Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obama and the Culture Wars

Insane Palette
The first chapter in Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, is titled “Values.” In it, Obama convincingly draws the argument that Americans have come to accept by slow degrees a politic surrounding their differences as opposed to their common values. We’ve come to know this divide as the “culture wars,” although that name may be more misleading than enlightening.

Finding values on which North Americans agree is not difficult. Values surrounding individual freedom of speech, movement and religion and the democratic rights we enjoy are generally hold in common by the inductive and the deductive thinkers among us, by the conservatives, liberals and socialists as well as by the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. It’s these (and others, of course) that unite us; it’s the hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, abortion laws, stem cell research that divide us so dramatically that it seems like we are a people “at war,” culturally.

And so politics takes on the qualities of a hockey game. It turns itself into a match in which one team on a hot-button issue is pitted against the other. Hockey itself is based on a disagreement between two teams on a trivial matter: the Rockets believe that the little rubber disk should go into the net at the north end of the rink, the Trojans maintain adamantly that it should go into the net at the south end. A competition in which the sides agree would be no fun at all. American politics has turned itself into a hockey game and although the very idea of a party system gives a nod to some division of values, our value differences used to be debated amicably on the sidelines whereas now, they have taken over the core of the game called democracy. So argues Obama.

There are those, of course, who will argue that some hot-button issues of the day are by no means trivial, and I agree. The way we treat embryos as we research the efficacy of stem cells in disease treatment could very well influence how we view the life of the unborn in the future. That’s not trivial. But surely the core value here surrounds the right-to-life principle—a commonly held value—and the way we use embryonic stem cells in research and finally in medical practice is beyond the capability of government, who can render it legal or illegal, but cannot determine in every individual case whether the goals of science and life-preserving medicine in that case are ethical and right.

Same-sex marriage definitely should not have become an election issue. The US constitution declares that every individual has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There are two significant aspects to marriage in Christian circles: 1) the community blesses a union, usually of husband and wife, and 2) the state acknowledges that from that day forward, all legal matters pertaining to spousal relationships will apply to this couple (if the documentation is in place and the minister is licensed properly.) Whether or not the Fenderbender Holier-Than-Thou Christian Church members decide to marry gay couples or not is up to them; the attempt to impose a universal legal restriction on the pursuit of happiness of people with a minority sexual orientation is a case of unnecessarily feeding a culture war.

The wish to have government settle our culture wars in Canada is becoming irksome, even if we haven’t sunk to the level of the USA in that regard . . . yet. The Conservative Party is running attack ads on television as I write this, even though there’s no election campaign in progress. Basing their argument on opposition leader Michael Ignatieff's having lived and worked outside the country for many years, they are attempting to exploit a trivial issue to inflame the gullible against the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, our core values—including courtesy, decency and fairness—are being thrown to the dogs in favour of petty partisanship.

We shouldn’t put up with that.

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