in American society, and neither side knows how to talk to the other. We've split in two, and all the opinion columnists sent out to all the diners on all the main streets in all the little towns of the heartland, drinking all the coffee with all the men in red hats, couldn't put us together again.

We can't have a national conversation anymore. (Could we ever? Thoreau lamented the rush to build a telegraph from one corner of the country to another; "but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.") So what we do instead is shout at and shame people on our own side for having the wrong opinion about a poem.

Meghan Daum writes about her frustration with these conditions in an essay I've been thinking about constantly since it was published a week ago:

Both online and in real life, people who’d once shared a common set of assumptions about the realities of the world and the nature of human behavior now seemed oddly divided. Questions that had once been treated as complicated inquiries requiring scrutiny and nuance were increasingly being reduced to moral absolutes, especially as far as liberal types were concerned.

Daum connects the loss of nuanced discussion to the end of her marriage, in which her husband had been her "intellectual ally" and conversation partner. Seeking nuance, she spends hours and hours watching YouTube debates among the self-styled renegades of the "intellectual dark web" who question liberal and academic pieties. She doesn't quite find what she's looking for there, either. (There are more layers to the story, of course; the essay is very much worth your time.)

What Daum describes on the personal level, others see on the level of national self-narrative. Cornell law professor Aziz Rana wrote in n + 1 earlier this year that there once was a political consensus in the U.S., but it was a relic of the Cold War. We can't get it back. Rana says in the article (unpaywalled, but consider subscribing anyway):

This consensus, based on a set of judgments that coalesced in the aftermath of World War II, concerned everything from the genius of America’s domestic institutions to the indispensability of its global role. These judgments gave coherence to the country’s national identity.... But with the 2016 election, the cold-war paradigm finally shattered.

That breakup allowed pre-consensus political ideas -- from socialism to white nationalism -- to come courting again. Rana is hopeful that the left can gain real governing power in the years to come, when everything will be up for grabs.

Another law prof, U.Va.'s Charles Barzun, in an essay for The Point published a day after Daum's, points toward a way to stitch together these macro and micro-level narratives. (Oh, consider subscribing to this excellent magazine, too. It's sort of the n + 1 of the Midwest, founded by University of Chicago grads.) Barzun helps explain what the end of the Cold War has to do with why you can't stand to listen to your woke (or unwoke) friends anymore. He argues that the crack-up Rana identifies also split the political left into a wing that still takes the Cold War consensus for granted, and one that doesn't. So now, the radical-progressive wing, which views politics entirely in terms of power, sees the centrist-liberal wing's concern for democratic norms as naive. The two groups can't even agree on how to describe reality.

What I took away from Daum's essay was that nuanced thought requires the trust and patience that mark our intimate relationships -- at least, mark them when those relationships are at their best. You won't get nuance if you're shouting at each other in 280-character bursts. Barzun thinks trust is ultimately what it will take to rebuild a post-Cold War political consensus. The old consensus was built on trust, too: trust in the American system. This time, we may have to try something much more difficult. We may have to trust in each other. * * * It's Labor Day weekend, when millions of Americans enjoy the fruits of organized labor's long struggle as well as the final days of summer (unless you live in Texas, where we're only just entering what I call "third summer"). We typically don't think about labor unions or work in general on Labor Day. But it's a good opportunity to do so. If I were more on top of things, I would have long ago pitched a story pegged to Labor Day about the contemporary challenges of work. Oh well. So I'll just share with you a couple greatest hits from Labor Days past:

I will have new work on work -- a book review and two longer essays -- coming out in the next few months. In the meantime, have a good weekend, and thanks for reading!

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