The thing that is sometimes dangerous about writers is that they can express their ideas more cleverly than most people. This wouldn't ever be a bad thing if good writers always had good—that is, sound, true—ideas. But there is in fact no necessary correlation between an ability to finesse language and a true understanding of the world. It is a great blessing that it is only a poetic fancy that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (As for columnists, the mind reels.)
That wordsmithery may not equate with rightness would also not matter if mere cleverness weren't so absurdly potent. But it is; felicity of expression can veil the illogic of the most astonishingly obvious howlers. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice? Tell that to the hapless headless of the French Revolution. There are no second acts in American lives? Sure there are. Also third, fourth, tenth, and hundredth; and also in French, Japanese, and Nigerian lives. All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? No, that is exactly wrong. Happy families are wildly, even eccentrically, diverse. But in every unhappy family, as any social worker can tell you, you will likely find the same dreary woes: dead love, physical or psychological brutality, alcoholism, infidelity, poverty.
One well-expressed wrong idea that has had a great run these past fifty years is the cartoonist Walt Kelly's lament "We have met the enemy and he is us." Like all the catchiest wrong ideas, this draws its strength not only from pithiness but also from a limited measure of truth. Kelly, writing in the age of Senator Joseph McCarthy, had an obvious point: the undermining of America's values and America's liberties by America's guardians against the communist threat seemed to many at least as great a danger as the threat itself. Kelly's idea also benefited from another quality necessary for longevity in the idea racket. It appealed to an inherent human desire—in this case the desire to be perverse. In the USSR the United States had an enemy that anyone could see posed a danger of the direst sort (global war, nuclear holocaust). How appealing to pretend that this giant of a menace from Them was a sort of joke (in some circles "Red Menace" made the transformation from earnest to ironic in about five minutes), and that the real enemy was Us.
But "Us" meant something actually quite different from "us." It meant, actually, "Them"—not an external Them but an internal one. When Kelly wrote of the enemy, he did not mean Americans who thought as he and his friends thought; he meant Americans who did not think this way—he meant people who believed that McCarthy was right and the menace was real. And actually, he did not even mean those people; he meant a caricature of those people.
This tendency to see the nation as populated by two peoples—one's own crowd and this other, hostile, foreign, and indeed almost unknowable tribe—has hardened over the years into something close to a permanent piece of conventional wisdom. And this view of the country, it seemed, came to enjoy received status not only in liberal America's view of conservative America but also in conservative America's view of liberal America. When Susan Sontag and Ralph Reed looked out the window, they saw essentially the same country: a society and a culture divided between right-thinking Us and scary Us as Them, with Us as a perpetually threatened perpetual minority.
In recent years this understanding of national identity seemed validated by election returns that showed a voting public split almost equally. The most recent and most stunning of these results occurred in the presidential race of 2000, when election-night maps appeared to show that the country really was something like two nations: a predominantly urban, coastal, and liberal Blue America, and a predominantly rural, non-coastal and conservative Red America.
Interviews: "A Kinder, Gentler Overclass" (June 15, 2000)
A conversation with David Brooks, the author of Bobos in Paradise.
The Atlantic's correspondent David Brooks lives, as he writes in this issue's cover story, in "one of the steaming-hot centers of the great espresso machine that is Blue America." Over the course of several months Brooks paid a series of visits to a place in Red America, Franklin County, Pennsylvania. His goal was to explore, in various ways, one question: Are we really two nations? This is, as he writes, a question that became a great deal more important on September 11. The truths Brooks found are funny and nuanced, and also heartening. We are, it turns out, one nation after all, slightly divisible but not divided. A good thing, too, because it turns out there is an enemy, and it is not us.