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A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul.

A woman told me recently, "America is headed toward civil war." This was not some wild-eyed, street-corner prophet, but a thoughtful, intelligent, articulate woman, active in the affairs of her community--the sort of person who used to be called, without a trace of irony, "a fine, upstanding citizen." But when she looks around, she said, all she sees is anger. Anger and violence, actual or imminent. There are white supremacists and anti-government militias forming in the hills, dispossessed minorities boiling over in the cities. Voters are frustrated that their votes don't seem to count for anything. Politicians, remote and unresponsive, are off pursuing their own agendas in Washington. And, of course, there are the media, always the media, sensationalizing and trivializing without addressing important issues. "Something," she announced ominously, "has got to give"

Her comments were jarring, coming as they did on one of those sunny, benevolent Sunday mornings when the entire world seems at peace. But such apocalyptic thinking seems to be gaining currency these days, fueled perhaps by the approaching millennium or by the fact that the demise of the Soviet Union has left a void of Big Concerns or, perhaps, by the natural human tendency to mistake one's own mortality for the mortality of the species.

Author Mark Gerzon lays out a scenario for a nation spinning toward chaos in his book, A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul. Gerzon draws a direct analogy between America today and America just before the Civil War. His title is derived from a biblically inspired statement by Abraham Lincoln: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Today the American house is not divided geographically, Gerzon believes. "Rather we are fragmented by conflicting belief systems which turn almost any issue into flashpoints for bitterness, anger, hatred, and often violence. The range and intensity of these disputes has become almost overwhelming With the exception of combating foreign dictatorships, almost no cause commands consensus." He continues: "The media, the courts, the political campaigns--all have become gladiators' arenas. Trust between citizens has been replaced by fear; and the more Americans fear each other, the weaker we become. At a point in history when no nation on earth is powerful enough to defeat us, we may defeat ourselves"

Gerzon identifies six primary "belief systems" that are "fighting for the soul of America." He labels them, somewhat annoyingly, Patria, Corporatia, Disia, Media, Gaia, and Officil. Patria is the religious state, by which Gerzon means Christian, conservative, fundamentalist America; Corporatia is the business world; Disia comprises the disadvantaged, the dispossessed, and their advocates; Media is, of course, television, newspapers, movies, etc.; Gaia (named for the earth goddess) includes environmentalists, New Agers, and assorted mystics and spiritualists. Finally, Officia comprises the government, as well as those who are not employed by the government but who believe government has most, if not all, of the answers to our troubles.

The first 200 pages or so of A House Divided provide detailed summaries of these states, complete with a sort of Dewar's Profile sketch of each, including that group's "core belief," "defining events," "sacred text," and so forth. Gerzon presents a familiar lineup: Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition is "one of the generals of Patria," promising that one day "we will be larger and more effective and will reach more people than the Democratic and Republican parties combined." For Corporatia we get an oil company executive who laments high taxes and insists, "We think we manage money better than the government does." The Media chapter serves up ratings-hungry entertainment executives, straight out of "Network," praying to the goddess of the latest Neilson's. Gerzon is carefully nonjudgmental throughout; his mission is to draw the sides together, not thrust them apart. In addition to its weaknesses, he assures us, each state has inherent strengths.

Gerzon is the author of several books and founder of a Rockefeller Foundation project called The Common Enterprise, which "promotes public dialogue about solving community problems and bridging societal gulfs." As a senior at Harvard in the late '60s he wrote The Whole World is Watching: a Young Man Looks at Youth's Dissent, and he has fashioned a career analyzing and mediating conflict. But there is something galling about the suggestion that one's ideas belong to a "belief system." One shudders to contemplate dinner table discussions in the Gerzon household, presided over by a man who describes a dispute he once had with his wife in this way: "The power struggle in our marriage was an intimate clash of two belief systems." And here Gerzon has a nation of nearly 300 million citizens boiled down to six belief systems. There are others, he admits, but these are the prevalent systems, the ones clawing for our allegiance, the ones threatening to tear us apart.

The primary lament in the book is that Americans have somehow lost their knack for listening to one another, for acknowledging their differences and working cooperatively towards a resolution. Instead, we retreat to the safety of our own moral cocoons, shouting our own philosophies but never bothering to listen to the other side. Yes, you might say, but what about all those millions of people out there who are deeply religious and capitalists; who work for the media and care about the environment; who are poor and believe in the government, or any of the other possible permutations? Early on in his book, Gerzon acknowledges: "Most Americans are not captives of just one of these belief systems, but have multiple citizenship in more than one of the Divided States"

Where then, is the danger? How seriously divided can the states be if their inhabitants cross-pollinate so freely? Gerzon's hypothesis, then, depends on the idea that the states are "struggling for America's soul," as he puts it. We may be free for now, but we are being drawn like so many magnetized metal shavings toward one fanatical allegiance or another. If we don't do something, the division will become complete.

Gerzon strings together the sort of anecdotal evidence of violence, stupidity, and incivility that are always in sufficient supply in America for alarmists to weave a tapestry of national moral decline. And his profiles of the divided states reveal to us what we already know--that there are plenty of zealots out there clinging to a single cause and dismissing all non-believers as unAmerican. But Gerzon's admission that most Americans belong to multiple states, and his failure to demonstrate in any convincing way that this is changing, are reassuring rather than alarming America has been, and remains for the most part, a nation of free-thinking skeptics who are suspicious of zealotry and like to distribute their philosophical eggs among several baskets.

More troubling than the problems Gerzon outlines are his solutions, his call for a "New Patriotism...rooted in love, not hate." The new patriots are those who cross the boundaries of the divided states and "seek collaboration toward a common goal." While acknowledging that Americans will continue to disagree on things, Gerzon envisions a nation where they do so nicely and constructively, focusing always on "building the community." Where bad old notions of patriotism celebrated single-mindedness and conformity, the new patriotism celebrates the diversity of the American people, Gerzon tells us. But somehow that vision of a wonderfully diverse America includes everybody working toward common goals--which sounds an awful lot like single-mindedness and conformity.

Gerzon is clearly concerned about the state of the media. While not actually advocating censorship, he foresees a future in which television broadcasters stop sensationalizing in search of ratings and spend more time edifying. Like all suggestions that Americans be protected from their own tastes, this argument is faintly elitist. It's easy to sneer at ratings, but Gerzon, as a consensus builder, should love them. What are ratings but the most direct and democratic way of building a consensus about what people want to watch?

The final portions of the book include a sort of manifesto for the new patriot: 50 steps toward becoming a citizen of a unified nation. "The new patriots express their love for America every day in countless ordinary acts that serve their fellow citizens and their communities," Gerzon writes. The new patriots may disagree on issues, but they "agree about the process by which their divergent beliefs could be explored and how the resolution of their conflicts could be sought." These 50 tips--49, actually; Gerzon leaves the 50th up to the reader--contain some sincere admonitions that any citizen would do well to embrace: Tell the truth, stand up against bigotry, learn before you criticize, have faith in democracy. Gerzon's heart is in the right place, but his vision of democracy does not include room for the fact that democracy, in addition to guaranteeing freedoms, is frequently messy, harsh, chaotic, belligerent, arrogant, and unkind--not because of some spiraling moral decline or widening divisions in the American citizenry, but because that is the nature of democracy.

Solving problems amicably is all well and good, but it's hard to see what exactly Gerzon and his ilk are advocating when they talk about getting us all moving toward the same goals. Except during times of true crisis, when free-thinking Americans inevitably do come together, the raw, unprecedented beauty of America has never been, as Gerzon suggests, that "the measure of our citizenship is our connection to each other." It is the extent to which we are left alone to choose our own paths and associates, and to pursue our own idea of the American dream.

As Jonathan Rauch argued brilliantly in his 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, America's strength lies not in enforced niceness or artificial notions of community, but in a system of "liberal science" that exposes all ideas seeking currency to vigorous and, sometimes, harsh scrutiny. What unites Americans is an understanding that this requires living by certain rules, and a commitment to oppose those who break the rules.

Despite all the talk about new ideas and new directions, truly new ideas are antithetical to consensus builders. Any new idea or discovery that turns out to be right automatically declares dozens, maybe even hundreds, of old ideas wrong. And among consensus and community builders, there are few rights or wrongs, merely the vast gray zone of belief systems.
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Author:Slack, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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