Loving the great divide

One of the things that most amazes me about politics is how, sometimes, the most profound long-term consequences of a great political victory is linguistic; how it can literally reshape the language, the very way we speak.

I once read that the single greatest never-noticed change of the Civil War was in the way Americans referred to our country. Before the war, the common usage was “the United States are” — it was a collection of individual states, with the accent on the plural. But after the war, it became “the United States is” — a collective noun, expressed in the singular form.

In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan had a similar effect on the language. He, virtually single-handedly, turned the word “liberal” into a pejorative. (OK, he had a LOT of help from folks like Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy.) Virtually overnight, the liberal label became something to run from, to avoid, to be ashamed of, as the majority of the American people decided that they didn’t like the term and all it entailed. A few stood up against the movement, proudly, embracing the term and standing resolutely against the avalanche — and were crushed. It took years before the fight back against that movement began to show any progress, and even today it’s considered a very bad thing, politically, to be labelled a liberal.

But the left, seeing a powerful tactic in action, has apparently decided to try their own hand at it. “Religious Right” didn’t resonate with the American people as a scare word, despite their best efforts to make that the new boogeyman. So they went a bit more subtle.

The word they’re using now: “divisive.”

Anything that the right favors is now “divisive.” Even if the Left can’t quite articulate what it is that’s so bad about it, it’s still “divisive.” The war in Iraq is divisive. Bush’s nominees — Roberts, Alito, Bolton — are all divisive. Bush’s social security reform program was divisive. I am half-convinced that if we found out that Bush routinely puts his pants on right-leg first, the left would denounce that as “divisive,” and demand that he alternate daily which leg he dresses first so as to be properly “inclusive.” (And at least once a week he’d have to wear a skirt, so the non-pants-wearing public wouldn’t feel alienated.)

Sometimes, they get so wrapped up in this theme that they can’t recognize irony when it walks up and bites them on the ass. In Massachusetts, gay marriage was ratified by a four-to-three vote in their Supreme Court. That wasn’t divisive, despite splitting the court almost perfectly right down the middle. But when opponents to that decision gather well in excess of twice as many signatures as legally required to put the matter to a vote before the entire populace in the form of a referendum, that — according to Congressman Barney Frank — is divisive. A ruling that affects over six million people in Massachusetts — and, potentially, thanks to the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution, the entire nation — should be settled by four of seven unelected judges, and not by the will of the people, because we know they’ll just screw it up.

(Brief aside — yes, I still support the recognition of gay marriage, or at least of civil unions. But the way it was done in Massachusetts was not only wrong, but stupid. It will most likely be a pyrrhic victory, as the public backlash is still building, and I believe will eventually lead to its overturning and be a long-term setback for the cause. The opponents of gay marriage are righteously pissed at the four members of the Supreme Judicial Court for ruling on the matter, and the legislature for avoiding the issue despite countless efforts and warnings, and I think will eventually lead to a major shakeup in Massachusetts — and a lot of the folks responsible for the current status quo will be tossed out on their asses.)

But on a simpler level, I don’t see “divisive” as a bad word. Any good issue should be divisive, not unifying. It should bring out strong feelings on people of both sides. I have an innate distrust of collectivism, and when too many people all agree with something, I worry that the issue will not be properly debated. It’s only through vigorous debate and discusssion that issues are fully explored.

The Catholic Church recognized the dangers of such events, and for the process by which saints were canonized established one of the most valuable concepts in thought I’ve ever seen — the advocatus diaboli, or the devil’s advocate.

The idea is simple: when an issue is being discussed, one person is assigned to oppose it. Regardless of their own personal feelings or beliefs, this individual has to make the absolutely best possible argument against it. Their duty is to test every bit of evidence, every reason, why the idea is a good one — discovering flaws and weaknesses in an idea before it is implemented.

That’s a very divisive role. In fact, it’s whole purpose is to be divisive — to draw up a second position, deliberately contrary, and to attempt to defeat the original idea.

But I’m a big believer in Darwinism and competition. It’s only when we are challenged that we rise to our greatest heights. President Kennedy would never have announced our intention of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 60’s had the Soviets not beaten us to every other landmark in the space race. George W. Bush was well on his way to an utterly mediocre, unremarkable presidency until 9/11 happened. And the US auto industry was well on its way to death by complacency in the 70’s until the Japanese started doing all sorts of things right.

Divisiveness leads to competition and conflict. But competition and conflict lead to excellence.

Pressure is a wonderful thing, some times. It’s pressure and heat that separates plain old coal from diamonds.

So let’s embrace divisiveness. It makes us better thinkers, more secure in our beliefs, if we have them routinely challenged. Let’s not let the Left turn this into a bad word.

(And one last thought: once an issue is pretty much settled publicly, and the people have spoken, aren’t those who insist on continually bringing it up over and over, re-hashing the same old arguments, being far more divisive than those who consider the matter settled? The 2004 and 2000 presidential elections are over, and those who want to continually re-argue them really, really need to MoveOn.)

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