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Left, Right, & Wrong

What?s missing from the debate over values in America

OR SHOULD I SAY, "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" That is the name of the film my wife and I have come to watch at the artsy theater in the closest big town off the interstate. It is roughly 10 days after the Bush victory. The place is packed; people are dragging in extra chairs. My wife says that she hasn't seen a crowd like this since they showed Fahrenheit 9/11.

The theater has the feel of a progressive ark: saint-faced boys in dreadlocks, Trotsky look-alikes in denim shirts passing yeast-dusted popcorn to Susan B. Anthony wives: a Blue State's blue bloods, as it were. There are Kerry stickers on the bumpers of the Subarus parked outside. Darwin's name inside the chrome Jesus-fish-with-feet. I have a sense of being in church, not only because this is my tribe, but also because I have come here disposed to hope.

I admit to having some trouble following the film. Ostensibly it is about recent discoveries in quantum physics and how they might be applied to personal life. There are interviews with scientists and esoteric teachers. There is something about water molecules assuming mandalalike shapes after being blessed by a Zen Buddhist monk, which greatly surprises me, not because I have any trouble believing in the transformation, but because I haven't ever heard that Zen Buddhists give blessings. I thought Zen masters were known mostly for administering salutary dope slaps to fools.

Near the end of the film, its themes become clearer as two of the gurus on screen (neither of them physicists, I ought to say) inform us that we need to evolve past the outdated categories of "right and wrong." There's a scary shot of the flickering interior of a Catholic church, an edifying close-up of a serene chiropractor in front of a fireplace. I keep expecting an altar call. All around me people sit in rapt silence, their faces in the movie light recalling that prescient line of Emerson's (which every progressive needs to learn by heart): "we ... acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression."

And I am aware of a bitter and I would have to say reactionary sentiment welling up in my throat: "If the only viable choice is between people who can blithely affirm the obsolescence of good and evil, even while standing in the shadows of Rwanda and Dachau, and people like John Ashcroft and George Bush, who can at least..." I don't allow myself to finish the thought, but I recognize it for what it is: a thought perhaps not unlike the one that a number of Americans took to the polls this past November.

As my wife points out to me, it is also a thought based on questionable assumptions: that the other people in the theater have lesser capacities for moral indignation than I do -- or, for that matter, that the people in the movie are any less moral than I am simply because of the different weight we give to certain words. These are precisely the kinds of assumptions that the right loves to foster. True enough, but this is also true: The one thing more insufferable than a pretense of moral superiority is a pretense of superiority to morals, as if the task of an "evolving" woman or man is to stand above the struggle instead of on the right side.

I NEVER REALLY ANSWERED the woman who called me that morning and with whom I have been talking in my head all the days since. The fact is, I can think of no satisfactory progressive answer to the questions she raised about what is happening to our community and to our children. Rich kids also drive drunk and die. The fact is, the right is right when it says that certain problems cannot be addressed by what we on the left like to call "systemic change." The right is right when it says that certain social problems can be addressed only by a change in our cultural values.

Where the right is wrong is in trying to impose a single set of cultural values on a pluralistic society. Where the right is also wrong is in failing to keep faith with its own professed values. If the right truly believed in the primacy of family, it would rejoice at the number of gay and lesbian couples who wish to form stable, monogamous unions and provide homes for unwanted children. For that matter, if the right truly believed in "Judeo-Christian" values, it would oppose the idolatry of "market forces." At the very least, it would oppose relativistic arguments in defense of torture.

But an alternative set of values cannot be forged in a seminar or welded together from various cross-cultural scrap like a work of found art. Values are a codification of the experience of shared struggle -- be it in the Sinai Desert or the coalfields of Appalachia. If I am in danger of forgetting that, I need look no farther than the snow that begins to fall as we drive home from the bleeping movie. Around here it falls for a good six months. I don't know if a drunk driver is going to kill us on the road, but I do know that if we go off the road for any reason, someone will stop to help. It is one of the ways we have learned to survive as a community. It is one of the values that have come of our shared struggle against the formidable powers of cold and ice. It is one of the things we know for sure.

So what am I saying? I am saying the best way for the left to discover the values suitable to a pluralistic society is in a committed struggle with those forces that are hell-bent on reshaping America as a sentimental Victorian empire where Mammon is Lord and compassion is king and all the luck that any poor person needs is for a rich man to be visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve. This is a struggle that promises to be hard and protracted. It promises that we will live through a formative time, a potentially glorious time -- but only if we can accept what Martin Luther King Jr. told us, that a person who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for. If we on the left can conceive of no value worthy of sacrifice, then we live for no worthier purpose than to grouse and grow old. I am finished with the politics of incest and retreat, with wayward glances at Canada and nostalgic mooning over the '60s and the cyberspace Rapture of the virtual Elect. I am done with equivocal thanksgiving. This is a good moment in which to be alive, or as a Lakota warrior is supposed to have said before riding out to meet a man named George at a river named the Little Bighorn, "It is a good day to die."

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