The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. "Ah, Grendel!" he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. "You improve them, my boy! Can't you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from - the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment - that's what you make them recognize, embrace! You are mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain. If you withdraw, you'll instantly be replaced. Brute existents, you know, are a dime a dozen.
In 1971, John Gardner authored a fantastic novel, "Grendel," which is currently being performed as an opera at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "Grendel" is the legend of Beowulf, told from the monster's perspective.
A terrifying creature with nothing but hatred for the world and everything in it, Grendel, visits a dragon who, in between coveting his own treasure, shares with Grendel his life philosophy. Grendel enters the dragon's lair looking for a reason for being, and leaves enlightened, understanding that humans, not unlike Grendel himself, have a tendency to define themselves not by what they are, but by what they are not.
One of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in America is that liberals seem to instinctively reject that claim or, at least, seem to be either unwilling or unable to embrace it. Perhaps this is why Democrats have no apparent propensity for coming up with wedge issues that they can rally around.
As President Bush takes another giant step towards solving all our nation's problems today -- by pushing for a constitutional ban on gay marriage -- Democrats are already calling the move what it is: A cynical ploy to divide America and drive right-wing extremists to the polls to vote Republican. Some Democrats are calling the move desperate.
It's times like this that DB must fight not to get dispirited.
Bush may be down in the polls and the fact that none of the GOP's policies have made America safer or stronger may be creeping into almost everybody's skulls by now. But this move is anything but desperate. Ask yourself, if Bush was at 50-60%, would he still push for this? Of course he would. It's an election year. It's straight out of the GOP playbook.
Clearly, this is not the first time the Republicans have had a divisive issue to use in a campaign -- race, abortion, the death penalty, separation of Church and State, taxes, military spending... and now gay marriage.
It took a long, hard look at the South, at Nixon's and Reagan's success there and at the issues of race and taxes for Democrats to identify that the Republicans have a proven formula for dividing America in their favor. A tremendous amount of energy by incredibly smart people has been devoted to analyzing the evolution of the Republican Party's southern strategy -- a strategy for which RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman recently apologized.
Democrats recognize these issues instantly and slap the "wedge" label on them immediately. Then they convince themselves that enough Americans will see these things for what they are -- cynical ploys.
A lesson to learn from 2004: The "wedge" label is not good enough.
It's a bitter pill to swallow. Losing that election was bad enough, but to realize (or at least perceive) that a "wedge" issue may have been a major contributor to the loss is salt in the wound. As representatives of the Red States' voters spilled onto the airwaves after the election to let the liberal "elite" know that they were tired of being insulted, people in the Blue States began to think that, to the contrary, they had been giving Red Staters too much credit.
But the truth is that the Democrats never really made their case and instead seem satisfied to be able to simply identify a divisive issue.
It's like the scene from Mel Brooks' 1968 comedy, "The Producers," when Max Bialystock, Leo Bloom and Franz Leibkind set out on a mission to blow up the theater where their play is running:
Franz Liebkind: Gentlemen. Ve have here a technical problem. Hmm? I do not know if vat ve have here is ze quick fuse or ze slow fuse. Ja, ja, I must find zis out.
[snips dynamite fuse]
Franz Liebkind: Zis is critical.
[lights fuse with match]
Franz Liebkind: Ha ha ha, ja ja, you see zis? You see zis here vat I have told you? Yeah, zis is an example of smartness here. I have said that zis is ze quick fuse. Huh? And zis IS ze quick fuse.
All: THE QUICK FUSE!
Democrats must accept, first and foremost, that those tactics really do work, and second, that not everybody sees wedge issues as inherently evil.
This difference between liberals and conservatives was well illuminated only two days after the 2004 election, when Pat Buchanan sat in for host Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" and discussed a recent column by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne with conservative talk show host Lawrence Kudlow:
PATRICK BUCHANAN: All right, well, I want to come back to that in a minute.
But right now, Lawrence Kudlow, now, E.J. Dionne is a very bright man. And he's a good columnist. He was an outstanding political analyst. But here he is "The Washington Post" on Tuesday's results.
He says-quote-"Let's be honest. We are aghast at the success of a campaign based on viscous personal attacks, the exploitation of strong religious feelings, and an effort to create the appearance of strong leadership that would do Hollywood proud. And we are disgusted that an effort consciously designed to divide the country did exactly that and won."
Now, Lawrence Kudlow, I thought a campaign's purpose was to divide the country into Republicans and Democrats and get more than the other fellow. You may have debated at Oxford. I have. But, at the end of the debate, you divide the house. Part of it walks out to vote for one side and the other stays in the room to vote for the other side.
It seems as though the Democrats are just completely outraged and exasperated that the president on a personal level ran a tough campaign and simply won by a going-away margin.
LAWRENCE KUDLOW: Well, Pat, I agree with you. I think E.J. Dionne, it's a very uncharacteristic and unseemly rant on his part. Politics is about divisions. It's about a clash of ideas. It's about a conflict of thought.
And that's what makes democracy so great is, we can settle this peacefully. I rather liked what Mayor Brown said before, because I think the Kerry Democrats in this campaign deserted many long-standing Democratic positions, particular with respect to cultural values or moral values.
What happened here is, John Kerry and John Edwards surrendered their party to Whoopi Goldberg, to Michael Moore, to George Soros and people of the far left. And Americans are not stupid. They saw it and they didn't want any part of it.
Buchanan, when not boasting about having debated at Oxford, makes the assertion that "a campaign's purpose was to divide the country." But a liberal believes that a divided country is merely a consequence of an election. The purpose of the campaign is to attract people to a set of values and ideas.
Kudlow couldn't even stop doing it after the election was already over. "John Kerry and John Edwards surrendered their party to Whoopi Goldberg." Hollywood. The elite. We're not that, no sir.
There's a reason why Ronald Reagan's comparison of America to a "shining city on the hill" is a statement that resonates with all Americans, liberal and conservative. Americans want to be inspired by the light, not scared of the dark.
But in practice, the Republicans have no qualms about turning off the lights every now and then to remind people to be scared of the dark, and the difference between a divisive election and a divisive campaign is too subtle to bother them -- especially when avoiding the distinction has helped them gain control of every branch of the government.
So what if it's true? What if liberals reject defining themselves by what they are not, while conservatives don't care how people come to identify with them?
The point is that the debate over wedge issues as a tactic is a loser for Democrats. It's not enough to point out that Bush's gambit on gay marriage is a cynical ploy. It's not enough to read the polls and call the move desperate. Democrats need to wake up and realize that they need an actual strategy for fighting against Republican wedge issues. They can start by inventing some of their own. The exploitative and criminal GOP has given them plenty of examples of qualities most Americans would want to use in a definition of what they are not.