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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 2004 / 20 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

James Lileks

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When normal means divisive | And now at last we get back to normal. Now we can all reunite and hold hands and buy the world a Coke, right?

No. When Walter Mondale took a pasting, half the nation didn't convert to Ronald Reagan's stare-down-the-Rooskies approach. Bill Clinton's victory in '96 didn't make conservatives think, "Gosh, he's popular. Let's give him that nationalized health care, eh? It would mean so much to him."

Normal is normal only in retrospect, when you've forgotten the love-him/loathe-him dynamic that has ruled the political culture since Richard Nixon. (With a brief time out for the halcyon, let-grandpa-drive mood of Bush 41's first two years.) We're back to deep polarization, which isn't new in our history, but seems so different from the gauzy era of I Like Ike and the beloved reign of FDR.

Of course, FDR won the '44 election by fewer than 4 million votes, approximately 25 million to Dewey's 22 million. Even then we were split.

So the wars go on. There are two.

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The first is the culture war. The issues run the gamut from important, chewy ones like gay marriage and embryo cloning to incredibly important ones like the number of times Howard Stern can say naughty words over the air. Will we sell legal drugs to adults and thongs to kids? No God in the public sphere, or just a savory morsel?

The conservatives will lose this one. To paraphrase O'Brien at the end of Orwell's "1984": I have seen the future, Winston, and it is a wardrobe malfunction pressing eternally in the viewer's face. The media want the culture war; it's good for business, pesky fines aside. There's no profit in going back to the old values. The people who run the media are either young, cheerful quasi-nihilists who see the world through the cracked lens of irony and disdain, or they're older members of the coastal elite, terrified of being unhip.

Again, it's not new. There has always been a culture war, from the movie codes of the '30s to the mainstreaming of porn in the '70s, from the bawdy, suggestive rhythms of rock to the blunt, shouting rants of rap.

But somehow it seems as if the next line we cross is different. It's either the border between this country and some different sort of America, a place Glen Miller, Elvis, Mae West and Little Egypt would barely recognize. Or it's the line between the cliff and the canyon. Maybe we already went over the edge; maybe we're in full Wile E. Coyote mode, not yet aware of the plunge ahead. In which case you should make a little sign that says "OUCH" and prepare to hold it up when, in 2017, "America's Funniest Proctology Exams" debuts at No. 1 on ABC.

Then there's the War war. In a way, it was nice of Osama bin Laden to pay us a visit. We'd been so worried. Even those of us who thought he was an indistinct smear on a cave wall were somewhat heartened by his jack-in-the-box impression: Hey, now we can get him for certain. But bin Laden's return was remarkably anticlimactic. After Sept. 11 we imagined we would seem him on the TV every other week as we huddled in the smallpox quarantine centers, wondering if the firestorms of L.A. and Washington had died down yet.

Do you recall those emotions, how it seemed like the war had just begun? Turns out it had just begun for them, and after three years bin Laden could offer nothing more than a hectoring harangue that sounded like a poorly translated summary of a Michael Moore movie. He did promise to attack only those states that voted for Bush — as if he's some Bond-movie supervillain looking at a giant map, pointing a remote control at the states he's chosen to vaporize. In his dreams. Not in our nightmares.

So we're winning. But there's more to do — success in Iraq, the end of the Iranian regime and the marginalization of Syria. For starters. Anything else hastens the day when another nightmare arrives in New York. All this is still ahead — division as far as you can see, alas. Elections don't settle anything.

Five more elections in the same direction by larger margins? That's a start.

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


10/28/04: Parsing the Polls
10/20/04: Kerry's Senate Record is a 78 played at 33 RPM
10/14/04: Meaning of War on Terror eludes Kerry
10/06/04: Kerry's global test fails the reality exam
09/29/04: Dems' mixed messages alienate the Center
09/23/04: Kerry's almost just about final position on Iraq
09/21/04: Will anyone trust them again?
09/09/04: Now can you name the enemy?
09/02/04: Save America from those who would save it
08/26/04: The character (or lack) behind the Kerry candidacy
08/19/04: Time for Old Media to make like McGreevey
08/12/04: Another Swing Vote: the Sufferers of Sudden Bush Hatred Fatigue Syndrome
08/05/04: Is Kerry's Problem nuance? Or is it obfuscation?
07/30/04: Intimate liability
07/26/04: Sandy Berger's classified wardrobe
07/15/04: Pretty faces, ugly words
07/08/04: Genocide can't happen if we banish the word
07/01/04: Dropping political discourse level
06/24/04: Kerry's Science Buddies and the Silly Sanctity of Life
06/17/04: Behold the Summer of Bill Clinton!
06/10/04: Whatever happened to respect for the presidency?
06/03/04: Tales at the intersection of war and popular culture
05/20/04: Athletes on Notice: Strive Unflaggingly
05/13/04: America likes Rumsfeld, and the Dems can't take it
05/07/04: Kerry Supporters Have a New Take on Vietnam War
05/05/04: New cell phone does everything, but there's a problem...
04/29/04: John Kerry, prisoner of symbolic politics
04/22/04: Shall we grovel? Kerry Plan to Restore America's Place in the World
04/08/04: Sept. 11 Might Have Been Different If ...
04/02/04: Slinging slime or citing facts?
03/26/04: One War, One Enemy
03/22/04: Bloodied Spain Rejoins Old Europe
03/12/04: Why All Those Foreign Leaders Want Kerry to Whup Bush
03/08/04: Introducing the Kerry Doctrine
02/27/04: Introducing the AWOLs: Angry White Outraged Libs
02/20/04: Sifting the headlines of election year 1992
02/18/04: Guess Which Candidate Our Enemies Want to Lose in 2004?
01/29/04: Every Laptop a Truth Squad
01/27/04: When the battle over artistic freedom goes over the edge
12/31/03: For the Left and Right, Some New Year's Resolutions
12/22/03: Dean's black helicopters
12/15/03: Dems Are Mainstreaming the Extreme
12/08/03: Does Dean Really Want to Be President? One Wonders, When He Opens His Mouth
11/24/03: The real story: Most Brits see U.S. as force for good
11/19/03: The Trouble With Al Gore's Screed on Civil Liberties
11/11/03: Can a fellow win with the Confederate Metrosexual vote?
10/22/03: Let's make Greenpeace pay
09/29/03: Ah-nold & Clark may be on different sides of the aisles, but their supporters are cut from the same cloth
09/19/03: All Hail the Ninth Circuit Court of Surreal
08/26/03: This time, the record industry doesn't stand a chance!
08/18/03: Assessing the Schwarzenegger Factor in Republicanism
08/08/03: No wonder Howard ‘Two Covers’ Dean gets all the buzz
08/04/03: Expect bad news for the foreseeable future
07/28/03: Despot's Deserts
07/21/03: No winners in this game of gotcha
07/14/03: Doing the right thing in Liberia may not be the right thing to do
06/27/03: On feet in Democratic mouths
06/16/03: The real story behind Hillary's book
06/09/03:America's new mission was and remains: Extirpating the flaming nutballs and the societies that nurture them
06/03/03: The Constitution as gag order
05/23/03: Sometimes the theme of world events is chaos itself
05/16/03: Newspapers are only human, after all
05/13/03: What McCarthy messed up
05/06/03: Still think the International Criminal Court was a good idea?
04/03/03: The world is ending, the world is ending! Doesn't anybody care!? Why won't anybody listen!?
03/14/03: Kerry and the Dems are banking on American electorate's tendancy to forget history
02/28/03: Roadmap to peace?
02/13/03: We live in an age where the poet has been cast out from the halls of power --- sob, sob
02/10/03: Found: League for International Justice and Peace talking points
01/30/03: The US can go to war whenever it likes for its own reasons, and all the UN can do is pass more worthless paper
01/23/03: People who'd volunteer for the Iraqi army if they saw Saddam wearing a "Free Mumia" button
01/16/03: One of those head vs. heart things
12/27/02: Whistleblowers?
01/06/02: The second year of this jangled millennium
11/16/01: Attack of the 'Patriotism police' and other Hollywood fare
11/12/01: From the bleats of dismay
10/30/01: Osama and the Genie
10/08/01: "We can stop the Bush Death Juggernaut"
11/04/01: America, loathe or it leave it
09/25/01: Do the Europeans actually think that the war on murderous zealotry will be furthered by undercutting America?
08/27/01: If the economy is in a funk, why aren't we dancing?
08/14/01: Dubyah's embarrassing presidential vacation
08/10/01: Hail to our co-chiefs?
08/03/01: Constitution: George the Uniter picked a doozy to unify detractors
07/25/01: The real reason why we need missile defense (What those uppity policy wonks won't tell you!)
06/18/01: Paining the egalitarian soul
06/01/01: One of the stranger indexes you'll ever hear about
05/21/01: One man's toke is another man's snort
05/08/01: Republicans want poisoned water
04/23/01: We bleat as we're sheared
04/10/01: Boys will be boys. And that's the problem
04/06/01: Pity the anti-American Left, they're gonna have a hard time on this one
03/26/01: You've been warned
03/16/01: The GOP's inexplicable desire to fold
02/23/01: Will the Jeb Bush administration attack Saddam in 2011?
02/09/01: In search of the the first ashtray thrown by a member of the First Family
02/06/01: Can you say 'Ayatollah Bush'?
01/24/01: The new Executive Orders
01/22/01: Hey, Dubya: Wanna save Ashcroft? Teach him to rap!
01/09/01: Bubba gets his last licks
01/05/01: The low-down on the coming recession (What those snooty economists won't tell you)
12/23/00: Memo to Dubya: Wanna show who is boss? Nuke 'em!
12/06/00: The Count of Carthage
At the Sore/Loserman Transition HQ
12/01/00: The Count of Carthage
11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2004, James Lileks