While discussion buzzes about a post-Saddam Iraq, few people are talking about a post-Saddam United States even though we should be.
Why? Because the political rifts in our society may be as difficult to deal with as the ones with the Arab world, and they hit closer to home. We need a better approach for dealing with dissent and diversity.
The war in Iraq creates a sense of unity, with Gallup Polls showing that Bush's overall job approval rating rose to 71 percent after the conflict began, up 13 points from the pre-war level of 58 percent.
Historically, however, support for post-war administrations decline. This is especially true during hard economic times and when society had been deeply divided before war.
The polarization of politics lies under the surface. While hundreds of thousands take to the streets across North America to protest the war, even larger numbers participate in the fighting in some manner. TV pundits from the left and right scream at each other and at their guests about every conceivable issue. Democrats still mutter about hanging chads and stolen elections. Another election nears.
The divisions are more pervasive than pro- or anti-war, left or right, Republican or Democrat. They are rooted in the way our society has come to approach diversity and disagreement. Namely, it is not to be tolerated. Disagreement is an indication of "evil" motives and the person disagreeing should be reviled and, then, silenced.
This approach to dissent owes a great deal to political correctness — the political doctrine that declares certain ideas, attitudes, and peaceful behaviors are improper and, therefore, should be prohibited by law. The law should encourage correct ideas, attitudes and behaviors instead.
For example, because it is improper ("evil") to consider women to be either inferior to men or to occupy a separate sphere, discrimination against women should be prohibited. Affirmative action should be enforced. It doesn't matter if the discrimination is relatively trivial and involves only private property. Martha Burk's crusade against Augusta National Golf Club's male-only membership policy demonstrates that.
Thus, "being correct" becomes politically essential because "being incorrect" leads to the law exercising a control over your decisions, attitudes, property ... over your life. It means the law denies you opportunities you may have earned through hard work — like entry into a university or promotion on a job — because you have the "incorrect" skin color or genitalia.
When a society is structured so one person gains only by depriving another of what is rightfully his or hers, that society is a brawl waiting to happen. When laws and imposed policies treat people differently based on race and gender, it creates class warfare and resentment. It embeds conflict into the very structure of society and blocks goodwill.
It is tempting to join the slugfest. I have succumbed more than once. This column is the result of successfully resisting.
With the Masters golf tournament looming this Thursday, I had intended to write about Martha Burk's tax-paid conduct at a recent women's conference in Estonia, where she represented the U.S. There, Burk toasted to having a "different president" by the next conference, lectured the audience on how American women are "second-class citizens," and generally dissed the United States.
The theme of my intended column was "Stop the Tax Funding of Feminism!" Just as there is a separation of religion and state on matters of funding so, too, should there be a separation of political ideology and state. That message would have ridden on the back of a blast against Burk.
But I realized another anti-Burk diatribe would just add to the noise. No one's opinion of Burk would be altered. And the theme of the article would be cheapened. Moreover, I was adopting the strategy of political correctness: to attack people, using outrage as argument. That approach demonstrates contempt for facts, evidence ... and truth itself.
Political correctness — as expressed in both laws and strategies that punish disagreement — is a legacy of the social upheaval surrounding America's last major war: Vietnam. The anti-Vietnam war protests were a breeding ground for many of the movements that dominated politics in the following decades.
For example, mainstream feminism grew directly out of the anti-war movement. And through political evolution, a New Left emerged, wielding political correctness as a sword.
Society may soon become a great deal more contentious. War and terrorism, the shaky economy, the upcoming elections, a lessening of goodwill around the globe — all these factors and more are making people short-tempered and shrill.
No one can predict what social changes will come in the wake of war. No one could have predicted the radical movements that arose under the anti-Vietnam banner or how destructive those movements would become. All that can be said is that any war will create change at home. Anyone who wishes the direction to be positive, including me, has an obligation to ratchet down the rhetoric.
"Winning the peace" in Iraq is a media focus. The domestic peace is equally important and it will depend upon an atmosphere of respect for dissent and diversity. This means eliminating both the laws that punish attitudes and the imposed policies that discriminate. It means substituting facts and evidence for personal attacks. In dealing with family, friends and neighbors who disagree ... give peace a chance.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.