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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

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There is perhaps no more faddish political fiction in currency than the supposed divide between red states and blue states. It doesn't seem to matter that the much-hyped divide is highly dubious; see, for example, this map printed in the Boston Globe, which portrays each state as a slightly different hue of purple, according to its voting percentages in the last presidential election. Even before last November's close election, Alan Wolfe wrote a cover story forWilson Quarterly that cast doubt on the red-blue divide, reprising his 1998 book One Nation, After All. Meanwhile, Stanford's Morris Fiorina has gained attention for a book he co-wrote entitled Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.

In the leadoff piece for the Atlantic Monthly's annual "State of the Union" package (which, like the entire online Atlantic now, requires subscription), Jonathan Rauch tries to remind readers what these scholars are saying, no matter what the nattering pundits keep repeating. "By no means," Rauch says, "does partisan parity necessarily imply a deeply divided citizenry." In fact, most Americans occupy a "conflicted middle."

Rauch reports what Fiorina found: "Majorities in both red and blue states concurred—albeit by different margins—that Bill Clinton was doing a good job as president, that nonetheless they did not wish he could run again, that women's roles should be equal to men's, that the environment should take precedence over jobs, that English should be made the official language, that blacks should not receive preferences in hiring, and so on. This hardly suggests a culture war."

Rauch concludes that one of the most convincing arguments for American ambivalence is Gallup's finding that the majority of single people say they'd be open to marrying someone of different political views. Rauch asks, "Just how deep can our political disagreements be, I wonder, if most of us are willing to wake up next to them every morning?" The problem, Rauch concludes, is that politicians themselves have become more extreme, leaving America's centrist majority with fewer centrist candidates to choose from.

• A series of red-blue maps analyzed by P.J. O'Rourke makes the Atlantic issue worth its newsstand price, if you don't subscribe. O'Rourke looks at the kaleidoscopes of color that appear when you map America by percentage of the population that is divorced, residents born in-state, mobile home ownership, international travel, and other categories that defy simplistic models. Article**

• The deepest divide in America, says the Washington Post's Hannah Rosin in the Atlantic, is not between the religious and non-religious, but between "traditionalist and modern—or orthodox and progressive, or rejectionist and accommodationist, or some other pair of labels that academics have yet to dream up." Article**

• The media's compulsive need to see everything in black and white, or blue and red, is no more evident than in their puzzling insistence on a conflict between Mel Gibson and Michael Moore. This insistence is growing stronger as the Oscars approach. Since Gibson's nominated film is about Christ, and Moore's film criticizes President Bush, surely these are two figureheads of opposing cultural groups. But the filmmakers themselves, to their credit, don't follow this hackneyed logic. Moore, a Catholic, saw The Passion twice and gave it high marks. Gibson told the Associated Press he "liked" Farenheit 911, and added, "I feel a kind of strange kinship with Michael. I mean, they're trying to pit us against each other in the press, but this is all just a hologram, you know. They've really got nothing to do with one another. They were used as some kind of divisive left-right thing."

Maps that are more purple than red or blue, from the University of Michigan
One nation, not so divisible (2nd item)
The Atlantic's SOTU packages from '04 and '03


From the New York Times:

  • MECCA, Saudi Arabia*—Rare in most of the Muslim world, the willingness to debate and raise seemingly taboo questions is standard here in the birthplace of Islam and the site of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage beginning Wednesday that attracts about 1.5 million Muslims from all corners of the world for five days of meditation, prayer and, often, vigorous debate. In workshops and meeting rooms, at schools and mosques in the city, the freewheeling discussion of theology, history and politics lives on. And if this intellectual melee was any indicator, the debate is quite civilized —no raised voices, no threats, no personal attacks. … It is a city where spirit, not ritual, rules the day. Typically, in conservative Islamic societies like Saudi Arabia, men and women are strictly separated during prayers, and they are here. But with the enormous crowds that gather for meditation around the Kaaba—the small temple in the center of the Grand Mosque that Muslims believe was built by the prophet Abraham and consider the defining symbol of Islam—men and women are jammed in side by side.
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