HEAD SHOT 

How progressives can win the fight for AmericaÕs soul.

THE NEW COLD WAR Fifteen years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, marking the official end of the Cold War. It was a high-water mark in American history, a victory of freedom over oppression. ItÕs now generally agreed that America won the battle of ideologies by using a powerful one-two punch: Ronald ReaganÕs aggressive foreign policy, and the brilliant marketing and distribution of American consumer products. Those holding the reins of power behind the Iron Curtain couldnÕt outspend America on weapons programs. Meanwhile, their young people were seduced by LeviÕs and Coke and Bruce Springsteen and Madonna Ñ American pop culture.

Once Gorbachev figured it out, it was game, set, and match. Suddenly America was the worldÕs only superpower.

Yes, we won because we were rich and powerful, but we also won because in the eyes of those young people trapped behind the old gray wall, America seemed to be having more fun. We had cool stuff and great music. They wanted to be like us.

Why do I bring this up? Because in the wake of President BushÕs recent electoral victory, Americans find themselves engaged in a new ideological war, only this time itÕs internal, between the red thinkers and the blue ones. The ÒenemyÓ lives in your neighborhood and you live in his. The war is about ÒvaluesÓ in one respect, but itÕs really about the future of America.

ItÕs about whether we will we move forward into the new century with courage and openness, or return to the 1950s; whether science will be displaced by religion; whether thoughtful political discourse will be displaced by slogans and name-calling; whether tolerance can dispel homophobia; whether our air and water will be sacrificed to greed; and whether the great unholy horror of war will become just another political tool.

The stakes are high and the forces of superstition and ignorance are formidable. They have money and power and they keep their minions imprisoned behind a wall of fear and ignorance. But we have ideas Ñ and freedom.

The way to win is not, as many have suggested, for progressive thinkers to try and convince conservatives that we are like them. John Kerry tried that with his goose hunting adventure and talk of his faith and nuanced positions that tried to split the difference between progressive and conservative. Telling voters you Òhave a planÓ for every issue and for them to go to your Web site wonÕt convince anyone to jump the wall.

The answer is not to bend ourselves into pretzels of accommodation, but to be, openly, who we are. Remember when every politician in America had to answer the ÒDid you smoke potÓ question? ItÕs no longer an issue, because thereÕs no political advantage to raising the question anymore. Everybody, conservative or liberal, has either smoked pot or is related to someone who has Ñ or does. You canÕt condemn a candidate for doing something thatÕs Ònormal.Ó

Likewise, when both candidates were asked during the final presidential debate to say whether or not they thought homosexuality was a Òchoice,Ó Bush, pled ignorance (quite believably, I might add). Kerry chose to finesse the question and divert attention to Dick CheneyÕs gay daughter. It was awkward and unappealing. But what would have been wrong with forthrightly saying, ÒOf course, itÕs not a choice. Science has shown very clearly that itÕs a genetic predisposition. I have gay friends and family and coworkers, as do most Americans. We need to bring this issue out of the closet. Civil unions are fine with me and I think the question of gay marriages should be left up to the states.Ó

If Kerry had said this, he probably wouldnÕt have lost a single vote. Those who are homophobic werenÕt going to vote for him anyway. Those who were undecided might have been impressed with his honesty. Courage is appealing. Nuance is not.

One reason liberals arenÕt scared of gays is that most of us know many of them and itÕs no longer a big deal. ItÕs a fact that some of the most virulent racists live in rural areas where there isnÕt a black person within 200 miles. They fear what they donÕt know. If you work with a black guy, you might go out and have a beer after work, which makes it a lot harder to be a racist. So another element of this Òcold warÓ strategy is for gays to come out fearlessly and for progressives to support them when they do. It will eventually defuse the issue.

Honesty trumps pandering every time. Freedom displaces fear. We need to stop trying to be like right-wingers and start demonstrating to them how much cooler it is to be free. The ideology of the right is based on fear Ñ of gays, of racial mixing, of liberals taking away guns, of retribution by a vengeful god (or a judgmental preacher). So, practice fearless acts. Invite a conservative couple to dinner and bring along a gay couple. DonÕt tolerate racist talk when you hear it. Proudly call yourself a progressive. Proudly call yourself an American. DonÕt back down to fear and ignorance and hate. Be open about your beliefs, not defensive. Laugh. Have fun. Freedom is power. Exercise it. Remember, 49 percent of America made the more enlightened choice in the last election. The force of history is behind us.

Next time, the wall comes tumbling down.

(Bruce van Wyngarden is editor of the Flyer.)

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