The Two Cultures

One of the things I was hoping for yesterday was a breakdown of the walls we have been building up in this country. Sure, one did fall—or crumble a bit, at least—the wall between the races, but there’s another one, much stronger, that the election only seems to have shored up.

Look at the results. Of the states that went for Obama, ten plus the District of Columbia gave him at least sixty percent of the vote—a margin of twenty percent or more. Another ten awarded him better than fifty-five percent (but less than sixty), at least a ten-point margin. Those are huge numbers, huge wins. Much greater than the less than six point national spread.

For, on the other side, McCain bested sixty in six states, fifty-five in nine others.

Whatever the reason (and it is too facile to simply call it “race”), these numbers show that the gulf between red state and blue state is widening. A variety of factors tilted the result to the Democrats this time, but those will change at some point, and the other side will get back in. If this continues, we’ll never achieve stability or real cultural progress. We’ll have motion, yes, but it will be like that of a teeter-totter, up and down but going nowhere.

In his classic essay “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” C. P. Snow writes:

Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground. (4-5)

Snow was writing of the divide between two academic cultures, between literary intellectuals and scientists, but his words could as easily refer to conservatives and liberals in the United States. We don’t understand each other, and we make little attempt to do so.

In victory, in 2000 and in 2004, the right put little effort into crossing the divide between the two cultures. There was talk of a ‘permanent Republican majority’ and an attempt at marginalization of the liberals to the extent where they could be safely ignored. The conservatives were wrong to think in this way, and those chickens came home to roost last night.

The question now is whether or not we on the liberal side will show ourselves better in victory than the conservatives were. Certainly, our country deserves better—but can we live up to its demands? Can we, for example, stop insulting red-staters, calling them “crackers,” “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” and the like, talking down to them as though they are so many under-educated bumpkins? Can we start taking them and their ideas seriously in ways that they never did for us?

Last night in their speeches, both McCain and Obama gave us room to move towards reconciliation—not by conceding to the demands or philosophy of the other, but by beginning to learn to respect difference and the ‘other’—a hard task, certainly, but one that can be accomplished, given the right climate. And McCain and Obama have provided just that, a space between the rain and the snow when we can come outside and look at each other and see to our surprise that the ‘other’ is no devil, just ‘us’ in another guise.

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