Columnists > Voices

Dividing, then uniting

How the same war can end up having both effects

Issue: "War inside the red zone," April 12, 2003

Could something as divisive as the current war in Iraq actually serve ultimately to unite us as a society? And could that "ultimately" happen sooner rather than later?

The thought crossed my mind this past week while trying to understand why almost as soon as a society quits merely talking about a war, and actually engages in it, a big part of the early disagreement goes away. I'm thinking here of something much more important: the possibility that the very essence of what we're fighting for in Iraq might carry in it the seeds for reversing a style of thinking that has infected too many Americans.

In short, the Iraqi war may have the potential for uniting us by significantly reducing our tendency toward political correctness. It could well help us understand that when we only pretend to be united, that pretense can itself turn out to be critically divisive.

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Here's how all this plays out. For a generation or so (actually, for much longer than that, but for that long in a highly specific way), Americans have been taught that much more important than the truth claims of any particular point of view is the sense that there needs to be a place for every point of view. Pluralism, diversity, and multiculturalism are the ultimate values.

To challenge pluralism, diversity, and multiculturalism is for some the height of political incorrectness. I discovered this a couple of years ago when I referred in this column to "pluralism" as a "false deity" on the American scene. James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal's responded by saying: "To the ranks of anti-American Christians we can add Joel Belz of World magazine, an evangelical weekly." Specifically, Mr. Taranto explained the next day: "Our real beef, though, is with Belz's apparent opposition to pluralism. If there is a quintessential principle that sums up the meaning of America, pluralism is it-and religious pluralism in particular. It is pluralism that allows everyone from evangelical Protestants to Catholics to atheists, from Mormons to Muslims to Jews, to live in the same cities and towns, free of the religious wars that divide such places as the Middle East. To be against pluralism, it seems to us, is to be against America itself."

That prompted me to respond to Mr. Taranto by saying that if that were all that is implied by "pluralism" (along with "diversity" and "multiculturalism"), then I would both applaud them all and even thank God for them as part of His common grace. But, I said, "the pluralism which I call a false god is a pluralism which suggests that all religions are equally true or valid. When pluralism moves beyond everybody's right both to believe and even to propagate that belief peacefully, and then also argues that none of those beliefs is more true than any other of those beliefs-then something that started off as very good has become a false god. I will always be a defender of the first kind of pluralism, even while I understand that it contains within itself the seeds for occasionally producing the second."

Mr. Taranto was extraordinarily gracious the very next day in publishing my response in full, even noting: "We're grateful for the clarification. We usually like being right, but in this case we're glad to hear we were wrong."

My sense is that the current war and all the debates it is spawning may well smoke out into the open similar clarifications about what we've called diversity and multiculturalism. If the war in Iraq prompts us Americans to become more isolationist and ingrown-and less tolerant of people who have big differences with us-that would be too bad indeed. But if the war prompts us to be more wary about accepting other belief and value systems and proclaiming those systems just as true and valid as our own, the war will serve a purpose fully as profound as simply defeating Saddam Hussein.

That's what happened, I think, when Daniel Pepper got his belly full of Saddam's dictatorship. Mr. Pepper had gone to Iraq a couple of months earlier to volunteer as a "human shield," placing himself in front of sites he thought American forces might want to bomb-and then daring them to do so with the knowledge that an American citizen would be killed in the process. Whatever you might think of Mr. Pepper's intelligence in the matter, get this: It didn't take him long to figure out that Saddam Hussein's society simply didn't have as much to commend itself to him as he thought it would, and certainly not as much as his native America offered him.


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